Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire: The College Admissions Scandal


Sarah Healy

When Irene* came home for spring break, she was welcomed by numerous friends joking about her parents paying her way into Stanford University. Though she had read about the recent college admissions scandal, in which federal prosecutors charged over 50 people for participating in a scheme to get the children of wealthy parents into college, she still felt shocked and frustrated that people were joking about the legitimacy of her acceptance.

“People didn’t realize the impact of what they were saying,” Irene said. “Students, especially from Harvard-Westlake, work really hard both academically and in their extracurriculars throughout high school and ultimately to find their place in college. By excessively joking about paying one’s way into college, we ignore all the hard work that we as students do.”

According to court documents, parents collectively paid around 25 million dollars to William “Rick” Singer, a private admissions counselor, to gain students admission into schools like the University of California Los Angeles, the University of Southern California, Yale, Georgetown and Stanford by paying off exam administrators and college coaches.

No parent of a current Harvard-Westlake student or graduate has been charged, but Harvard-Westlake received subpoenas from federal investigators requesting the records of two alumni.

While the scandal may not affect specific students on campus, Cynthia*, a current junior, said she is worried that colleges will be more critical of the applications of students from elite private schools like Harvard-Westlake.

“If anything, I am more nervous to apply to colleges because I just think that there is going to be more attention or focus on specific schools like us,” Cynthia said. “I think people are going to watch more closely at kids who come from economically-advantaged schools and check their applications more in-depth and maybe even be more critical.”

The scandal restarted conversations about the role of privilege in college admissions, bringing more attention to students with access to advanced tutoring services and the use of out of school college counseling, as seen in an article in the New York Times. In a Chronicle poll of 277 students, 30 percent said they use or plan to use an out of school college counselor.

Anne*, a current senior, said that unlike most students, the students implicated in the scandal never had to face the stress and pressure of legitimately applying to college.

“You have to throw everything you can onto basically one piece of paper, and colleges spend maybe five minutes max reading it and discussing over your application that you spent hours and hours on,” Anne said. “That was terrifying and emotional. These people were all shoved-under-the-carpet secrets. These people never actually had to work to get anything they have wanted.”

Former Harvard-Westlake dean and English teacher Caitlin Flanagan wrote an article in The Atlantic titled “They Had It Coming” in which she described her experience as a college counselor at a private school. In an interview with The Chronicle, she said that she had to deal with powerful parents with unreasonable expectations.

“Even the most sensitive and thoughtful parents did not realize how much pressure they were putting on their kids when they allowed the college process to dominate their own lives, and when they worked hard to leverage every favor, connection, [and] donation to help their kids get into one of the ‘best’ colleges,” Flanagan said. “It’s a heavy burden to go through junior and senior year at Harvard-Westlake believing that if you do not get admitted to the right colleges it will be a blow to your parents.”

Acceptance rates at top colleges, including those targeted in the scandal, have decreased steadily in recent years, underscoring the increasing competitiveness of admissions. Yale and USC, for example, reported record-low acceptance rates of 5.91 percent and 11 percent this year, according to the New York Times.

Interdisciplinary Studies and Independent Research Teacher and Counselor Michelle Bracken said that she was not surprised by the details revealed in the scandal.

“I think that these type of things have gone on for a long time,” Bracken said. “They have probably gone on in legal ways and in illegal ways and people just haven’t been caught. I do not think that it is the first time that this has happened.”

Additionally, in a Chronicle poll of 247 students, 85 percent of respondents said their perception of Harvard-Westlake has not changed since the college scandal news broke. Philip Moon ‘20 said that Harvard-Westlake’s transparency and cooperation with the FBI reflects its credibility.

“Harvard-Westlake’s openness and willingness to cooperate with the ongoing investigation and lack of new allegations, if anything, would strengthen our credibility,” Moon said. “I think it is justified for the FBI to subpoena these elite, private schools because that is just where you are going to find the richest families. It should not offend people because that is just their job.”

Flanagan said the scandal also exposed some systematic flaws in the admissions system, including the lack of oversight for recruited athletes. Many of the students implicated in the scandal gained acceptance through posing as recruited athletes.

“I must say I have been surprised that admissions officers at extremely selective colleges — including Yale and Georgetown — were asleep at the switch when it came to these athletic ‘recruits,’” Flanagan said. “It just reinforces the gathering sense that sports rule the college process, and that even some of the most careful admissions officers in the country have an almost ‘hands off’ approach when it comes to athletes.”

Similarly, Cynthia said she was surprised that colleges didn’t verify applicant information.

“I thought that the college process, in general, was a lot fairer than it really is,” Cynthia said. “I thought [colleges] ensured the validity of all applications.”

Bracken said that while many condemn the actions of those involved, when presented with the opportunity to gain admission through unfair advantage, whether it is proctoring a test for money or getting into a prestigious school, it may be hard to predict what people will do.

“Everybody that I have a conversation with says, ‘oh, I wouldn’t do that,’” Bracken said. “It is easy to say if you don’t have those means. But it is also easy to say, ‘if I was in that situation, who knows what my moral compass would be.’”

Administration and faculty have decided to not comment on the scandal, but Head of School Rick Commons addressed the events in a school-wide email, telling the community that the morals and behavior of those involved do not reflect those prioritized at Harvard-Westlake.

“I have absolute confidence in the honesty of our deans, the accuracy of the information they provide to colleges, and their focus on personal character in the guidance they provide our students,” Commons said.

Flanagan said the FBI wouldn’t have asked for past transcripts from Harvard-Westlake unless there was a serious suspicion of misbehavior. However, she was disappointed with the school’s implication that it was the deans, rather than the parents, who were in any way involved with the scandal.

“I guarantee you the school is not involved,” Flanagan said. “This is the FBI, exercising the powers of the RICO Act, which was developed to crush organized crime, specifically the Mafia. The very rich, very entitled, and very unethical parents who participated in the scheme have finally come up against a force they can’t dominate.”

*Names have been changed.