College Admission Scandal: Symptom of a Larger Problem


The college admission scandal that saturated the press this week made me think of a disturbing anecdote, which I heard last month, that blew my mind.

I want to emphasize that shocking me is tough to do since covering the higher-ed industry – and it is very much an industry – has made me quite cynical and disgusted about how the college admission process works.

College admissions is clearly rigged in favor of the rich and powerful against everybody else.

My conversation was with a mom, who runs in extremely elite circles. She told me about a friend of hers who was desperate to get her oldest child into a private high school in California that is known as a pipeline for elite universities.

When the private high school rejected the teenager’s application, the mom and dad tried something different. Through an intermediary, the parents offered to donate $5 million to the school.


Two hours after the offer was made, the teenager received an acceptance. (In case you’re wondering, the parents didn’t even try to bribe at a lower amount!)

College Admissions and the Wealthy

Extremely rich parents don’t need to play by the rules and I’m not just talking about lawbreakers!

Sadly, too many of these parents see their self-worth linked tightly to their own children’s success. And they define success in quite cramped and pathetic terms: the wow factor of the college sweatshirt that their kids will be wearing when the college hunt is finished.

Here are some thoughts on this problem:

Colleges favor students born on third base.

No admission directors were implicated in the schemes. College coaches were the ones who got caught. That said, admission directors do favor the wealthy and privileged.

An eye-opening 2017 article in The New York times documented this favoritism.

The article discovered that 38 elite schools, including some caught up in the current scandal, have more students enrolled from the top one percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.

If you check out the article, you can type in the name of any state or private college and see how many one percenters attend any institution that interests you.

Here is a screenshot that show the schools that attract the most one percenters:

Here is something else the The New York Times discovered:

Roughly one in four of the students in households with the top 0.1 percent of income attend an elite college – universities that typically cluster toward the top of annual U.S. News & World Report rankings.

In contrast, less than one-half of one percent of children from the bottom fifth of American families attend an elite college; less than half attend any college at all.

The allure of full pays.

People gripe about affirmative action, but affirmative action overwhelmingly favors rich teenagers. You don’t have to be as accomplished if mom and dad makes a lot of money.

Schools love to attract what they call “full pay” (I.e. rich) students. Most colleges must give these children merit scholarships to attend their schools, but the most elite don’t.

These schools aren’t dummies – they know that parents are desperate to get their kids into the U.S. News’ darlings and they will pay any price.

The super rich can start at the development office.

A book published back in 2006, and still very much relevant, captured many ways rich students are treated preferentially. He revealed, for instance, that some wealthy parents simply start the admission process by heading to the development office with promises of a hefty donation.

You may want to check it out:

The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges–and who Gets Left Outside the Gates

The author is Dan Golden, a journalist who won a Pulitizer Prize on the subject for The Wall Street Journal.

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Golden remarked that some rich parents treated his book as a how-to-guide to game the college admission system!

News articles since the current scandal broke suggests that the donation required for an easy admission at some elite schools has risen. A $10 million donation might not be a guarantee at some elite schools.

The thirst for prestige is insatiable.

Harvard and a few others could charge $1 million a year for tuition and they would still turn away most applicants.

Test-optional practices favor affluent families.

When colleges roll out test-optional policies, they like to emphasize that this will boost the diversity of their campuses.

That’s because SAT and ACT scores are highly correlated with income. Teenagers with a household income of $200,000, for instance, will, on average, have higher test scores than students whose parents make $150,000 and on down the income ladder.

Peer-reviewed research by my friend Andrew Belasco, the CEO of College Transition, however, suggests that colleges tend to be no more diverse than before they roll out their test-optional policies.

The practice, however, does benefit colleges by increasing applications and boosting published test scores. The practice also favors high-income students, who can pay full price while keeping their mediocre test scores private.

Here is my blog post from back in 2014 when the research came out:

There is a reason why schools inquire about parents.

Ever wonder why the Common Application wants to know the identity of the parents’ occupation and the colleges they are attended?

A parent who got an MBA at Harvard University and is now a venture capitalist is going to be more attractive to a school than a parent who got an associate degree and is a dental hygienist.

And schools can discriminate against those who need help. Parents are understandably freaked out by a question on the Common Aopplication that asks if the family intends to apply for financial aid.

No school would admit that answering yes to the aid question will jeopardize admission chances, but it certainly happens.

Don’t expect anything positive to happen.

Some people are hoping that this scandal will encourage schools to examine their practices that are so heavily weighted towards helping those who don’t need it.

In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Todd Rinehart, the vice chancellor for enrollment at the University of Denver, said that after the scandal broke he was encouraged to see many of his peers double down on their promises to examine and remove barriers to low-income students.

I wish I could be encouraged, but I’m not.

The wealthiest universities in the country that could end legacy admissions and accept more “normal” students haven’t done it.

These institutions have always catered to the powerful and the wealthy. Despite what they say, it’s their mission.

Stop stressing!

Rich parents need to stop thinking that they have failed as a parent if their children don’t attend an elite research university.

Conveying this attitude towards a child, even if it’s unspoken, is toxic. And, yes, heart breaking.

This, by the way,  is only a preoccupation of parents from very affluent communities.

Learn more…

If you want to learn more about this topic, The Chronicle of Higher Education has gathered what its staff has written in a special report. Some of it is only for subscribers, but a lot is available to anyone.

Admission Through the Side Door

Fight Back!

Okay, so you don’t have millions to get the attention of some Harvard big-wig. Big deal.

The best way to level the college admission playing field is to take my course – The College Cost Lab. Join now and you’ll start becoming a smart college consumer IMMEDIATELY!


Let's Connect

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  1. Hi Lynn,
    GREAT post with some very valuable resources to reference. I had to laugh for a moment when you wrote about some people being hopeful that the scandal will bring about some changes in the world of college admissions. I just this week posted on my college admissions related blog about just that! If you have a minute, please check it out at:
    I acknowledge that we will likely not see the degree of change that we hope for but let’s hope it at least encourages conversations and efforts towards change for the better for all of our sake! As a former Director of College Counseling at a private high school in Los Angeles and current Independent Educational Consultant, I can say from first-hand experience that to say things have gotten out of hand would be putting it lightly!


  2. What’s sad is that these wealthy kids would probably do well in life no matter where they went to school. Heck, they could even skip college and their parents could give them money to start a business!

    One of the girls whose parents were involved in the scandal, already had a cosmetics line and was an instagram influencer…and she said she didn’t care about school. Why did she have to go to college?

  3. Lynn,
    I know I’m late to the game on this one,BUT I wanted to share my thoughts. The family that gave $5MM to a private high school would have done better to home school their son/daughter, and fund a charter school which would have made a better impact on more children and well as their child. That’s the sad part. $5mm GOING TO WASTE.

    AND possibly the son/daughter could have learned how to set up a charter school, and would have had a far better resume-enhancer for college, by simply stating why a rich family chose to do so. And the child would have had a better real-world education. Either way, when you have that much money, teach your children the importance of doing better things with wealth.

  4. Pingback: College Admission Scandal: Insights from a national college planning expert | Certified Financial Planner Minneapolis Minnesota

  5. Pingback: College Acceptance Rates Are Not the Same for All Students – College Search Simplified

  6. I am surprised that we are shocked, it should not be a surprise that education or the lure of a piece of paper that states that you attended a highly regarded college are in demand.

    The cost of college has risen so dramatically over the past 40 years that people want to differentiate themselves and are willing to pay.

    Why is the cost of college not the topic of conversation? Lynn, do you know how much the cost of college has risen over the past 40 or 50 years?

    Every school has a fund raising drive to build new buildings, athletic facilities, start new programs and to pay for the professors salaries.

    Why do professors make so much money? Why do administrators make so much money?

    What are the average salaries of professors? Administrators?

  7. Lynn,
    Thanks so much for this honest, insightful discussion. Another tool of the elite colleges (to satisfy the super wealthy, priviledged, legacies and well-connected) is to admit a few select candidates to start in January of the Freshman year to fill spots after a few expected attendees have elected gap years, dropped out or attended elsewhere. Amazing.

    On a different note, another serious fallout of last week’s news is students with disabilities–who did follow tough rules to get accommodations (such as extended time) on the ACT and SAT—will now likely need to travel great distances to take tests at “approved testing sites” with carefully monitored “test administrators.” ACT and SAT will likely tighten testing conditions for accommodations.

    Love your work.

    1. I am here to state that in 2018 my daughter with a disability and IEP from her public high school for severe post-concussion syndrome was denied twice accomodation by the College Board. This was last summer and we apealed it in the Fall 2018. We had many test results and evaluation reports from doctors, neuropsychological testing and other medical professionals to back up her application and the need for extra time to take the SAT. The college councilor at the school could not even believe it as in past years such requests for accomodation had gone through no problem.

  8. It’s a shame that this scandal will reinforce the idea that college is unaffordable and out of reach. While certain elite institutions generally are, higher education beyond the Ivies is increasingly a buyers’ market. Over the next decade, there will be fewer young people to apply. Lesser-known colleges are already feeling the strain. The new, and probably last building on my kid’s campus (UPS, in Washington State) is a “welcome center” to host campus visits. Maybe a series of stories on this trend is in order?

  9. I often wonder how these kids (who bought their admission to an elite school) fare after they’ve been admitted. Does the bias towards privileged kids extend to the professors and others who are handing out grades ?

    For example if you are a B student with a 19 on the ACT, how can you compete at a school where most kids had straight As in high school and have ACTs in the 30’s?

    I think this scandal just scratches the surface.

    1. Post

      Hi Mike,

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t think an elite school would take a student with that low of an ACT. What you need to remember though is that the most common grade at some Ivies is an “A.” Students and their parents often feel entitled to these grades since they managed to beat the odds and got into these prestigious institutions. A retired Duke professor did a lot of research on this and concluded that much of the hardest grading is happening at non-selective state schools.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  10. As usual Lynn, you hit the nail on the head. I work with this problem all the time. It is worse for my international students. Attending a top 50 school is a matter of honor and family name. It is tradition and something that will probably not be broken in our lifetime.