By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

It’s a sad commentary on the media and the American public that the overwhelming majority of news stories on the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal are devoted to the two Hollywood celebrities involved, with many of those stories being categorized as entertainment news. Rarely are the thirty-plus other, non-celebrity accused persons mentioned, even though they’re the real story because their alleged wrongdoing suggests that a sizable number of people would be tempted to engage in similar shenanigans if only they had enough money to pay someone like Rick Singer. The amounts of money and the number of institutions involved are unique (we hope), but college admissions scandals are not a new phenomenon. Here are a few of the more noteworthy ones from recent years:

The T.M. Landry College Prep Prevaricators

Just last year, a small-town private school in Louisiana, celebrated nationwide for sending underprivileged black students to elite colleges and famous for viral videos of those students receiving their acceptances, was discovered to have resorted to flagrantly nefarious means. According to The New York Times,the school falsified transcripts, made up student accomplishments and mined the worst stereotypes of black America to manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity. The [proprietors] also fostered a culture of fear with physical and emotional abuse, students and teachers said. Students were forced to kneel on rice, rocks and hot pavement, and were choked, yelled at and berated.” Local police began an investigation, which state police took over last December.

The Illinois “Clout List”

Heads rolled in the University of Illinois system 10 years ago after the revelation of a “clout list” bearing the names of applicants who had the advantage of politically powerful adults taking an interest in their applications. Those prospective students were classified as “Category I” and their files marked for special consideration. About 150 applicants each year, from a total of 25,000, were so designated, and an admissions official later testified that some of them were admitted over his objections to their poor academic qualifications. An investigation led to the resignation of the president and seven members of the board of trustees, with two others resisting the governor’s request for their resignation.

The Claremont McKenna SAT Embellishment

This episode didn’t affect or involve applicants directly, but it influenced public opinion about Claremont McKenna’s incoming freshmen. In 2012, the college admitted that for six years its dean of admissions had submitted false SAT scores to U.S. News and World Report in order to improve Claremont McKenna’s rankings. Math and critical reading scores were inflated by 10 points each, which doesn’t sound like much, but in the highly competitive ratings game, every little bit helps.

The Long Island ACT/SAT Subs

In 2011, investigators uncovered an elaborate SAT/ACT cheating ring that ended with charges being brought against 20 students from Long Island-–five of them for taking the tests for other students, and the other 15 for paying them to do it. Fake ID’s got the test-takers in, and $500 to $3,000 compensated them for their efforts. All 20 were charged with first-degree scheming to defraud, second-degree criminal impersonation, and first-degree falsification of business records. The test-taking services responded by developing new security measures, but the Varsity Blues scandal makes apparent either the inadequacy of those measures or the renewal of innovation among the wicked or both.

Harvard’s Wheeler Deal

admissions scandals

Delaware native Adam Wheeler was expelled from Bowdoin College in 2007 for plagiarism, but a plucky lad was Adam, and he sneered in the face of adversity and got busy. His application to Harvard claimed that he had graduated from Phillips Andover Academy and that he wished to transfer to Harvard after a year of perfect grades at MIT. Harvard obligingly believed him, helped along by falsified SAT scores and letters of recommendation, but Wheeler did not rest on his imaginary laurels after gaining admission. He claimed authorship of two books, co-authorship of four others, and command of multiple languages including Old Persian. Awards came his way, and he hauled in $14,000 in prizes, including a Rockefeller research grant, to go with $46,000 in financial aid. His undoing occurred when he applied for Rhodes and Fulbright Scholarships and a member of the judging committee found that Wheeler had plagiarized the work of one of that member’s colleagues. After his expulsion from Harvard, Wheeler used similar methods to gain admission to Stanford before the criminal investigation caught up with him. He pleaded guilty to fraud and larceny and got off with probation—until he violated its terms by continuing to claim that he was a Harvard student. In the end, his application to Harvard did double duty as his application for prison, which at last was accepted.

The story does have a happy ending: In the process of deciding on a suitable punishment for the notorious Ivy League Impostor, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts determined that Adam Wheeler was not mentally ill. Perhaps there’s a Hallmark movie in this, but Lori Loughlin will not be playing the role of Adam’s mom. Sorry.

MIT = Mighty Ironic Tale

A few months ago, when we brought you Meet the Deciders: College Admissions Officers and What They Do (October 27, 2018), it never occurred to us that any of those officers might have lied their way into their jobs. Now we learn that in 2007 the dean of admissions at MIT—one of the best-known and highly respected such officials in the country and the author of a best-selling and critically acclaimed book for students applying for college—resigned after 10 years in that post and 28 years at MIT, admitting that she had landed there by falsifying her own record. Claiming degrees from Albany Medical College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Union College, she had briefly attended one of those institutions and graduated from none of them, though she did have an undergraduate biology degree from the College of Saint Rose. She certainly proved to be resilient: Within two years of her resignation she had gone into private practice and established consulting relationships with multiple institutions of higher learning as well as providing admissions counseling to students and parents. She told The New York Times that none of them ever brought up her foul deed. 

If only Adam Wheeler had chosen MIT rather than Harvard. But of course he did claim to have left MIT. Maybe he was pretending to be offended on moral grounds.

No admissions scandals here. The Coaching Educator team is fully credentialed in the career services and education fields, and we work closely with school counselors.

The Coaching Educator deceives no one and is proud of its 10-year track record of helping students get into and succeed at the right college. We frown on embellishment and we don’t do our clients’ work for them, but we put our own knowledge to work for them as we teach them how to put their best foot forward. To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links in “Credits, References, and Recommendations” below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter who now operates Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS), he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

We hope you enjoyed “Under the Table and Over the Top: The Other College Admissions Scandals.” We also recommend these resources related to college admissions: 

Photos: Woman by PeopleImages, sign by sshepherd/Getty Images, Adam Wheeler by Bill Greene/Boston Globe

Carroll, Rebecca M., and Paul Culp. “Scams and Scandals in College Admissions” on The College Light Bulb, audio podcast, The Coaching Educator, http://tce.local/podcasts/, accessed 11 April 2019

Culp, Paul. “An Arm and a Leg and Your First-born Child: Why College Costs So Much,” The Coaching Educator, 6 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/06/an-arm-and-a-leg-and-your-first-born-child-why-college-costs-so-much/

Culp, Paul. “Beyond Tuition, Fees, and Books: The Other Costs of College,” The Coaching Educator, 7 June 2018,    http://tce.local/2018/06/07/beyond-tuition-fees-and-books-the-other-costs-of-college/

Culp, Paul. “Meet the Deciders: College Admissions Officers and What They Do,” The Coaching Educator, 27 October 2018, http://tce.local/2018/10/27/meet-the-deciders-college-admissions-officers-and-what-they-do/

Culp, Paul. “Scams, Scandals, School Counselors, and Us,” The Coaching Educator, 16 March 2019, http://tce.local/2019/03/16/scams-scandals-school-counselors-and-us/

Culp, Paul, “Technology, Intangibles, and the Brave New World of College Admissions,” The Coaching Educator, 29 May 2018, http://tce.local/2018/05/29/technology-intangibles-and-the-brave-new-world-of-college-admissions/

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