A High Schooler’s Take on the College Admissions Scam

Illustration by Alicia Tatone for GQ

News broke on Tuesday that the Justice Department is charging fifty people in a college scam, including thirty-three parents and numerous college sports coaches. The scam was orchestrated by William Singer, the founder of a college-prep business known as The Key  which allowed students to score higher on SAT and ACT exams. Parents paid up to $75,000 to have test proctors correct their children’s test answers or give them answers. One child claimed he had a learning disability and took a test with a proctor that gave him the score he needed. In other situations, Singer bribed college coaches and administrators into allowing applicants into their colleges as athletes. He created false athlete profiles, even going as far to Photoshop applicants’ faces onto photographs of other athletes.

When I first saw the news, I was appalled by how much the parents were paying to get their children into schools, and how matter-of-factly they committed these crimes. The scale of the scam was disgustingly large, too—at least fifty complicit people in six different states, and too many undeserving, privileged students. My friends and I weren’t too surprised about the scam, and we had a good laugh about it—the Photoshop, the celebrity children—but it’s as frustrating as it is humorous. We had all taken the SAT, and it wasn’t a walk in the park. Standardized exams like the SAT and ACT feel like high-stake tests that determine so much of our future. No one is going to raise our scores. And aside from how unfair it is to everyone else, there’s another moral aspect to this scam: the parents have no respect for their own children’s integrity. All they cared about was sending their children to a good school, for their own personal satisfaction, for the prestige and their children’s future. They didn’t care that they made cheaters out of their kids, and maybe their kids didn’t care either.     

I thought about the daily struggle I and other students go through—worrying about exam scores and college admissions, waiting for acceptance letters. I thought about how hard normal people have to work to get into a college, how we actually have to study and try. The way I see it, those who paid and scammed their way into top colleges stole other people’s rightful opportunities. It is not yet clear whether college admissions officers rejected qualified students to accept the scammer students, but the principle remains that the students who had to scam their way into being accepted have no right to be students at their schools. More deserving, qualified applicants should have been accepted in their place.

Most of the time, these are students who care less about education and more about partying, which is another reason they don’t deserve to be there. High school, after all, is already filled with people like that—imagine watching them getting accepted into top universities. It’s laughable but also really messed up. It’s a waste of school resources to give these kinds of students the prestige and honor of going to top universities.The same goes for legacy students who get accepted based on alumni connections. You’d think this would all be illegal, but it happens all the time. In 2012, a black mother was jailed and charged for lying about her residency so she could send her six-year-old son to a good elementary school.

Life is tilted toward privilege and the college game is rigged; this has always been true. But we should still be seething about this. For some of us, after all, it feels like the college we go to will determine our whole life. We stress over school for the entirety of our formative years, all in the hopes of achieving a higher education and with it, hopefully, a higher standard of life. We work and work to make our college applications and resumes just how the universities want it. But cases like these make me tired and angry, because millions of students—myself included—are struggling to get into their dream colleges while the children of rich people are essentially guaranteed acceptance with a hefty check.

Will things change? Probably not. I didn’t feel there was a “Justice has been served!” moment that came out of the case. The people charged definitely got what they deserved, but there’s a long history of unfair college admissions that I had come to accept as the norm. So, while it is annoying and just morally wrong, I’m not letting the scam bother me. The system almost universally favors the rich, and a few charges won’t immediately change that. What I am hopeful for, though, is a higher level of investigation into college admissions. We should demand more concrete legislation to make college a fair playing field. No more acceptances based on legacy or donations. This situation shouldn’t discourage future applicants from at least trying. The scale seems tilted against us, but we have to demand fairness and equal opportunity. And, while we’re at it—if people cheat, do standardized exams even matter anymore?   

By Hannah Yang

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