Admissions fraud layered on top of the existing American college fraud

A professor friend’s Facebook post:

A game: name a worse investment than spending $6.5M to get your kid into college.

“College Admissions Scandal: Actresses, Business Leaders and Other Wealthy Parents Charged” (nytimes) has all of my academic friends excited.

(One interesting aspect is that the people involved are charged with “racketeering,” a crime that was defined to apply to mobsters. Presumably these folks are guilty of something, but it doesn’t seem like a Godfather-style situation. We will find out that the people are facing potentially epic-length prison sentences?)

The American undergraduate education system is already mostly a fraud, in the sense that families pay a lot, but students may not learn anything (see my review of Academically Adrift, in which Collegiate Learning Assessment scores, before and after attending college, are discussed; see also Higher Education?).

[Why a “fraud”? If Honda sold cars at $30,000 and half did not function for transportation people would say “Honda is a fraud.” But a liberal arts college may charge $300,000 for four years of tuition and produce quite a few graduates whose thinking and writing abilities are no better than they were when those folks entered as freshmen. So why not hold the college to the same standard that we would hold Honda?]

Could we use this as an opportunity to motivate folks to fix a fundamentally broken system?

Currently, since there is no agreed-upon measure of achievement in college, graduating with a label from a prestige university is critical. Nobody seems to care that, with the exception of a school such as Caltech, it is almost impossible not to graduate once admitted.

The result is huge pressure on the admissions process. When U.S. population was under 100 million, almost anyone with money could go to an Ivy League college. In my youth, when U.S. population was just over 200 million and international students were rare, any American who was reasonably intelligent and worked hard in high school could attend a top school. Now that we’re heading toward 400 million (Atlantic), parents will be ever more tempted to take extreme measures to assure their children’s futures.

Complicating matters is that virtuous Americans agree that the system actually should be rigged. See “Turns Out There’s a Proper Way to Buy Your Kid a College Slot,” from the righteous editorial board of the NY Times:

And colleges have a legitimate interest in emphasizing various forms of diversity. But it seems safe to stipulate that being born to wealthy parents is not by itself meritorious.

In other words, it is legitimate to base admission on criteria other than academic achievement (“various forms of diversity”). But then the authors say that it is illegitimate to favor children from wealthy families. Every reasonable person can agree that the scales should be tilted and, even better, every reasonable person will recognize a set of universal moral principles that can guide the tilting.

Could we take some of the pressure off young Americans who will be entering a crowded-like-Asia adult world? Why not a set of national examinations that people can take in various areas to demonstrate accomplishment? Then the Harvard graduate who can’t do anything won’t be ranked by employers above the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA) graduate who is able to demonstrate achievement. We would truly have multiple paths to success and we would have a meritocratic system in which anyone who works hard can succeed.

One could argue that we already have some of this in place. There is the Graduate Record Exam that some graduate schools use for admissions. It is SAT-like, though, and doesn’t seem to measure real-world capability (it is more of a test of IQ (correlation 0.7-0.85) plus studying for the test). There are some “major field tests,” e.g., in Physics. But these suffer from some of the same issues as other standardized multiple-choice tests.

What about investing in a week-long supervised test in which students have to solve problems, do research, write up results, etc.? It would be a little challenging to accomplish given that you’d have to figure out a way to deny test-takers the use of 10 Ph.D. helpers connected via smartphone.

Since the government runs a substantial portion of the economy, perhaps people could be motivated to take this test by using it as a factor in government hiring, e.g., for schoolteachers (maybe we can catch up to Finland if we start hiring academically strong teachers the way that they do!) or Federal workers.

Readers: What do you think? If there were a recognized test of achievement and capability for 22-year-olds, would that take some of the pressure off?

30 thoughts on “Admissions fraud layered on top of the existing American college fraud

  1. from the righteous editorial board of the NY Times

    Every reasonable person can agree that the scales should be tilted and, even better, every reasonable person will recognize a set of universal moral principles that can guide the tilting.

    Presumably you think that anyone who disagrees with your ideas on this issue is unreasonable. Thus, you must also be righteous. Where does this
    righteousness nonsense come from?

    • The default philosophy here in Massachusetts is “anyone who disagrees with me is stupid, racist, and sexist,” not merely “unreasonable.”

      That sounds unlikely, considering all the things there are to disagree about. Regardless, I imagine that you contend that you don’t ascribe to the default philosophy, which would make you one of the righteous.

      This is also something that nasty bigots talk about themselves, that liberals talk about racism, sexism, etc. too much. They do that in between rants about races and religions that they hate.

  2. Fraud is defined as making a false representation knowing at the time that it is false in in order to induce someone to do or pay something, the victim relies on the representation, and the victim suffers damages. So if Podunk U represents that 100% of its graduating class gets high paying jobs upon graduation at Goldman Sachs and it is turns out that that representation is false and someone relied on it and handed over lots of money for a Podunk U degree they would likely have a fraud claim against Podunk U. It is dubious that many colleges are making representations like that. Suggesting that your life will be better in this way or that if you attend Podunk U would not constitute fraud — at worst it might be considered “puffery,” a merchant promoting his goods in a way that no sensible person would rely on.

    • You raise some excellent points, Jack. I will sample some schools at random (but not the top-ranked schools, since those are outliers by definition).

      Let’s look at Reed College, ranked #90 among liberal arts colleges in the U.S. says “Reed College is an institution of higher education in the liberal arts devoted to the intrinsic value of intellectual pursuit and governed by the highest standards of scholarly practice, critical thought, and creativity.” says “You will learn how to learn—how to dedicate yourself to studying and how to work toward the production of new knowledge.”

      So they do seem to be making a representation that nearly everyone who pays up (more than $300k for four years, including room and board) will become better at learning and producing new knowledge.

      How about Bennington, on the opposite side of the country? They are #95 says US News. Also more than $300k investment. says “Bennington students graduate with a capacity to get it done, to put themselves out there, to find a novel solution. The proof is in the outsized impact our alumni have on the world’s stage.”

      (i.e., selection bias is the proof! Like pick an immigrant-to-graduate-school Nobel prize winner and that proves the value of 10 million unskilled caravan-based immigrants)

      Those miserable CLA scores cited in Academically Adrift suggests that most of the young people who graduate from Bennington with “the capacity to get it done” already had that capacity on graduation from high school. But I guess the statement isn’t obviously false. If they accept people who don’t need to be taught anything, it doesn’t matter how ineffective the education process is.

      Let’s go to my favorite school: St. John’s College in Annapolis/Santa Fe. Ranked #61. You read the great books with tutors. says “students acquire formidable skills and cultivate enduring habits of critical analysis and thinking”. I wonder if they do any follow-up to test the truth of this assertion! Or if they do before-and-after testing to see if graduates with formidable skills already came in with those skills as freshmen.

  3. Colleges are not frauds, least of all the Ivies. They promise to get kids into the ruling class and they do. They don’t really promise to educate.

  4. I am a proud graduate of Arizona State.. This whole episode really makes me mad when they denigrate the school. I learned a lot at ASU and my credentials provided me a good knowledge base so I could work and make good living. That situation is still true today. Kids who graduate in good fields do good work and are smart.

    BUT ASU admits 80% of their applicants. Then about half drop out due to not studying or no skills, etc.. The school could have cut those kids at admissions but then the kids would blame the school. Instead ASU lets the kids self select and flunked out or quit. So the kids know they why they stopped going to school on their own merits. So they accept their role in life and most move on. This style of school has made for lots of great people who live in the southwest and claim ASU as alumni and love ASU as a great school. Maybe some of the graduates are not as smart or educated as MIT or Yale graduates but they did not spend a fortune getting a good enough degree.

    • A lot of schools in Europe are like this. Everyone can get in. There is a big exam at the end of the first year. People who fail are kicked out or leave.

      I’ve always been a fan of this approach. I don’t like the idea of turning away people who want to learn. That is incompatible with my concept of what it means to be a teacher.

      (Separately, ASU has had some awesome researchers in computer graphics!)

    • This approach – let most everybody in, and let them fail out in the first semester or two if they’re incompetent – seems like an economic win for the school. Why settle for a $200 application fee when you can collect $10-50K of tuition?

      Large, crowded freshman classes are easily the most economic to provide.

    • Essentially, flunking out after a year is a higher fidelity version of Phil’s week long supervised test. Perhaps the freshman fail out cutoff should be one semester or the first exam to save the taxpayer/angel investor some money.

    • J: Tuition in Europe is free, minimal, or negative (people get paid to be students!). So the university has no financial incentive to fail anyone.

    • Back in the days it was a matter of pride for a Professor to thin out the herd. I think about 90% of the people who started university with me did not manage to finish, but I cannot point at one specific person doing a large culling.

      On the other hand when my brother went to study engineering the Calculus Professor said he was singlehandedly the cause of 80% of the students failing to graduate — they could also expect some more selection in other curses further down the line, so those passing his exam should not get cocky.

    • > singlehandedly the cause of 80% of the students failing to graduate
      A performance certain to earn him termination in the private sector.

    • > BUT ASU admits 80% of their applicants. Then about half drop out due to not studying or no skills, etc..

      How does this work? It either means the freshman class is so large compared to the rest of the classes or that the school has a very low head count with empty classes and dorms for non-freshmen (or that the freshmen classes and dorms are intentional 50% larger than the rest). Or are you saying they admit non freshmen to fill the gap?

    • I feel that it’s more important what you do at a school than what school you do it at. Unfortunately some employers are still mesmerized by school names. Michael Crow does have an (intentionally) open admissions policy to give everyone a shot. There are great students that go to ASU too. This mix helps the “average” student but doesn’t necessarily hurt the “excelling” students in any meaningful way. Hopefully they all get the opportunity to show their skills to a great employer after graduation. Disclaimer: Me = ASU BS Computer Science, ASU coursework in MS Info Tech, Wife = ASU BS Nursing and current employee, Daughter = National Merit Scholar, BS (4.0) and current MS (currently 4.0) ASU College of Engineering, Son = National Merit Scholar, Current BS (currently 4.0) ASU College of Engineering. No college loan debt for either child and I haven’t paid a dime.

    • Anonymous, clearly the number of people who think they can become engineers without understanding calculus vastly exceeds the number of people who accepts this need and works towards this goal (my brother, thanks for asking, did get top marks).

      I assume quite a few people are alive and dead not under the rubble of a building thanks to some stringent selection in engineering degrees, and there is hoping that legal liability would keep the private sector equally effective in encouraging poorly apt candidates to seek a different career path.

    • Is statement about free and negative tuition should be reversed? “Tuition in Europe is free, minimal, or negative (people get paid to be students!). So the university has no financial incentive to fail anyone” should read something like “Since in Europe colleges do not have financial incentive to keep extra students who are taking valuable limited space in historic buildings of European universities colleges are interested to keep student population at optimal minimum at which professors and staff are still getting paid”?

  5. The plot thickens, because if we’re even going to imagine standards that reasonable people can agree upon, tilting of the playing field because of legitimate interests that people can agree upon, and other objective facts and meritocratic standards necessary to decide admission to an Elite U., everyone please take a deep breath, because:

    MIT Technology Review brings us the news that objective reality doesn’t exist.

    • Since reality is non-determinable, was this experiment devised, conducted and interpreted by researchers not able to perform well on elementary standard multiple choice SAT test? I bet only reported by the flankers.

  6. It makes sense to me that they’d be charged under RICO because the scheme allegedly involved an organized attempt to use a legitimate institution (“The Key” and it’s nonprofit arm) to accomplish the fraud and conceal the payments. There’s an important piece of recent history involving the use of RICO to prosecute academic fraud: the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal of 2009-2015, “Atlanta Educators Found Guilty in Racketeering Case” about 2/3rds of the way down the page, here:

    There’s plenty more on the web involving the Atlanta mess, and this scandal looks like it involved a lot more money to conceal the existence of objective reality:

    “In one example detailed in an indictment, the parents of a student applying to Yale paid Mr. Singer $1.2 million to help her get admitted. The student, who did not play soccer, was described as the co-captain of a prominent club soccer team in Southern California in order to be recruited for the Yale women’s soccer team. The head coach of the Yale team, Rudolph Meredith, was bribed at least $400,000 to recruit the student.”

    • You’d think a $1.2M donation directly to Yale would have the same outcome for the prospective student, without the risk of a felony conviction.

    • If you donate a building then your kid knows you donated their way in. Most of these kids did not know that they did not get in on their own.

  7. The federal government did have civil service exams. But the original civil service test was thrown out by the Nixon administration after a lawsuit over low black and latino pass rates, in 1972.

  8. Bribe the soccer coach to get your kid in –> Federal charges

    Bribe…er, excuse me, make a generous donation to the development office after which your kid is for totally unrelated reasons accepted –> OK, I guess

  9. Sorry if this is a little off topic – and long – but I want to expand on what we’re discussing here, because I think it’s important. If people want to take out the torches and pitchforks I guess I asked for it.

    Spending $1.2 million dollars to bribe one’s child into Yale at the risk of being slapped with a felony conviction may seem extreme, but perhaps not so extreme when: 1) It’s been done successfully by the same group of people many times before without anyone getting caught and 2) The lifetime earning potential of that child suddenly becomes $5 million or $10 million or more because they graduated from Yale. My feeling is that this is just the beginning of a lot of very pernicious, intertwined problems, if AOC and others advancing the concept of a growing and permanent precariat are reading each other’s stuff, which I think they most certainly are.

    The temptation to commit academic fraud could grow to be a a very big problem in the future – much larger than it is now – because of 1) Automation and 2) as Philip has talked about, uncontrolled immigration, which looks like is the goal for the increasingly mainstream but formerly radical wing of the Democrat party including people like Mario Cuomo, the next time there is one-party rule that doesn’t begin with an (R) in Washington, if not before. And that one-party rule could last a long time.

    Why do I keep saying this? Because I think people are underestimating the problem. The tens of millions of people who are going to be forced to compete with robots or automated out of their current jobs by robots that are always going to be better than them, and can be upgraded cheaply, are not going to live happy lives. They’re going to be demoralized in a way that we have never seen before in human history (it’s a good thing we’re legalizing weed, John Boehner!) The pressure to try and guarantee that one’s children have a shot – fair or otherwise – of making it into the dwindling upper-middle class who don’t get roughed up all the time, living in perpetual economic precariousness, is going to be astronomical.

    I think that’s one of the reasons why AOC is doing what she is doing right now. Her answer is hard core Socialism:
    When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, spoke this past weekend at the SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas this weekend, she told an audience, “We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work. …We should be excited by that.”

    The reason for the lack of enthusiasm, according to Ocasio-Cortez, “is because we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem.”


    My guess is that AOC is banking on the idea that there are going to be a lot more people receptive to her message in the next 30 years, because their lifetime struggles and prospects (not to mention any semblance of upward mobility) are going to become much more difficult or impossible to achieve. Someone like her coming along and telling them they’ll be just fine because the government will give them everything is going to become very attractive to them. And for others, the temptation to get their kids into the elite upper strata is going be huge.

    That’s just my guess, but I have the feeling it’s a pretty good guess.

    It’s probably a lot better guess than the pure fantasy fairy tales coming from people wearing rose colored glasses who think men and women with IQs of 100 with a high school education at 30, or 35, or 40 years old who get automated out of their local truck driving delivery jobs and all the other occupations people currently use to get by paycheck to paycheck (a very significant number!) are going to go back to school and learn to code, while they’re struggling to pay their rent and keep the lights on.

    I think we have a lot of human wreckage coming down the pike and it’s going to start at the next economic downturn, which will comes as surely as the sun sets. It may happen before 2020. The next recession isn’t going to be kind, and no less influential people than Bill Maher have openly called for a recession (“even if it hurts people”) to prevent Trump from being reelected. Regardless of whether he is, a downturn will eventually come, and companies are going to shed workers. Probably moreso than the last time in 2008, those jobs are really not going to come back.

    So that’s my theory, and it’s just a theory, and actually more of a sentiment, but it’s clicking pretty well. I think that’s why AOC is saying the things she’s saying right now at SXSW. That is why Beto is running. That is why Bernie is running. And that is why the Democrats have actually written the legislation (HR1 the “For the People Act”) that will fundamentally change federal election law so that the party in power can stay in power essentially forever, with absolute power.

    People doing long term projections a-la Kahn and Weiner are being very coy about what all this is going to mean.

    Now back to your regularly scheduled controversy.

    • $5 million – $1.2 million = $3.8 million is close to or less then expected lifetime earning of a programmer with degree from a trade computer school. Or do you suggest that with Yale degree ability does not matter? Yale is known for it medical school for workaholics and law school for attorney and US judges, not trial attorneys. Global corporation are automating and outsourcing in-house lawyers. I is not about earnings, it is about positions of power in politics and related fields. And maybe prestige and partying experience, all three are not mutually exclusive.

  10. Engineering has always had a Professional Engineering Exam to get certified in your field. It is taken by lots of graduates so they can review and sign design documents. Power engineers and civil engineers and mechanical/structural engineers routinely take the test. It looks like about 60% of the test takers pass the test. About half my BSEE class took the test back in the dark ages.

  11. For those that have not looked at the numbers, ASU graduates 43% of their students. Yale graduates 96% of their students. So the Yale freshman feels privileged and thinks he is owed a degree. He feels since he got into the school he should get a passing grade no matter how little he studies or how poorly he does on exams. He thinks he is above everyone because the admissions office said he was admitted. So mostly he does not learn to work hard for his grades.

    But at ASU everyone knows over half the kids flunks out. So they study or get kicked out. Just like life. You get what you earn. This is a hard lesson for many young kids that life is not fair and only hard work and study will get you good grades. So many find a different path in life.

    As a boss I want the kid who learned to work for his degree, Not some smart a** kid who thinks they are owed a degree and a job because they got admitted to some school.

  12. In many of these fraud cases the parents were bribing athletic coaches to get their kids admitted. Why is having athletes on campus so important to these schools? I understand football and basketball are revenue generators so that makes some sense. But why do these admissions departments give so much weight to all the other sports playing applicants? If an applicant plays water polo they can be admitted even if their grades/scores would not otherwise be good enough. Why is this a thing?

  13. @Billy James I thought so, too, given that water polo games don’t even charge admission, whereas football & basketball games charge a higher price to non-students (read alumni), and often coincide with dinner/events at which the university does fundraising. But read Dan Golden’s book “The Price of Admission” (or may have been somewhere else) which cited study that a lot of Ivy administrators seem to have taken to heart. Study showed that students engaged in competitive sports at college gain team-building and perserverance skills, and that they disproportionately go into lucrative finance or sales careers. In admins’ minds, these potential high-value donors down the road made admitting these equestrians and sailors and rowers worth their while. From an economic perspective, this probably favored legacies even more (and generally non-minorities) as their parents were able to afford these rarefied pursuits.

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