Words and Illustrations by Kia Thomas
On March 12, 2019, the Massachusetts federal court charged 50 people for their involvements in a nationwide college admission scam, including celebrities such as Lori Laughlin and Felicity Hoffman. The people accused were parents, coaches, and school officials, all of whom worked in tandem to create fake admission profiles and cheat on standardized tests.
William Rick Singer, the CEO of a company called “The Key” that offers life coaching and college counseling services, is considered the primary orchestrator of the scheme. Singer used his charitable foundation, “Key Worldwide Foundation,” as a front to disguise bribe money as donations to charity.
One of the college admission scams involved bribing coaches and school officials to admit students based on false athletic credentials. Lori Loughlin paid approximately $500,000 to have her daughters admitted as recruits on the University of Southern California crew team, despite them having never rowed competitively.
Singer also facilitated cheating on the SATs and ACTs. He hired Mark Riddell, a well-known test whiz, 2004 Harvard graduate, and director of IMG Academy, to either take tests for students or proctor exams for them. After proctoring, Riddell would correct the answers on the tests. Singer bribed proctors to allow Riddell to take tests for students.
Actress Felicity Hoffman was involved in the standardized testing scam, paying $15,000 to Singer’s foundation to have her daughter’s exam administered by one of Singer’s contacts.
The colleges involved in the scam were big names such as University of Southern California, Stanford, and Yale. Many were shocked that Ivy League schools would be involved in such a controversial scandal. Others were less surprised, citing a well-known history of colleges favoring affluent families.
Latanya McKenney, a psychology major, was not fazed by the situation. “I’ve known that it’s always been going on, and I’m not surprised or shocked. It’s about time these people are held accountable for other people’s children who are missing opportunities.”
Many wonder why influential people would have to bribe colleges to admit their children. McKenney said, “This is what they do! They go around, they get free meals, they get free hotel rooms, why wouldn’t they get free rides for their kids in college?
McKenney believes that parents pay for the college name. She said, “If the kids were actually about anything, they would have worked to get there. I think it’s the prestige, because any college is good as the other.”
A “legacy” refers to a student whose family member attended the college they are attending or applying to, usually parents. Ivy leagues and top private schools take legacy status into consideration when assessing an applicant. Often, these students are given “preferential treatment.” Sometimes schools will designate a certain percentage of the incoming freshman class to legacies.
One of the factors in considering legacy students are donations. Legacy students are more likely to commit to that school, which maintains a high level of offer acceptance – which leads to affluent families with legacy children likely to donate to that school.
The US Attorney of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said, “We’re not talking about donating a building, we’re talking about fraud.” Clearly, it is illegal to bribe school officials through faked charitable donations. However, is donating a building entirely different? Where is the line drawn? If donations from families is already an incentive for colleges to admit legacy students, how does that differ from these accepting bribes from non-legacy parents?
The scandal sheds light on the deep-seated inequities of the college admission process. When comparing what is legal versus what is not, the line becomes blurred and it becomes clear just how easy it is for rich parents to get their children into elite schools.
Many Ivy League colleges with extensive and generational alumni networks reserve more space for legacies, reducing the chances of non-legacy students to attend the school. Ivy League legacy families are usually affluent, which makes them less likely to admit students who are both non-legacy and poor or middle class. If these schools have such a huge monetary incentive to accept legacies, why would they open their doors to other kids, who need financial aid and can’t offer new buildings?
One argument is that those students are expected to have excellent admission profiles alongside their status as legacy. However, how can people be sure that these profiles are excellent, and by what standards? The general public would not know. According to NPR, “it is still unclear exactly how each school uses legacy in their admission process.”
The legacy system has a history of racial preference. Most colleges, especially Ivy Leagues, were designed to not be an option for many marginalized racial, immigrant, and religious groups, up until recently. Narrowing their admissions pool to White Anglo-Saxon Protestants and their children led to the makeup of legacy families in prestigious schools to be, obviously, mostly white men, as most Ivy Leagues were men-only colleges. Further, standardized testing is known to be catered towards upper-class families who can afford the expensive tutoring and materials it takes to get high scores.
Another argument is that admitting affluent legacy kids, whose families can pay full tuition and donate to the school, can keep tuition costs low for families who earn under $150,000 a year. With rising student debt and college tuitions skyrocketing, this aspect seems largely non-impactful. However, alumni donations do provide the funds for better college facilities.
Ironically, colleges UC Berkley and USC, both of whom are implicated in the admissions scandal, do not take legacy status into consideration.
As a public university which was founded as the Free Academy of the City of New York, CUNY students do not have to struggle with admissions fraud or legacy status like those applying for and attending private institutions. Most CUNY students come from diverse backgrounds, largely working class.
However, students can use this scandal to continue to question the integrity of their schools, where their funds are coming from, and where they are going.