|By now we've all heard that an unscrupulous college admissions consultant in Newport Beach has been charged with helping his wealthy clients' kids get into elite colleges by bribing university administrators and coaches. The consultant even was able to bribe SAT test administrators to raise the kids' test scores.
I won't dwell on my emotional reaction other than to say that those of us in the test prep and admissions industries feel particularly disgusted and outraged. It sucks when one bad apple makes the general public doubt the collective honesty of those of us who are committed to strict ethical rules when we work with students.
I asked a couple of my favorite college admissions consultants what they thought might be some things that parents can learn from the scandal. Below are their thoughts.
Rob Humbracht, Passport Admissions:
1. There's a reason you don't hear about cases like this very often; they aren't that common. Pulling off a bribery scheme of this scale is incredibly difficult and is not the way in for most families.
2. The far more common scam is simply to contribute enough money to the development office at a college that you get put on a preferential list. The amount that qualifies varies from school to school, but it's roughly anywhere from a $50,000 donation at smaller colleges to upwards of $500,000 at top schools.
3. It's astonishing how backwards the parenting values are in this case. These parents are telling their students: getting into a "good" college matters more to your success as an adult than choosing to behave ethically and follow the rules. And how must those kids feel? That their parents believe that if they don't get into this college, they aren't bright enough to be successful on their own merits in this world.
4. There are never guarantees in the admissions process, and anyone peddling them is a huckster. (Vince's note: ditto for the test prep industry.)
5. The College Board and ACT have embarrassingly low standards for who qualifies for extra time for learning disabilities. This is not to say that some students don't deserve extra time; many do. But those who get it are those who can afford consultations with educational psychologists and who catch the learning difference prior to junior year of high school. This is an easy system to game, and it overwhelmingly benefits families who know how to play the game.
(Vince's note: Yep - we see tons of kids with accommodations these days.)
6. Credit to my friend Kevin McMullin at Collegewise for this admissions nugget. For admissions professionals, a reasonable guideline is to ask, "what would the admissions office say if they were watching you help your students?" Following this rule isn't easy, but it eliminates the urge to overly polish an essay and instead return the focus of where a good consulting relationship should be: teaching these kids how to build their skills to get into college on their own merits.
7. Few people seem to be saying this in the aftermath of the scandal: is it really top colleges that help these kids succeed? Or is it simply that the students who are capable of getting in (whether through their smarts or wealthy connections) that go on to achieve more in their lives? I don't think there's much evidence for the former, but certainly the parents in this story believe that it's true.
(Vince's note: it kind of goes to show you how limited a college's role is since everyone assumed that the students, underqualified though they were, could easily graduate from these top schools once they got in.)
Amanda Hirko, Hirko Consulting
As participating members of professional educational organizations (HECA, IECA, WACAC, AICEP), we uphold the ethics and standards of our profession prohibiting guarantees and commissions. William Singer operated as a fixer, a cheat for parents; not as an Independent Educational Consultant (IEC) for students. IEC’s spend countless hours attending presentations, conferences and college visits so we can best help students find a school where they will thrive. In all of the reporting, not once did we hear about Mr. Singer sitting down with, getting to know, or evaluating the personality and interests of the students involved. Since the parents were intent on highly selective schools, this robbed the students of the chance for a school that truly fit them.
Vince's final thoughts
I think the silver lining of the situation might be a couple of things:
1. Colleges, as well as the SAT and ACT, will implement more checks and balances to make cheating the system more difficult.
2. More people will start to see through the mystique of "elite" colleges and realize that a good fit for a student is far more important than a brand name.