College admissions scandal: The extreme lengths parents go to

By George Pierpoint
BBC News

  • Published
Media caption,
The scheme involved creating fake sporting photographs, said US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling

The alleged college cheating scandal in the US, which accuses the rich and famous of paying vast sums to fraudulently enhance their children prospects, has sparked a conversation over the role money and privilege play in the US education system.

The scandal involves various illegal tactics to boost the probability that the children of wealthy parents will be admitted to elite universities.

While some of the details are bizarre - including super-imposing student's heads onto athletes' bodies - many see parallels between this alleged scam and the way wealth affects education more generally.

Many took to social media to express their anger at the injustice of US education system.

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Exam 'accommodations'

Students with specific disabilities are able to apply for extra time to complete their SATs or ACTs - the two types of exams that form the basis of university applications.

The system is designed to create a level playing field for students with disabilities.

A number of the parents identified in the investigation lied about their children having learning disabilities as a way to ensure their children would take tests alone.

This allowed bribed officials to slip them answers.

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Some argue that other well-off parents are exploiting the provision by paying for private doctors to diagnose their children with conditions they may not have.

"Parents with means will stop at nothing to get their kid into college - that's what they do," Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, an education lawyer told the New York Post.

Ed Colby, senior director of media and public relations for the ACT, added there is a perception that "some students who [have] wealthy parents can pay a doctor to say the student has a disability."

However, "if we receive documentation from a doctor, we trust that documentation," he added.

Dr Joshua Shifrin, a psychologist who regularly assesses children who may need extra time, says "there are times when the child won't qualify and the parents will push for a diagnosis".

Dr Shifrin charges between $4,000 and $6,000 for a consultation.

Teachers cheating

It is not just parents who have been involved with scams to boost the educational performance of students.

In 2016, 11 teachers from Atlanta were found guilty of changing up to 250,000 wrong answers on standardised tests for primary school children.

The investigation grew out of a series of reports by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper, which pointed out that many school districts linked teacher's bonuses to improvements in test results.

The results of standardised tests can affect the funding available to school districts.

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Gifts and 'legacy admissions'

Not all the tactics used by wealthy parents to improve their children's chances of studying at prestigious institutions are illegal.

The culture of parents making hefty donations to a university to boost their child's prospects is a well-known phenomenon in the US.

The connection between large donations and admissions is murky, although some recent examples shed light on the issue.

A batch of emails between senior Harvard staff, released during a lawsuit, hinted at the importance of donations in the admissions process.

A 2014 email, with the subject heading "My Hero", sent by the then head of the Kennedy School of Government David Ellwood to Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons read: "I am simply thrilled about all the folks you were able to admit. All big wins. [Name redacted] has already committed to building and building. [Name redacted] and [name redacted] committed major money for fellowships - before the decisions (from you) and are all likely to be prominent in the future. Most importantly, I think these will be superb additions to the class."

In another email, an admissions officer at the university questioned how likely admitting an applicant would result in future donations.

"Going forward, I don't see a significant opportunity for further major gifts," the email says. "[Redacted] had an art collection which conceivably could come our way. More probably it will go to [a] museum."

Many on social media pointed out that the parents involved in the latest scandal would have legally been able to give large gifts to institutions to gain favourable treatment for their children.

Some have also drawn a comparison between the scandal and the role of "legacy admissions" in the US education system.

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A 2011 study showed that children with family connections to a university - so called "legacy applicants" - have a significantly improved chances of getting in.

"Legacy applicants got a 23.3-percentage-point increase in their probability of admission. If the applicants' connection was a parent who attended the college as an undergraduate, a 'primary legacy,' the increase was 45.1-percentage points."

It is argued that this system recreates privilege through generations, as children of well-educated parents have easier access to elite institutions.

Around the world

Parents going to extreme lengths to boost their children's academic success is not a uniquely US phenomenon.

In China, parents have protested against the measures imposed to stop their children from cheating in notoriously difficult university entrance exams.

Around 2,000 parents took to the street in Hubei province in 2013 to demonstrate against enhanced anti-cheating measures.

The protests were part of a broader debate about the level of corruption in Chinese society, and the perception that cheating was so common that not doing so would put children at a disadvantage.

In 2016, photos emerged showing parents scaling the walls of a school in India's Bihar state to pass notes to their children inside during exams.

The photos led to the arrest of around 300 people, mostly parents and close relatives, after the images were shown in local media.

Image source, Dipankar
Image caption,
The government wants to stop cheating in school exams this year