An Idiot’s Guide To Bribing And Cheating Your Way Into College (#GotBitcoin)
A college and college sports scam shows a flaw in the admissions system—and a culture of entitlement gone amok. An Idiot’s Guide To Bribing And Cheating Your Way Into College (#GotBitcoin)
Like any modern parent, I believe that my children are geniuses—but, hey, who knows. At the moment, my son’s passion is melting crayons all over the living room radiator. His sister tells me that when she grows up, she wants to be a unicorn. They’re truly delightful kids, and may indeed wind up changing the world. It’s also possible they’re not Ivy League material.
The last bit is no shame. I’ve never been Ivy League material myself. But this week, I learned that if I want my kids to go to an elite university—or even a not-so-elite university—all I have to do is find the right fraudsters, deliver a brown envelope of cash, and be willing to cheat, cheat, cheat and lie, lie, lie.
I may also need—and I’m going to require a little help with this, if anyone has the necessary computer expertise—to photoshop my children’s faces atop the bodies of some random water polo players or maybe a football kicker. (Back to this in a minute.)
Has there been a more exquisite snapshot of contemporary American privilege than this week’s news of the federal prosecution into cheating and bribery in college admissions? Dozens of wealthy parents—some of them titans of business, a couple of them celebrities—are charged with allegedly steering money to fixers, scammers and (of course) more than a few allegedly wayward college sports coaches to secure their children’s dubious entry into the colleges of their dreams.
A side door, they called it.
A sewer pipe of entitlement is probably a better term of art.
If you or your children earned admission to college the hard way, I am sorry. Those chumps who stay up all night with calculus, or slog through Faulkner, or ride the bench for junior varsity field hockey—that sort of earnest commitment is apparently for suckers. Turns out, if your parents are rich and crooked enough, there’s no need to be yearbook copy editor, student body treasurer, co-chair of the reptile club, or spend any time in the driveway honing your 3-pointer.
That summer internship at the vet’s office is probably a waste of time, too. To hell with those cats.
I am half-horrified and half-entertained by this scandal, because it is such a calamitous example of 21st century priorities gone amok. An allegedly rogue college consultant turned informant has provided the government an alleged blueprint of a multimillion-dollar world of secret parental payoffs and loopholes used to avoid the aggravating scut work of, you know, kids actually working hard in high school to get a slot in college.
The government’s named source—William Rick Singer, who ran a California-based consulting agency called Edge College and Career Network LLC, but known widely as (you can’t make this up) “The Key”—has detailed a web of alleged payoffs and ruses that allowed ordinary candidates passage into schools including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, USC, UCLA and Wake Forest.
In a few instances, the skulduggery was expensive but straightforward, like a parent allegedly paying $75,000 for a child to take the ACT exam privately, with a proctor on site to correct errors.
More often, college sports was the mechanism for the hustle. Singer allegedly built relationships with college coaches who allegedly agreed to push the candidacies of undeserving students—students who would later be admitted as full-paying athletic prospects, even if they lacked athletic talent. The coach allegedly got an envelope of cash. In return, a paying parent allegedly got a child admitted to a school he or she wouldn’t otherwise be admitted to. As soon as the kid showed up on campus, they could bail on the sport they couldn’t play, with no repercussion.
Hence a string of comical allegations: “rowers” who couldn’t row, allegedly drifting into USC. An alleged “soccer player” incapable of playing competitive soccer, allegedly rolling into Yale. A fake sailor allegedly sailing into Stanford; tennis hackers allegedly hacking into Georgetown and Texas, virtueless volleyball allegedly winding its way to Wake Forest.
And that kid face’s allegedly photoshopped another atop the body of a random water polo player, to prove water polo prowess? That’s a real claim, too, allegedly submitted to USC. (Singer also allegedly doctored another student’s face onto the body of a football kicker—even though the student’s high school didn’t offer football.)
There’s no indication here that the children of these parents charged in this case were involved in the fraud.
But the parents who are alleged? Phew. Where to start?
These are not the first parents charged with buying their children’s way into college, of course; especially at the nation’s finest universities and colleges, there’s a hallowed tradition of admitting the mediocre spawn of the moneyed. On many campuses, you’ll find inspired buildings bankrolled by the families of uninspired brains.
Meanwhile, anyone who’s had a whiff of the contemporary college admissions process knows how parental money already greases the ritual, from the hiring of tutors and test-preppers to sports-video Scorseses who can edit a JV quarterback to resemble the next Brett Favre. Meritocracy is an illusion—long before an application shows up at a school, the system is legitimately stacked in favor of the wealthy. Kids who aren’t from privileged backgrounds are at a steep disadvantage, simply because they cannot afford the add-on accoutrements.
Now here, with the government’s case, comes a wave of high net worth parents who allegedly aren’t even making a pretense of their children earning admission—mom and dad are just going to pay, and they’ll pay this underbelly of surrogates allegedly willing to make it happen, because the surrogates want the money, and they know the system is rigged.
There is something so entitled and 2019 about all of it—yet another example of the powerful endorsing cheating and lying, and rationalizing that the scammery doesn’t really matter, if the ends justify the means. Hard work, integrity, truth…those are increasingly quaint values to an entitlement culture conditioned to get what it wants, and believe what it wants to believe.
To the anxious parents and prospective applicants out there, a tip from a sports columnist who only scammed his way into college bars: None of this nonsense is worth it. College is college—some schools have more to offer than others, but in your life, you’re going to meet plenty of useless dingbats who went to the most distinguished colleges in the country. You’ll also encounter wizards who barely went to school at all.
Also this: Not everyone cheats. Not everyone cuts corners. There isn’t a diploma in the world that’s more valuable than your integrity—and you can’t buy your integrity back. These may be old-fashioned, naive notions, but I don’t care. This is what I’m telling my kids, after I remind them to stop melting crayons on the radiator, because it’s really a nightmare to clean.
Cheating At School Is Easier Than Ever—And It’s Rampant
With many students at home, and with a mass of websites offering services to do their homework, schools have seen a surge in academic dishonesty.
A year of remote learning has spurred an eruption of cheating among students, from grade school to college. With many students isolated at home over the past year—and with a mass of online services at their disposal—academic dishonesty has never been so easy.
Websites that allow students to submit questions for expert answers have gained millions of new users over the past year. A newer breed of site allows students to put up their own classwork for auction.
“Consider hiring me to do your assignment,” reads a bid from one auction site. “I work fast, pay close attention to the instructions, and deliver a plagiarism-free paper.”
Some educators fear the new generation of cheaters will be loath to stop even after the pandemic recedes. “Students have found a way to cheat and they know it works,” said Thomas Lancaster, senior teaching fellow in computing at Imperial College in London, who has studied academic integrity issues for more than two decades. He said cheating sites number in the thousands, from individuals to large-scale operations.
Concerned about his North Carolina State University students cheating in a statistics class, Tyler Johnson launched a plan.
For the final exam, Mr. Johnson, a course coordinator, said he used a computer program that generated a unique set of questions for each student. Those questions quickly showed up on a for-profit homework website that helped him to identify who posted them.
About 200 students were caught cheating—one-fourth of the class. Overall, cases of academic dishonesty more than doubled in the 2019-20 academic year at NC State, with the biggest uptick as students made the transition to online learning, according to the school.
Texas A&M University had a 50% increase in cheating allegations in the fall from a year earlier, with one incident involving 193 students self-reporting academic misconduct to receive lighter punishment after faculty members caught on, a university official said. The University of Pennsylvania saw cheating case investigations grow 71% in the 2019-20 academic year, school data shows.
Dozens of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point were caught cheating on an online calculus exam last year, sharing answers with each other from home. The school said in April it was ending a policy that protected cadets who admitted honor code violations from being kicked out.
Educators say stress and pressure, both significant effects of the pandemic, are a big reason why students cheat. “Especially in a time of stress, they make poor choices,” said Camilla Roberts, president of the International Center for Academic Integrity and director of the Kansas State University Honor and Integrity System.
There is a line between students turning to homework help sites that offer study resources and tutorials to better understand a subject, and copying answers found on those sites onto homework and tests or hiring others to do their work.
Erik Johnson, an 18-year-old freshman at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who isn’t related to Mr. Johnson of NC State, said he knows students who have used homework help sites for studying—and for cheating. He said he hasn’t cheated himself.
He said students, including himself, are frustrated with virtual learning because there’s less interaction with instructors and it’s not as structured. “I haven’t struggled this way with learning material, ever,” he said. “It’s just really difficult to learn and retain the information just exclusively at your own pace.”
At the K-12 level, some schools block a range of homework help websites from district computers to prevent cheating—though that doesn’t stop a student from visiting the site from a different device.
Middle-school teacher Suzanne Priebe in Riverside, Calif., has put less emphasis on testing during online learning to alleviate stress and the desire to cheat. “We have no control of what is going on when you’re on a computer,” she said.
Online cheating has boosted another industry: surveillance-type companies that hire online proctors to watch students take tests from home. The proctors look for suspicious behavior, such as a student disappearing from camera view or being slipped answers. Some use facial-detection software to check for wayward eyes and unusual movements.
Proctorio, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., said it proctored 21 million exams in 2020 world-wide, up from 6 million exams in 2019.
ProctorU, based in Hoover, Ala., said students are finding unique ways to cheat. Some of its busts include a student suspected of trying to use a drone’s camera to take images of a test to possibly share with others; another who was trying to cheat by using information on sticky notes on his dog; and a female student who sneezed and disappeared from view, to suddenly be replaced by a male wearing a blond wig, impersonating her.
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