Side door entry

| Updated on March 21, 2019 Published on March 21, 2019

The college admission scam in the US

US Federal prosecutors filed charges on March 12 against 33 well-to-do parents for having used bribes, manipulated entrance tests, and used fake athletic achievements for securing admission for their wards into prestigious US universities.

Parents paid an admissions consultant, Williams Rick Singer, who then bribed coaches in the athletics programmes at the universities to take in students under sports quotas even though they were not proficient in the sport, bribed administrators, paid substitutes to take college entrance exams, and paid people at test centres to look the other way. The amounts involved run into thousands of dollars and since the scandal broke, many of the parents involved, who are film and television celebrities, CEOs of companies and senior executives, have resigned their jobs.

The universities involved include Yale University, Stanford University, Georgetown University and the University of Southern California. In a conversation made public, Singer says that the front door entrance is for those who can get in through merit; the back-door entrance is for those who use institutional connections but this does not guarantee admission. He claimed to have a ‘side door’ method that guarantees results. In some cases, he would use a Harvard University graduate who was so good at taking entrance tests that he would substitute for the student, and get a score high enough to get admission but not too high to attract attention.

A college admission scam was the start of what brought down South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye in 2017. Her close friend, Choi Soon-sil, used her influence to get her daughter into a prestigious university and also pressured the officials to give her grades for exams she did not take. Investigation into this scandal revealed a whole network of bribes and influence peddling by the president and her friend, also involving Samsung’s founding family.

South Korean and US officials need to be complimented for they did not let the status of the perpetrators come in the way of making them face justice. In the US, it began with a tip in an unrelated case. A financial executive who was being investigated in a financial fraud volunteered the information that Yale University’s sports coach offered to secure admission for the executives’ daughter, in the hope that this tip would get him lenient treatment in the financial case. The US investigation involved multiple agencies, and lasted about 10 months beginning in 2018. By nabbing Singer and getting him to cooperate (he is pleading guilty), they have secretly recorded transactions and conversations with the parents and others to ensure evidence for convictions.Many opportunities seem to be available only when you graduate from prestigious universities. When the front door is too difficult, people look for the back door or the side door. It is people in positions of influence who are able to use these methods, which perpetuates the inequality in society.

What do the students involved think about all this? You may recall the case of Ruby Rai, the student in the 2016 Bihar school exam scandal, who was famously quoted as saying, ‘I told papa to get me passed (sic) but they went ahead and made me topper.’ Interviews with the students in the US admissions scandal have not been reported as yet, and one can be reasonably sure that like Ruby, they have not been tainted by high standards of moral behaviour. When society places inordinate importance on status and economic success, can we expect anything different?

The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston

Published on March 21, 2019

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