Battling admissions angst
College scam reflects parents’ desperation, local observers say
While Capital Region colleges were no doubt relieved to see their names left out of the criminal complaints unveiled Tuesday, the underlying issues raised by the sweeping federal investigation into college admissions fraud — concerning money, academic success and fierce competition — are being felt at almost every institution, officials and experts say.
The case captured the nation’s attention with two TV stars — Felicity Huffman of “Desperate Housewives” and Lori Loughlin of “Full House” — among those charged. Both were caught up in the alleged scheme in efforts to get their kids admitted to colleges of their choice through scams involving cheating on entrance exams like the SATS, bribing sports coaches and having students pose as athletes.
While there’s no suggestion
anything similar occurred in local colleges, the affair has nonetheless illustrated what local experts say is the desperation that exists to get into some top schools, and the changing nature of college admissions.
It also shows how admissions is as much of an art as a science and how some of the imponderables involved can be exploited by skillful manipulators.
The idea, say federal prosecutors who have filed charges in the case, was to gain admission through a secret, expensive and exclusive side door to top-tier schools including Stanford, University of Southern California, UCLA, Georgetown, Yale and the University of Texas.
For one thing, the case shows how the admissions process has changed over the years, said Dan Lundquist, who has been admissions director at Union College in Schenectady, The Sage Colleges in Albany and Troy, and University of Pennsylvania.
Decades ago, there was a simpler person-to-person system. Admissions officers would meet with private-school headmasters or public-school principals and gather names of promising students. That couldevenbedoneovera dinner or social gathering.
As the process grew more complicated, more people got involved. And with budget constraints placing limits on the number of high school guidance counselors in a given community, parents who could afford it have increasingly turned to private consultants.
Knowing what schools wanted, consultants including guidance counselors realize the admissions process in many schools is like a pie chart, Lundgren said. Much of the pie is for the best academic achievers. But there are also slices for students who also are star athletes or notable volunteers, or who have another outstanding attribute that might, on the margins, get them admitted.
The current case sought to exploit this pie concept to an extreme, and illegal, degree.
The scheme’s alleged mastermind, Californiabased admissions consultant William Singer, is charged with bribing coaches to falsely certify that students were on squads like the sailing or water polo teams. He also set up stand-ins in some cases to take SAT and ACT tests for applicants.
If, true, Lundquist said, “This was a methodical soup-to-nuts fraud. Almost like putting it in an exaggerated funhouse mirror.”
To be sure, the case was an outlier in terms of the participants’ wealth, the brazenness of the schemes and selectivity of the schools involved.
But the extent to which the participants went along with it — and paid up to hundreds of thousands of dollars — is also telling.
Ned Jones, Siena College’s vice president for enrollment, said it shows how ferocious some parents can be when it comes to getting their kids in school.
A decade or two ago, admissions officers and others spoke of “helicopter parents” who would hover over their kids in efforts to ensure their success.
Today, he said, there’s another moniker.
“These parents are the ‘bulldozer parents,’” Jones said. “These parents will clear any obstacle that is in the way to make sure the path is smooth.”
Part of that stems from the anxiety that comes with the college search.
“There is a higher degree of angst about the whole process. About getting in and about paying for it,” said Dean Skarlis, president of The College Advisor of New York, a firm that helps families navigate college applications and financing.
To be sure, Skarlis said, excelling in a sport can tip the balance for some students. He recalled advising a student a few years ago who was very strong academically, but whose ability as a football player helped him over the top in his efforts to get into Yale.
That Ivy League college was one of the handful of schools targeted by the admissions fraud scandal, which points to another fact of life in the college admissions scene: the distinction between the majority of colleges, which are themselves competing to get students, and the most selective schools, where applicants outnumber those who get in.
“It’s a bifurcated system in that regard,” Skarlis said.
The admissions process will continue to evolve, Lundquist said, with the next chapter likely embracing more digitization. But that will pose its own challenges, as illustrated by a recent problem at Hamilton College in the central New York community of Clinton.
Several applicants to Hamilton, along with applicants to Grinnell College in Iowa and Oberlin College in Ohio, received anonymous notes offering to sell them their electronic admissions files, which included comments by admissions officers, transcripts and ratings of the students. The schools said someone had hacked into their databases.
Dozens were indicted on Tuesday in a multimillion-dollar scam to help children of the American elite cheat their way into top universities, including the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Actresses Lori Loughlin, left, and felicity Huffman are among dozens facing federal charges in connection with a college admissions cheating and bribery scandal.