There Is No Way to Prevent the Next Cheating Scandal

Admissions officers are in no position to evaluate the truthfulness of the applications they review.

students walking on Stanford University's campus
Ben Margot / AP

The college-admissions scandal that led to federal bribery charges against dozens of parents last week unfolded at selective universities that pride themselves on “holistic” evaluations of their applicants. This process typically means that several admissions officers review a file and consider factors beyond grades and test scores, often intangible qualities that aren’t quantifiable and are usually gleaned from an applicant’s extracurricular activities, essays, and recommendations. This approach is nearly ubiquitous among selective schools.

Given this scrutiny of applications, among the questions raised following the Justice Department probe is how the actions of a few rogue coaches and SAT proctors could go totally undetected in these admissions offices. How did the alleged cheater not get caught?

Over the past four months, I have sat with admissions readers and committees at three selective colleges as they chose this fall’s freshman class, as part of research for a book I am writing about the inner workings of the admissions business. (None of the three schools I’m following for the book was named in the investigation.) While readers—as the people who review applications are called—would sometimes raise questions about absent pieces of information or other inconsistencies, the issues were usually minor: unfamiliar acronyms, missing scores for AP tests, or a recommendation that mentioned a school club not listed elsewhere in the file. Even in those cases, the readers usually didn’t have time to search the internet for additional information, so they moved on, assuming, perhaps, that these were oversights and nothing more.

Admissions counselors are not hired to be detectives. An ever-increasing number of applications have swamped admissions offices in recent years, resulting in faster reading of files. Whereas once readers could spend 16 to 20 minutes on a given applicant, the average is now around eight minutes. The high volume of applications and small number of staff leave the process vulnerable to embellishment or outright lying, especially at selective colleges where the competition for a scarce number of seats is fierce. Selective colleges—those that accept fewer than half of applicants—accounted for about a third of all college applications in 2017, but for only 20 percent of undergraduates enrolled in American higher education.

“The entire admissions process is built on trust,” says Michael Steidel, the dean of admission at Carnegie Mellon University. “There is a fear, as application pools grow and as time spent on a review is reduced, [that] there is opportunity for problems.” Moreover, even if deans suspect fraud, federal antitrust laws prohibit universities from exchanging information about applicants.

Admissions deans I spoke with say fraud like that at the center of Operation Varsity Blues—the FBI’s nickname for the investigation—is likely rare, but they readily admit that it’s difficult to track. Some recent incidents give admissions officials cause for concern.

Last year, The New York Times found that a private high school in Louisiana, T.M. Landry College Preparatory School, forged transcripts and fabricated stories for application essays so that students would get accepted into selective colleges, including Yale, Brown, and Princeton. Two years ago, Technolutions, a company that operates a popular database system used by nearly 1,000 universities to organize applications, found that more than a quarter of recommendations provided for applicants to a graduate business school were all written on the same computer. But Alexander Clark, the CEO of Technolutions, told me his company’s system, called Slate, is unable to similarly track the so-called metadata of undergraduate applications because they are transmitted to colleges on platforms operated by the Common Application or its competitor, the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success.

Since the scandal broke last week, one element of the scheme troubling admissions deans is that a few of the schools named in the affidavit were allegedly betrayed by their own athletic coaches. Coaches had allegedly classified applicants as recruited athletes even though they had no experience playing the sport.

How colleges recruit athletes varies widely by school. In general, coaches recruit athletes well before their applications are submitted to the admissions office. At some schools, a specific number of slots are reserved for athletes. (Georgetown, for example, allocates about 158 slots a year to its coaches, according to the affidavit.) Typically, admissions officers “pre-read” the applications of highly rated athletes to see if they can make the cut academically, and most are officially accepted during the early-decision round of admissions in the fall.

“When coaches say that this is a five-rated kid, we trust that,” says Chris Gruber, the vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Davidson College in North Carolina, which competes at the Division I level. “At the same time, we have processes in place of checks and balances.”

When reviewing applications, Gruber and his staff keep an eye out for inconsistencies. For instance, if a student writes about the illness or death of a parent in the essay, that event is often reflected elsewhere in the application, perhaps in a recommendation. If not, “then you’re left wondering why no one else is talking about these things,” Gruber says.

Short of outright lying, high-school counselors I interviewed say the pressure on applicants to present a perfect picture in their application forces students to at times overstate their accomplishments or stretch stories in their essays. “Every student thinks they need a hook,” says Hannah Wolff, the college and career-center specialist at Langley High School in Virginia, who is also a part-time admissions reader at UC Berkeley. “They have an impression that being in the honor society, doing community service, getting all A’s in AP courses is not enough.”

All this has left admissions officers wondering if the overall application—test scores, grades, recommendations, extracurricular activities, and essays—remains an accurate portrayal of the student who is applying. “The concern I have is not fraud, but the overall fidelity of the correspondence they send us,” says one admission dean at a prominent university, who asked to remain anonymous to talk freely about the scandal. “Grades are inflated, activities are embellished, recommendations lack negative comments, and the standard now is test prep and multiple editors for essays.”

As a result, some admissions deans want to ask for different evidence of an applicant’s potential beyond the usual polished checklist. The coalition application, for instance, gives students a private virtual “locker” to upload materials, such as documents, photos, and videos, that they can later add to their application. For the past three years, students applying to Yale University have taken the option to use the coalition application to submit a document, image, audio file, or video instead of responding to two short essay prompts on the Common Application.

Meanwhile, a group of deans from selective colleges, including Bucknell University, MIT, and Swarthmore College, are examining the use of assessment tools to measure an applicant’s character attributes. “We are not saying throw out testing and replace it with noncognitive measures,” says William T. Conley, the vice president for enrollment management at Bucknell. “But we know that things like persistence and teamwork are important to success in college and afterwards, and they should be part of holistic admissions.”

Inevitably, whenever colleges shift what they want in their application, students change their own behavior in response, or new industries sprout up to assist them. As long as applications to elite schools are abundant and seats scarce, applicants will look for ways—even sometimes those that push up against ethical lines—to stand out. And because admissions officers tend to trust applicants and have neither the time nor the resources of the FBI to check out anything they might question, the only safeguard built into any admissions system (now or in the future) is cultural norms about honesty.