What the Scammers Got Right About College Admissions

Just because some people allegedly cheated the system doesn’t mean the system is defensible.

William Singer, the alleged ringleader of the college-admissions bribery scheme, leaves the federal courthouse in Boston. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

Like most other college presidents, R. Gerald Turner, the head of Southern Methodist University, where my son is a student, sends correspondence only when something goes terribly wrong. When I received a mass email from his office this week, I assumed the school had gotten caught up in the fallout of Operation Varsity Blues, the college-admissions cheating and bribery scandal that came to light last week.

But Turner’s missive turned out to be preemptive instead of apologetic. The scandal offered SMU “an opportunity to add to the ongoing review of our process,” he wrote. The university, he explained, must rely on the accuracy of materials submitted by students, including SAT scores. Turner announced that the university intended to review the records of any students associated with “The Key,” the college-counseling firm run by William Singer, the alleged fixer who is accused of paying bribes, facilitating cheats, and creating fraudulent materials to help wealthy parents get their kids into elite schools such as Stanford, Yale, and the University of Southern California.

The message was defensive. “Our goal in conducting this review is not to cast doubt on any student’s qualifications for admission,” he wrote, “but to safeguard the reputation of the admission process for all of our students.”

When Singer’s operation was exposed, it was met with widespread shock and dismay. The frustrating realization that a different set of rules applied to the wealthy was only temporarily alleviated by the schadenfreude of watching those rich people, including famous actresses, get indicted for felonies.

But a week later, academia is already entrenching to defend its admissions practices, as the SMU president’s email exemplifies. For Turner and other leaders of elite colleges, the scandal is more than embarrassing; it is existential. If colleges such as USC and Stanford can’t prove that their admission process is uncompromised, then the value of that acceptance—and the credential that comes with it on graduation day—is put at risk. That risk trickles down too. SMU isn’t Stanford or Yale, but it has called USC, which was caught up in the scandal, an “aspirational peer”—that is, an institution whose reputation it longs to match.

Operation Varsity Blues is being called a “cheating scandal,” but that name lets the entire process off the hook, as if a few dozen bad actors had sullied an otherwise operative and noble system. In truth, the alleged criminals who swindled SAT scores, faked athletic records, and bribed university officials might actually show a better way forward, despite their ultimately corrupt approach. The only way to make college admissions equitable is to reject how the process is currently conducted. This scandal opens the door to that demand, but it’s up to students, parents, and educators to burst through.

College admissions have been a mess for a long time, but Operation Varsity Blues attached names and faces to the problem. It’s always easier to dole out blame to particular people rather than abstract groups such as one-percenters (or nine-percenters). Singer’s clients were real people, some of whom you probably already knew: They are lawyers, financiers, fashion designers, and, yes, famous Hollywood stars. It didn’t hurt that the law brought the hammer down on these transgressions of the wealthy. Some of the perpetrators were indicted for fraud. College employees lost jobs for allegedly taking bribes. Netflix dropped Lori Loughlin from the Full House reboot. When misdeeds finally catch up with rich folk, it’s easy to celebrate their downfall.

But criminal indictments might let the college-admissions racket off the hook too easily. It’s certainly more illegal to bribe and swindle your child’s way into USC or Yale by cheating on college-entrance exams or faking athletic prowess. But is it less moral to cheat brazenly like that than it is to donate millions to a target university, or to pay tens of thousands of dollars for preparatory private school each year, or to spend thousands of dollars on test-prep tutors, or to ferry your kids from soccer practice to orchestra lessons to bulk up their profiles as college-worthy? These are but a few common methods for the wealthy to help their children “earn” a place in elite universities. As Shamus Khan, the author of a book on the subject of elite scholastic privilege, put it after the scandal broke, “Rich parents spend millions on their children to make them ‘better’ than others.”

When it comes to vice, it seems self-evident that spending money on legal services is more virtuous than spending it to commit fraud. But if admissions are already rigged for the well-off, then the moral scales might tilt differently. If the system is unfair, then defending it against those who might reject it only serves to enshrine the system as fundamentally virtuous.

Take college-entrance exams such as the SAT and the ACT. These exams hold currency because the overwhelming majority of institutions use them as a critical part of the admissions process. The tests are called “standardized” because they are supposed to work the same for everyone. But in practice, that’s hardly the case. There’s a cottage industry of books, classes, and private tutors that offer practice exams and test-taking tricks to help the well-to-do gain an advantage. Even if relatively little money is spent, being able to commit a lot of time to take practice tests or to acclimate oneself to the weird, artificial conditions of the exam’s format can go a long way. Just taking the test a few times pays dividends—which wealthier kids, more so than others, can afford to do.

These and other factors make it possible, even if not easy, to approach a test such as the SAT as an opportunity to be maximized, rather than as an evaluation of performance. Over time, anyone can become better at something with practice. Students who improve at the SAT certainly demonstrate a kind of adeptness. But their score might or might not represent their aptitude to do anything other than take the test.

But the impact of the SAT and the ACT does not end upon admission to a college. Test scores are sometimes used to qualify admits for merit-based scholarships. They can persist in other ways too. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, where I teach, someone found that one factor could accurately predict whether computer-science students would struggle: their SAT math score. There are good and bad ways to use that information, but it might surprise some students to learn that their test scores continue to affect their educational experience long after admission.

The well-off families who pay small or large sums to game the SAT legally do not commit fraud in so doing, which is good. But they do buy into the concept of testing, accepting their fates as pawns in the larger game of meritocracy. By contrast, the fraudster parents who paid to falsify or doctor SAT or ACT results opted out of that game. They did so from a position of massive wealth and privilege, of course, and only for personal gain. Even so, they point the way to a more equitable and moral approach to college admissions: one that rejects the current system at its foundation, rather than accepting it as righteous and necessary, but temporarily compromised.

Writing at The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss wondered whether the scandal means it’s time to get rid of the SAT and the ACT entirely. Every year, more colleges and universities go “test optional” or “test flexible,” meaning that their admissions process relaxes the role of standardized tests. That approach can benefit students who just don’t test well, so long as they appear worthy in other ways. But those “other ways” might also come with strings.

Some schools are text-flexible in name more than deed, replacing test scores with other metrics, such as grade-point averages or high-school class rankings. Others require the SAT, but use it only if those other, numerical data don’t reach a particular threshold. Still others require test scores only from out-of-state students, a way to reward the families who are tax-paying citizens of their home state. And some schools don’t require test scores at all, relying instead on more qualitative methods of evaluation for acceptance. That works well for smaller, more exclusive schools, but it’s hardly an answer for everyone.

But neither is digging in heels and doubling down to protect the sanctity of the existing system, as Turner, SMU’s president, did. “I know that you have been concerned about the scope of this fraudulent scheme, as I have been,” he wrote to me and other parents. It was an appeal to vanity as much as righteousness. When Operation Varsity Blues produced 50 indictments, some parents felt wronged because a slot claimed by fraud might have gone to their own son or daughter. It’s an infuriating idea, but also an affirmation of general satisfaction in the system—provided it works in one’s own favor.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, issued a statement after the investigation and charges came to light, shirking responsibility for the wrongdoing of test proctors, who are selected by local schools, and affirming its commitment to preventing cheating on the tests. The organization also noted that SAT practice is available for free online via Khan Academy, although those lessons still require reliable access to a computer and an internet connection—not to mention knowledge that the practice is available in the first place.

Standardized tests are only one component of the admissions process too. Grades and class rankings are also important, and so are extracurriculars such as sports and music and volunteering, since every applicant is expected to be “well rounded” as a teenager. Fulfilling that demand has incited an arms race. The stakes get higher, and everyone who has a shot feels the need to rise to meet them. That creates a cycle in which college students gain an advantage based on their parents’ wealth, and then repeat the process with their own kids years later.

Educators, students, and parents have waved indignant fists at these cheaters, but have then gone right back to the grind in order to play the admissions game in earnest again. Singer’s clients may have wronged their children and the institutions that were their victims, but there’s some inspiration to draw from them nevertheless: They opted out of the racket—even compared with their wealthy peers, who hustled to buy their advantages indirectly and over time.

Let’s not praise these alleged crooks too eagerly, of course. It’s easy to sidestep the college gantlet when your parents are multimillionaires, like most of the families implicated in Singer’s scam. But it’s also pathetic to scoff at the rich fraudsters just to return to the hopeless scramble that already tilts the scale toward the rich. Unless the public demands change in the wake of Operation Varsity Blues, elite colleges and the wealthy families who can afford them will harness the scandal’s energy to insulate themselves. That process has already begun.