Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist and historian. He’s the senior academic adviser to the history department at the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“We’re not talking about donating a building, we’re talking about fraud,” said Andrew Lelling, the US Attorney for Massachusetts, as he announced indictments in a massive scheme alleging that celebrities and other wealthy individuals used cheating, bribes, and lies to get their kids into elite colleges.
The behavior described in this alleged fraud should be punished. But on a broader and more basic level, the case also sheds light on deep inequities in our college admissions system. Because if someone can get their kid into Harvard by buying a building, let alone by committing any of the alleged acts emerging from this case, the scandal isn’t just what’s illegal, but what’s legal as well.
The accusations are shocking enough. Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, among dozens of other wealthy (if not necessarily famous) parents, allegedly participated in two kinds of schemes, one based on cheating on tests, the other on faking talent at sports.
When it came to athletics, the clients paid William Rick Singer, who ran both for-profit and (allegedly fraudulent) not-for-profit educational consulting firms and is now a cooperating witness, to create fake portfolios of high school athletic achievement, then either persuaded or bribed coaches to improve the odds of admission for the student as a potential recruit.
CNN has reached out to multiple defendants for comment. Yale, Wake Forest, UCLA, USC, the University of Texas and Georgetown have released statements ranging from identifying themselves as victims of the alleged criminal schemes to in some cases announcing internal investigations and firings. Singer entered a guilty plea on Tuesday and his attorney told media his client was “very remorseful.”
One of the most baffling things about this case, of course, is just how easy it is for rich people to get into elite colleges without fraud.
Most of the top-100 colleges and universities give a boost to legacy admissions, ensuring that first-generation college students start at a disadvantage. The Century Foundation calls it “affirmative action for the rich.” Rich people can also enhance children’s admission chances through donations, as many have suggested about presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner’s acceptance to Harvard (and as representatives of the Kushner family have denied).
The dependence on standardized testing favors even the wealthy students who do not cheat, since they have access to tutors, specialized classes and college prep courses in elite private high schools. As the authors of “Class Warfare: Class, Race, and College Admissions in Top-Tier Secondary Schools” argue, college admissions are already “a testing ground for the transference of social advantage.”
But the other part of the current cheating scam is even more pernicious and focused on testing. Through Singer, parents are alleged to have bribed officials administering standardized tests in a number of ways. Some just provided answers. Others allowed substitutions, so a more academically gifted student would take the test in the name of the defendant’s child.
Worst of all, according to the charging documents, some parents worked with Singer to get their child falsely diagnosed with a learning disability so they could be provided with a reasonable accommodation for extra time and a quiet space for the test and Singer could swap out an official proctor with someone on his payroll.
For example, the complaint includes an alleged conversation between Singer and Gordon Caplan, the co-chair of a massive international law firm, Wilkie Farr & Gallagher. Singer explained that Caplan’s daughter would meet with a psychologist on his payroll, but that she would need to “be stupid” in order to get diagnosed with learning disabilities. Then she would be able to fly out to Los Angeles and take the test with Singer’s corrupt proctor. Best of all, Singer allegedly promised, Caplan’s daughter would also then be able to use her fake diagnosis to get extra time throughout her college career.
According to the transcript released by the Justice Department, Singer told Caplan, “What happened is, all the wealthy families that figured out that if I get my kid tested and they get extended time, they can do better on the test. So most of these kids don’t even have issues, but they’re getting time. The playing field is not fair.”
I know the playing field isn’t fair. I’m the father of a disabled son. I have dyslexia, but never got a diagnosis when I was in school. I taught for 10 years at a school dedicated to educating first-generation college students, a majority of whom were Latinx.
I now advise a group of 300 history majors at a big public university. They work so hard. They are brilliant. And they deserve so much more trust and support from our educational systems. Instead, I have watched far too many students from less privileged backgrounds who struggle to get the diagnosis they need, who wrestle with their own sense of stigma about asking for help and then who encounter teachers suspicious that they are gaming the system.
Thanks to alleged criminals like these, accommodation can become a battle between student and suspicious professor, rather than a process of community building and inclusion.
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In his press conference, Lelling said, “There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”
These are laudable goals. It’s not true, though. There is a separate system of justice for the wealthy. There’s also a separate admission system for rich people that’s quite legal. But maybe with this indictment, we’ll get just a bit closer to changing that unfair status quo.