The college cheating scandal and America’s elite - Activate World

The college cheating scandal and America’s elite

The U.S. college-admissions scandal highlights a higher education system that rewards privilege rather than expanding opportunities for an increasingly diverse population. On March 12, federal prosecutors announced that 50 people, including an Oscar-nominated actress, a co-chairman of international law firm Wilkie Farr & Gallagher, and the former chief executive of PIMCO, participated in a massive scam focused on getting wealthy children into elite universities. 

Lunchtime conversations:

  • If legacy admission programs or preferential admissions are eliminated at colleges and universities will the process be more equitable and merit-based? Why or why not and what is your rationale?
  • How can businesses help diversify admissions into educational institutions? Do they need to spend less time hiring and recruiting from Ivy League schools and spend more time at diverse public universities, historically black colleges and universities, etc.? 
  • How did parents and universities fail ethical standards? How did entitlement or incrementalism play a role in making unethical decisions?

An option:  Share your thoughts in our Activate World LinkedIn group.


  • Two Stanford University students filed a class action lawsuit saying that they wasted their money when they applied to schools linked to what the Justice Department called its largest-ever college admissions prosecution.
  • United by an admissions scandal that touched many of their campuses, students railed against privilege and greed. They worried that their diplomas might have been tarnished even before they were handed to them on stage.
  • A 2017 New York Times analysis found that even with race-conscious admissions policies in place, black and Hispanic students are actually less represented at America’s top colleges now than they were 35 years ago.


On March 12, federal prosecutors announced that 50 people participated in a massive scam focused on getting wealthy children into elite universities. The alleged bribery happened at some of the world’s most prestigious institutions – including the University of California, Yale University, and Stanford University. A 200-page FBI affidavit highlights the lengths parents allegedly went to from paying SAT and ACT proctors to change answers on standardized tests to faking learning disabilities to get additional accommodations for students and, in some cases, presenting children as recruits for college sports they’ve never played.

college cheating scandal

The scandal has sparked discussions about wealth, privilege, and access to America’s most selective schools. Critics believe the higher education system has become a bottleneck in reducing the gaps in economic opportunity between whites – particularly those from upper-income families – and minorities. “From an equity perspective, this is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. “This system is, in many respects, an aristocracy posing as a meritocracy.”

Although nonwhites will soon represent a majority of the under-18 population and already constitute a majority of public-school K-12 students nationwide, most who attend college are still being channeled toward the least selective private and public postsecondary schools with the least resources. Meanwhile, whites still fill most of the seats at the most selective institutions, which spend the most on their students.  

The college admissions process, including legacy admission programs, is just one of the many factors that give rich kids preferential access to college, others include exclusive schools, test prep, tutors, and consultants. These factors help explain why rich kids with low test scores are more likely to graduate college than poor kids with high test scores. Income inequality in education has a long history because so many K-12 budgets are dependent on local property taxes. Wealthier communities with higher tax bases automatically have more money to pay for things like better teachers, AP courses and college counselors – all of which provide a leg up in the college admissions process.

A recent study by Opportunity Insights found 38 colleges, including five Ivy League schools, enrolled more students whose families are among the top 1 percent of income earners than from the entire bottom 60 percent. And children whose parents are in the top 1 percent of earners are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than those whose parents are in the bottom income quintile, the same report found.

Susan Dynarski, a professor of public policy, education and economics at the University of Michigan, said. “I’ve been studying inequality in college-going and completion for decades and intellectually I knew that this sort of thing happened, but to see it laid out in a legal proceeding drives it all home.”Her research shows, in part, that low-income students who are qualified for top-tier schools rarely apply based on the assumption that they cannot afford the cost of tuition.

However, Dynarski found that assumption changes if someone from the school specifically gets in touch with low-income students and promises them free tuition if they apply and are admitted. In fact, they are twice as likely to apply, be admitted to, and enroll.

Sources: BloombergCNNThe New York TimesU.S. NewsVoxEthics Unwrapped

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash