What would you do to get into the college of your dreams? Or, more accurately, what would your parents do?
Hire someone to take admissions tests? Photoshop your face onto the body of an athlete? Bribe a coach? That’s what the Justice Department charged 50 people with Tuesday, in the nation’s largest-ever college admissions indictment.
People have been trying to game the system for a long time, so in a sense, this isn’t anything new. Rather, it’s a new window into the lengths the ultra-privileged will go for a name brand degree.
Among the guests On Point's Meghna Chakrabarti spoke to was Jon Reider, former Stanford admissions officer.
He was in on the admittance process, specifically connected to one of the schools mentioned in the Justice Department announcement, though not during the scandal timeline outlined in the indictment.
Reider worked in Stanford admissions from 1985-2000. Rick Singer, the alleged criminal mastermind and founder of Edge College & Career Network, is said to have been operating from 2011 to February 2019 in the scope of the Justice Department's investigation.
Still, Reider was able to share insight and his opinions on the workings — and moral and legal question marks — of elite admissions.
On whether he's ever encountered Rick Singer
"I never met him. I've never seen him in action. But I had heard of him. And I had heard — when he was originally in Sacramento, before he was in Southern California, and this was back in the '90s — that he was bragging in public very often that he could get kids into Stanford, that he had a special feel for Stanford and access to people at Stanford. That was clearly not true. No one in the admissions office has ever heard of him. He used the former president of Stanford and a member of the State Board of Education, who had gone to Stanford, had two degrees from Stanford, as his buddy. And we contacted — I instigated this, through the admissions office — these people and said, 'This guy is using your name, and I don't think you want to have your name used, because I don't think he's doing a this in a legitimate way.' And they both insisted, these two people, that they didn't want to be associated with him.
"He had a mythical advisory board. ... He had made up this advisory board and put these people on it. And they didn't even know about it, and they didn't know anything about his work, and they didn't want to be."
The two men Reider is referring to are former Stanford President Donald Kennedy, who served from 1980-1992, and Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education (ACE), former president of Occidental College and former president of the California State Board of Education.
Kennedy could not be reached for comment.
Mitchell released this statement on admissions cheating allegations via the ACE:
"If these allegations are true, they violate the essential premise of a fair and transparent college admissions process. This alleged behavior is antithetical to the core values of our institutions, defrauds students and families, and has absolutely no place in American higher education."
"He was bragging in public very often that he could get kids into Stanford, that he had a special feel for Stanford and access to people at Stanford. That was clearly not true. No one in the admissions office has ever heard of him."Jon Reider
On how the admissions office protected against false or fraudulent behavior
"It's a very complicated process. The process, because it's so large, depends on an enormous amount of trust. You have to trust your fellow admissions officers. You have to trust the coaches, which really failed in this case. But the coaches say, 'This kid is a place kicker.' Well, you're not going to have a video of him kicking the ball. You're going to take the coach's word."
On whether anyone reported Singer to officials at Stanford
"Who were you reporting to? There was no indication. I had no knowledge that he was pulling any of this, the clearly illegal shenanigans that he's been doing more recently. All I knew was he was bragging. As I told somebody else yesterday, he went from bragging to bribing. I didn't know he was doing anything illegal like this. And we were always very suspicious of any applicant who looked like they'd had contact with an independent counselor. If there was any indication that there was independent counselor involved, we were very skittish. But the trouble is the files were sanitized and you didn't know.
"I remember one occasion where I knew, because it was a local child that I had an indirect connection to, I knew she had used an independent counselor, who was good, was ethical. I didn't have a complaint with that person. But the application showed absolutely no evidence of it. It was very well put-together and was very convincing, and the kid got in. I don't think again anything immoral was done."
On the moral question of major donations, and whether they should serve as leverage for helping students' admissions prospects
"When [Dan Golden's] book ["The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates"] came out, a woman I know who's an independent counselor had gone to Harvard on scholarship, and she objected to the book. And she said, 'All those rich people who gave money to Harvard provided scholarships so I could go there for nothing.' And so the moral use or misuse of the donations is an interesting question. And to me it's not quite as cut and dry as as it's been portrayed. Clearly what's been done in this case is illegal and way beyond the pale, and I think it's very different from somebody endowing a professorship, or scholarship, or something. They're actually getting something good with their money."
On working as director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School — and students at the bottom of the class who got into elite colleges
"This is one of the wealthiest families in America. They're a nice family. And the kid was not very interested in school, and he probably had ability but he never used it. And the mother was both an alum of a college and she was, I believe, chair of the capital campaign. I ran into the dean of admissions at that school at a national admissions conference, and we knew each other, just the way people know each other in the profession. And I said, 'You know, we've got this kid probably coming your way.' He just kind of grinned, and winced, and shrugged. And said, 'Yeah, I know. We'll deal with it when that time comes.' And they did. And they took the kid. I wasn't surprised. I didn't make a fuss. He took a year off and did something worthwhile for himself and then went to the college. I want to stress it was not, by the way, an Ivy League college, but it was a well-known, very reputable place.
"But you know, I was there 18 years and that happened at that level once. I think it's a mistake to see this as kind of everybody is using this — to quote Rick Singer — using the side door, or what he called the back door, which is giving a lot of money. It's not very common. So you have a class of a hundred kids a year, and maybe there were two at that level."
"We're the only country in the world that has a standardized test that has nothing to do with high school curriculum."Jon Reider
On how he would overhaul the system if he had his say
"I have fantasized for years about what I would do if I were somehow the czar of the college admissions world — which there is no such person. And that's the first thing. It's terribly decentralized. Every college does exactly what it wants in its own interests — occasionally, in the general interest but mainly in its own interest. And that is as true at the elite schools as it is at state universities and small colleges that are struggling financially. There's a national admissions organization and they have rules, that you're not supposed to bribe people.
"Here a couple of things that I would do which would at least begin to address the inequality that Dan Golden correctly has identified. First of all, I would abolish standardized testing. We're the only country in the world that has a standardized test that has nothing to do with high school curriculum, although the College Board and ACT claim that it does, but it's not. It's independent of colleges. We're the only country that seems to need this. It is clearly biased in favor of the wealthy. The system works that way.
"Second, I would get rid of early decision and early action, which is another wrinkle which advantages the wealthy with good counselors — hopefully like me — that say apply early because you get an advantage. The colleges are very clear that there's an advantage. Some colleges take 50 percent of their class early decision.
"And we should the number of applications you can make. The English do that. In Britain, you can only apply to five colleges, you can't apply to both Oxford and Cambridge. Suppose we had a system where you could only apply — America is bigger than Britain — so, 8, 10, I don't care. Pick a number."
Alex Schroeder adapted this interview for the web.