Bat­tling ad­mis­sions angst

Col­lege scam re­flects par­ents’ des­per­a­tion, lo­cal ob­servers say

Albany Times Union - - NEWS - By Rick Kar­lin

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.

Fred­eric J. Brown / Getty Im­ages

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.

As­so­ci­ated Press pho­tos

Ac­tresses Lori Lough­lin, left, and felic­ity Huff­man are among dozens fac­ing fed­eral charges in con­nec­tion with a col­lege ad­mis­sions cheat­ing and bribery scan­dal.

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