The College Admissions Scandal Hits the Bay Area
Admission impossible? The recent scandal outed wealthy parents—including 13 in the Bay Area—for paying millions to get their children into elite universities. As the dust settled, the controversy revealed a fundamentally inequitable higher education system and anxiety-ridden culture surrounding college admissions. What can be done going forward?
Illustration by Noah MacMillan
Millions of teens across the country are packing their bags, buying shower caddies, and preparing to embark on a new adventure: college. For most, this moment has been a long time coming.
“It all starts with SATs and ACTs your junior year,” says Andrew Torres, an incoming freshman at Northwestern University, who graduated from Campolindo High School in Moraga.
The pace picks up the summer before senior year, when students start researching schools, crafting their college lists, and drafting application essays. Torres applied to 12 schools, spending a little time on essays and applications each day from August to December during his senior year.
Torres’s classmate Katie Clare adopted a similar time-management approach, estimating she wrote 20 essays that took about three hours each—while also serving as student body president.
“Everyone always says that junior year is the most stressful year, but for me, it was the first semester of senior year because adding the college applications on top of all your schoolwork is just a lot, so it was really stressful,” says Clare, who accepted an offer from Northeastern University.
While this fall’s incoming freshmen were checking the mail for acceptance letters, national headlines revealed that dozens of parents had collectively paid about $25 million to The Key, a private college-counseling company, to get their children into elite universities—including Stanford; University of Southern California; University of California, Los Angeles; and University of San Diego—based on fraudulent academic and athletic achievements. The Key’s CEO, William “Rick” Singer, author of a book about college admissions called Getting In, helped students cheat on the SAT and ACT, staged photos of the teens engaging in sports they did not actually play, and bribed exam administrators and university coaches. Singer’s scheme targeted the wealthiest families, from actors and fashion designers to 13 Bay Area parents (including executives, entrepreneurs, and an oncologist) from Marin County, Palo Alto, and a handful of other cities in the South Bay and on the Peninsula that rank among the region’s 15 most expensive zip codes.
“The scandal across the country really shook at the complete foundation of higher education, because ultimately there is a sense that you earn admissions to these institutions based on merit,” says State Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco).
Ting introduced state bill AB697 to reform college admissions in the wake of the scandal. The proposal tightens restrictions on admissions offices by requiring at least three college administrators’ approval of special admissions for athletes and other applicants who don’t meet the school’s general admission requirements, and by mandating that Cal Grant schools report how many of those students are children of donors and alumni. Other related bills also aim to level the playing field by regulating private college consultants and requesting that Cal Grant schools reassess the effectiveness of the SAT and ACT. (In June, the UC system announced changes that include monitoring donations to prevent admissions based on financial gain, creating clearer documentation for admissions, and improving verification protocols.)
“What it demonstrated was that for families that are wealthy and have the means, many of them would stop at nothing to get their children in [to elite colleges],” Ting says.
The admissions scandal shattered the meritocratic ideal that hard work and perseverance are our society’s great equalizers, giving students of any background a chance at social mobility through higher education. At the same time, the story revealed a culture of intense pressure and competition surrounding college acceptance that has regrettably led to such extreme measures.
When the news broke, Torres was surprised that school officials cheated the system and got away with it. But the fact that wealthy parents would go to such lengths was no shocker.
“There’s definitely a level—especially in this community of Lamorinda—of parents having certain expectations, and they’re willing to take steps needed and interfere to get their kids into a certain college,” Torres says. (He clarifies that the interference he sees consists of parents leaning heavily to influence their teens’ college choices or making decisions for them.)
The Bay Area has a higher percentage of college graduates than anywhere else in the state; in the East Bay alone, nearly 800,000 people hold at least a bachelor’s degree. And, naturally, these parents want the best for their kids.
But there is a line, and private college counselor Purvi Mody says some parents cross it.
Mody is the owner and managing director of Insight Education, based in Cupertino, where counselors advise high school students on choosing classes, pursuing extracurricular interests, and ultimately, navigating college applications. Occasionally parents of middle school and elementary-age children call Mody’s office. Once she even heard from the parent of a 4-year-old.
Many kids grow up with “this idea that the college I go to is going to be an indication of success, and for parents, the college that my child goes to is an indication of my parenting success—which is not true at all,” Mody says. “But right now, it’s so tied to just this one process, this one piece of their life.”
The Name Game?
Insight’s counselors spend a lot of time helping high school seniors craft their college lists, striking the right balance of ambitious and achievable options, and choosing schools that best fit each student’s needs.
When Torres made his list, he based his search on the schools’ locations, academic programs, and names. “I know names mean good academics, but also good recognition and bragging rights—for example, a place like UCLA or Cal,” Torres says.
What’s in a name? The question is linked to the logic that drove parents to shell out as much as $6.5 million for one student’s admission to Stanford; for obvious reasons, no one embroiled in the admissions scandal paid to get their kid into a little-known university.
“When you’re a parent and you’re starting to investigate what colleges might be a good fit for your child, where do you start?” asks Stephanie Brady, the mother of a junior at Miramonte High School and another son who graduated. Her older son wanted to study computer science, so she started to Google university programs.
“Automatically, I’m looking at the top schools,” she says. “That’s just where I’m targeting, because if I type in ‘mediocre computer science schools,’ nothing is really going to pop up.”
As with cars, clothes, gadgets, and groceries, people associate brand names with quality. And universities are no different: They invest in marketing, just like Pepsi and Tesla do. In fact, American colleges and universities collectively spent $1.65 billion on advertising in 2016, surging more than 20 percent from 2013. So when students and their parents check out schools, those names spring to mind first. “I know some of those [elite] schools have well-known programs for certain things, but honestly, I’m not exactly clear on what most of them are known for. And I feel like everyone else kind of feels that way … but it’s another label to add to your résumé,” Clare says.
Granted, prestigious universities also earn recognition through rigorous academics, esteemed internship opportunities, and well-connected alumni networks. When students start job hunting, the influence of their school’s reputation can tip the scales in their favor.
Brady saw firsthand the power of brand-name schools when she worked on Wall Street, recruiting analysts for investment banking firms. “I was in a company where most of us went to the Ivies—that’s where we recruited from. How does that happen? As if they’re going to be the most qualified. But that’s what happens,” Brady says.
Pressure to Compete
Each year, U.S. News and World Report ranks the top colleges and universities in the country, based on student retention and graduation rates, class size, per-student spending, and other measures. Until 2019, rankings also factored in acceptance rates, lower rates equated to higher perceived prestige. (U.S. News removed this standard to make room for a metric indicating social mobility, based on the graduation rates of low-income students who received Pell Grants.)
The rankings create a frenzy of applications to the top 100 schools. Compounding the craze, the number of college applicants is steadily rising, and each year a larger portion of those students apply to seven or more schools. Headlines blaring stats about record-breaking application rates and fiercer-than-ever competition for admissions drive anxious high school students to take on more advanced-placement classes and extracurriculars than the class before them, raising the bar ever higher.
“Now [students need] a 4.3 GPA for UC Santa Barbara this year, so my 4.2 kids are wait-listed. That’s where the craziness comes in,” says Joan Batcheller, the college and career adviser at Campolindo High School. “They’ve worked so hard. You have a 4.2 [GPA], you’ve worked this hard, and you don’t get into your UCs. It’s just like, What the heck was it all for?”
The stress pushes many students to the edge. “I see so much more anxiety, depression—kids who are unable to sleep, kids having to take some kind of medicine to be able to cope through the day—so much more than I have in the past, and I think these are symptoms of the culture that’s been created,” Mody says.
The application process is so drawn out and students are surrounded by so many peers under the same pressure that Clare says she did not even notice how much the stress was weighing on her until it was over. “I’ve definitely felt the most relief that I’ve ever felt this week,” she says of the moment she made her decision to commit to Northeastern. “It was just part of my entire life this year, so it was affecting everything.”
A Back Door to College
While many high school students anxiously amble through the “front door” to college admissions—based on completing applications the old-fashioned way—the scandal shed light on the “side door” and “backdoor” routes accessible to fewer applicants.
The side door to college involves the kind of illegal activities uncovered in Singer’s scheme: cheating on tests, bribing officials, and falsifying records. Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill—where thousands of East Bay high school graduates start their college careers before transferring to schools across the UC and California State University systems, making it California’s top-ranked community college for transfers—faced its own side-door scandal in 2007. That year, 54 students were charged in a cash-for-grades scheme that involved replacing Fs with As on official transcripts. Unlike the recent scandal, it was not parents but the DVC students who paid student employees as much as $600 per grade change to boost their chances of transferring to elite four-year universities.
The backdoor method, however, is perfectly legal. But only the children of alumni and wealthy school donors (often endowing millions of dollars) have the key. “The founding of colleges in the United States was directed toward the sons of the elite. That’s been the nature of college admissions since the very beginning,” says Anthony Lising Antonio, an associate professor of education at Stanford.
The most glaringly inequitable legal practice is legacy admissions, says Ting. Although the United States has historically prided itself on being a land of opportunity, where good fortune is awarded based on hard work and not heredity, Ting says legacies are a blatant contradiction. “You get preferential treatment based on only one thing: what family you were born into,” he says. “It’s like doing a 50-yard dash, but somebody gets to start at the 30-yard line. Who’s going to win?”
On the other end of the spectrum are students who not only take the front-door route, but must essentially figure out how to unlock the gate to get there.
Highly qualified students from low-income families are one third as likely to enroll in selective colleges as high-achieving students from wealthier families, restricting social mobility for the best and the brightest from lower-earning households.
In middle school and high school, Alitzel Blanco and her sister caught the bus near their Bay Point home every morning at 6 a.m. to get to College Park High School in Pleasant Hill by 7:30, because it offered more programs and better student support than nearby schools.
“At my high school, it seemed like nothing else was encouraged but going to college, which was nice,” says Blanco, explaining that her friends who attended schools closer to Bay Point had vastly different experiences.
Whereas Blanco needed an interdistrict transfer and a long commute to seize the opportunities at College Park, access to high-performing public schools is just one advantage available to privileged families. These schools generally have more qualified and veteran teachers, more advanced classes, and more extracurriculars—like Model United Nations and robotics clubs—that can sweeten college applications. Off-campus, students are also better positioned to benefit from expensive academic and leadership-oriented summer programs, and their families are better able to pay for tutors, test prep, athletic trainers, private college advisers, and trips for campus tours.
“So you’re seeing all of these advantages pile up,” Antonio says. And that’s before filling out a single college application.
To save money on tuition, Blanco started out taking classes at DVC; this fall she will attend UC Berkeley to study anthropology. Without the advantage of an affluent family and the resources that come with it, Blanco says low-income students have to exploit their hardships in application and scholarship essays to edge their way into top colleges.
“It’s really embarrassing having to expose my life just to get into these places, and to have to prove myself worthy because I’m poor or because I’m low-income,” she says. “It’s almost like, to get into these colleges, you either have to be rich or traumatized and willing to talk about it.”
Making It Through
If Torres could give high school seniors any advice in the months ahead, it would be to not procrastinate on applications.
Batcheller’s suggestion: Be realistic about the college experience. Just like life, it’s rarely a fairy tale.
“They have an ideal of what college is, but at the end of the day, you’re still going to class, you’re still taking midterms, you still have mean girls, all that stuff,” Batcheller says. “You still have to find your way through it.”
This year’s college freshmen somehow made it through the imperfect admissions process, and as they forge ahead they can only hope—for the benefit of future classes—that shake-ups like the recent scandal help bring reform to what most agree is an inherently flawed system.
“It’s kind of upsetting, but at the same time I don’t really blame those individuals [implicated in the scandal], because it’s not really their fault,” Blanco says. “In my perspective, it’s the system overall that allows rich people to get away with anything.”
Are You a Snowplow Parent?
Move over, hovering helicopter parents and tough-loving tiger parents. The new form of hyperinvolved child rearing is snowplow parenting, which entails clearing away obstacles to prevent children from facing frustrations and failures. Here are a few telltale signs that your helping hand is edging on snowplowing.
1. You step in to help on homework or projects to save your child from low grades.
2. You blame your kid’s teacher for a bad grade.
3. You often reach out to your child’s school staff about issues.
4. You write, overedit, or micromanage college applications for your teen.
5. You solicit letters of recommendation for your child from influential friends.
Experts advise parents to support their teens during the stressful college application process, but to be mindful of when their eagerness for their kids to succeed can hinder them from developing crucial self-reliance and resiliance skills—and possibly even become a crime.