Parents of college applicants are making large donations

A documentary on Netflix, Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, brings to light how parents are giving large donations to universities in order to get their children admitted. 

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Kaitlyn Mora
March 28, 2021 11:24 am

Just as students are competing for places at university, so too are universities competing against each other to be the highest in the ranking tables. The QS World University Rankings places MIT, Stanford and Harvard as the top 3 best universities in the world in 2021. Each year the rankings change. Some universities drop a few places and some rise. It’s a continual battle to rank as highly as possible.

But this battle among universities will invariably affect applicants. Consider some of the criteria to rank highly. These include reputation of the university, reputation of employers of university graduates, faculty-student ratio and international student ratio.

The first thing that stands out to me is reputation. This is such a subjective metric. You can probably get a very good education at a top 30 university just as much as a top 10 university. But by ranking universities on reputation, the result is so many students will be applying for a select few universities while other universities that haven’t built up a strong reputation will struggle to fill their spaces. This competition among students is what leads to stress, stimulant abuse and straining of relationships.

Another criteria that will have an impact on students is the faculty-student ratio. From a current student’s perspective, this is great. They will get more attention from faculty and will have a more powerful learning experience. But a higher faculty-student ratio is expensive. To increase the ratio a university has to hire more faculty and take in less students. So the university will have to pay more faculty salaries but will be getting less student fees. This will create pressure on any university administration. So what’s the solution? Taking in someone whose parents just paid a nice donation and could pay more donations throughout their lifetime seems like a pretty good idea.

International student ratio is something I understand. Diversity of classmates is beneficial to your learning experience and I believe the weighting given to this isn’t as strong as other criteria such as reputation. But it makes me wonder whether some students get preferential treatment. A friend of mine had an interview at a top 10 university. She told me it was a horrific experience. The interviewer kept interrupting her and was looking to catch her out or trip her up at every moment. When she came out of the interview, half traumatised, she asked other candidates how their interviews went. She was surprised to hear that they had pleasant interviews that were more like general chats rather than the intense experience she just had.

Could this different interview experience be a deliberate act by the university? By accepting applicants to an interview, it gives an image of considering everyone on merit. But then if the interview experience is wildly different for each candidate, fairness goes out of the window. Surely someone who is being challenged and attacked at every step is going to be marked down worse than someone who isn’t challenged at all. The ranking of universities has made me cynical and I believe many bright, capable students are losing out on places because of it.

QS world rankings.PNG
Nicole Stratton
March 31, 2021 3:46 pm

College admissions season is a time of great pressure. Sometimes I think back and wonder how I got through it all. Cheating the system is an inevitable consequence of this pressure. I’m not saying it is right, but it is bound to happen. Trust between a parent and child could be strained in circumstances when the child isn’t involved. Just imagine thinking you got a great score on your SAT and later finding out that your parents bribed a proctor to change your answers and take the test for you.

Cheating the system has been around for a while. A high profile case is Jared Kushner, son-in-law and former senior adviser to Donald Trump. When Jared was looking to get into college in 1998, his father made a $2.5 million donation to Harvard. His GPA and SAT scores were average, and no one thought he would get in based purely on merit. Curious is the word used to describe his acceptance to Harvard:

When I was at college there was a buzz about essay writing services. Companies would have a staff of writers, who would write college admissions essays for you. At a price, of course. Some would help you with assignments. You could select the level you wanted your assignment to be written so that no one suspect you had gone from a mediocre student to genius within the timespan of a few weeks. I just Googled these services and they still exist. One claims to provide 100% plagiarism-free essays. Oh the irony πŸ˜‚πŸ˜

The craziest story I have ever heard is about two students in Hawaii who were taking the LSAT, the Law School Admission Test in 1997. These two students paid an accomplice to gain entry to an LSAT at the University of Southern California. The accomplice got in using a fake ID and when the test was being handed out, he took a copy and ran away through a back door. He was chased by the proctor but the accomplice took out a knife. The answers to the test were solved and then sent by pager to the two students in Hawaii. There was no WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger back then. As California is 3 hours ahead of Hawaii, this would give everyone involved time to solve the questions and transmit the answers. But when the two students in Hawaii took their LSAT, the proctor there got suspicious when he noticed both of them looking at their pagers frequently. Both scored in the 99.99% percentile, which raised suspicions even further. They were soon found out and sentenced. Full story here:

What is perplexing about this story is that the two students in Hawaii were good students. They didn’t need to cheat to get into Law School. But the pressure to get in must have affected their judgement. In a similar way many of these kids don’t need their parents to bribe university staff to get into college. But in a high pressure situation, one’s decision making isn’t always sensible.

Devin Graff
March 27, 2021 11:04 am

I have to say this was a difficult watch for me. Throughout the documentary I kept thinking about how much effort I had put into college applications and standardized tests, unaware that somewhere someone was making a generous donation to secure a place for their child. How many hardworking college hopefuls have lost out on admission because of this? I shook my head when I saw that parents are fabricating learning difficulties for their children just so they could get more time to complete a test.

From my experience college admission became an obsession. An unhealthy one. When I was applying for grad school I stopped meeting friends and stopped going to the gym. My weekends were spent studying for standardized tests. On my drive to and from work, I would listen to YouTube videos about college admissions. When I took a break from studying and applications, I would go on college admission forums where you would have a community of similarly obsessed candidates focusing their entire existence on getting into college. Now I certainly don’t promote this obsession as a good thing, or any obsession for that matter. But it was heart breaking to watch Operation Varsity Blues and relive how much effort I put into my grad school applications, knowing that other candidates would be getting in through a ‘back door’.

College admission has really become more about status than about getting an education. I would be lying to myself if I said I only wanted to go to grad school because of what I could learn. But the problem is when there is status involved, you have more and more candidates applying for a small number of prestigious schools. There are fewer places for each applicant, resulting in people looking for ways to stand out from the competition. What’s a good way to stand out? A donation worth millions of dollars.

Alban Duro
March 31, 2021 10:24 am

Much of the criticism about this scandal is placed on colleges. The culture of student recruitment encourages under-the-table donations and bribes. I think this argument has some merit but no one is forcing parents to pay millions to get their children admitted to college. It is the parents’ decisions and they are, rightfully so, being held accountable.

Status is such a big deal in our society. People want the most expensive cars or the most exclusive watches. You can buy gold encrusted food that costs thousands of dollars, all so you can take a photo for Instagram. College admissions has status written all over it. Parents who are paying large donations to get their children into college aren’t necessarily doing it for their children. One element of it is to boost their own status. “My kid goes to Caltech, my kid got into Berkeley.”

We live in a very materialistic, appearance-driven world. One where the opinions of others are considered more important than your own. There are many times in my life I wish I had followed what was important to me and not what I felt would be impressive to others.

Social media amplifies this to the next level as we see everyone living their perfect lives. College admissions reactions are often shared on major networks. But it doesn’t stop after college. Go on LinkedIn and see the never ending announcements about promotions received and certificates earned. I think it is very telling that it is called a status update.

Josh Wright
March 29, 2021 8:08 pm

University admissions is anything but fair. One day when I was at school, I came in to class and my teacher was shaking his head. He had received a letter from either Oxford or Cambridge University (sorry I can’t remember which one!) that asked if he knew of any good student rowers. It didn’t matter what their grades were. “I’m sure we can find a course for them”. The letter made it clear that academic capability wasn’t an admission factor if you could row well.

In the US legacy preference is another factor that gives some candidates an advantage. If your parents and grandparents went to Harvard University, you will have a much better chance of getting in compared to non-legacy candidates. According to the Harvard Crimson, over a third of the Class of 2022 consists of legacy students. An argument in favour of legacy admissions is if several generations of a family attend a university, they will have greater ties to it and will be more amenable to giving donations. Money makes the world go round. University admissions are not exempt from this.

Last edited 1 year ago by Josh Wright
Anita Chan
March 29, 2021 3:09 pm

Rick Singer, the archvillain in Operation Varsity Blues, is like the Bernie Madoff of college admissions. Bernie Madoff was an investment advisor based in New York. He would consistently get high returns from his clients’ investments, gaining a reputation as someone who had the magic touch. In reality he was running a huge Ponzi scheme and he’s now in prison.

Rick Singer had a similar reputation. He would get your kid into college, but the difference is he was open about how he would do it. As a parent, you had several options.

  • Front door option: Your kid gets in on their own merit.
  • Back door option: Donate a lot of money to the college. Amounts up to $50 million need to be donated for this option.
  • Side door option: Pay Rick Singer up to $500,000 and he would bribe college coaches to recruit your kid under the guise of an athlete recruit.

When I applied for college I had no idea admissions consultants existed. I didn’t even know it was a thing until I saw an ad for one. The more I looked into it, the more I learned how many students use these consultants. I got in touch with one by email and received a reply saying they would be free to open up a client slot after a year 🀯

I don’t know how many Rick Singers there are but some consultants have become celebrities in the world of admissions consulting and can charge a premium price for their services. charges $9,105 for their total college application package. If you’re in a rush, pay $11,835 and they can help you out quicker. Demand is high for the best consultants and unlike Rick Singer, they don’t guarantee admission like he did πŸ˜‰