​Big Scam on Campus

The university admissions scandal points to problems in how colleges evaluate student applicants.

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​Corporate executives and entertainment celebrities are 50 individuals charged with bribing university administrators and coaches, and cheating on entrance exams to get their children admitted to elite U.S. universities, according to news reports. Admissions consultant William Singer has pleaded guilty to charges that he took in $25 million through a charitable foundation that was a front for guaranteeing acceptances.

One part of the scheme involved bribing college entrance exam administrators to facilitate cheating on those tests and paying other individuals to take the exams for their children, the U.S. Justice Department alleges. Other parents allegedly paid coaches to designate their children as athletic recruits to increase their chances of being admitted. Some of those "athletes" had not played the sports competitively. Several of the universities have fired or suspended coaches and administrators charged in the scheme.

Lessons Learned

Most of the attention on this story has focused on the perpetrators of admissions application fraud: wealthy parents, college coaches, and admissions consultants. Looking at what happened more systematically, however, it is the academic institutions that need to re-evaluate their admissions policies and procedures to ensure that all applicants are assessed adequately. Colleges should strive toward as transparent and purely merit-based an admissions system as possible.

This kind of review and re-assessment also should be an opportunity to both streamline the applications process and make it more probable to spot admissions fraud earlier. The application process in the U.S. is complicated, with varying requirements by school, program, and level of education for both domestic and international students. Universities require many documentation types such as letters of recommendation, SAT scores, personal essays and statements, and high school transcripts with grade point averages.

Here are some elements for review, with the help of internal auditors:

  • Review how applicant documentation and testing is conducted to better authenticate who the applicants are. Admissions assessors need to gain as much insight into an applicant as possible, but admissions consultants can make that job nearly impossible. Universities should maximize the use of video or in-person interviews of applicants to detect impersonation, plagiarism, or other forms of fraud.

    There are specialized types of software that add an interactive video and written component to the admissions application. A typical assessment comprises three to five video and written questions, presented in random order, that are randomly selected by assessors from a pool. Applicants only have one chance to answer each question. The interviews can be conveniently done via webcam or smartphone.

    Assessors can compare these timed responses with other materials applicants submitted earlier in the application process. A large discrepancy may indicate that the applicant used a consultant or other substitute for his or her admissions essay or other documentation. If group or individual testing is conducted, universities should cross-match required proof of identification to prevent substitutes. This should include checking whether documentation such as a driver's license has been tampered with.
  • Scrutinize applications material carefully for signs of plagiarism. Universities and auditors can use software and other techniques to efficiently scan large quantities of information. Such techniques have been used in other types of organizations to detect fraudulent internet sellers and reviewers.

    Universities should scan all — not just suspicious looking — applicant résumés, personal statements, and written essays to identify similarities with other written work on the web. Such scans are particularly important now that it is easy to access this material online and admissions consultants have become prevalent. The software can assemble a report containing samples of different suspect types to aid assessors and supervisors in deciding what steps to take next.
  • Set, monitor, and enforce clear standards for the role of admissions consultants and essay-writing services. There are many legitimate services that can be provided, such as proofreading and editing student essays, but having a third party write an admissions essay or recommendation letter is fraud. Writing students' entire admissions application for them or coaching them through the application from start to finish is unacceptable. For example, less scrupulous consultants will ask applicants where they are applying and help them develop a custom, often perfect-looking strategy to apply for that school.

    Putting in place more rigorous requirements for these services could help reduce the problem. Examples of requirements are background checks on consultants, certification, and specific declarations in the applications process.
  • Communicate anti-fraud and anti-plagiarism measures to the public, particularly at the start of the application process. Such communication could include an "admissions fraud" page on the university's website. This page could discuss admissions policies and procedures in relation to how the university defines fraud and plagiarism in an application. It also could detail the appropriate uses of admissions consultants and other advisors.
  • Ensure that all academic staff members are aware of the code of ethics/conduct requirements relating to admissions fraud. The university should enforce these requirements with significant penalties for violations. Also, the requirements should be supported by regular background checks of staff.

One step in dealing with this kind of fraud is to consider whether a college credential is the only prerequisite to a productive life. Perhaps the problem is not that too few students are going to college, but that too many are. Placing greater value on vocational training and hands-on work experience could help alleviate the drive for admissions fraud and solve workforce skills shortages.

Art Stewart
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About the Author



Art StewartArt Stewart<p>​Art Stewart is an independent management consultant with more than 35 years of experience in internal audit, financial management, performance measurement, governance, and strategic policy planning.​​​</p>https://iaonline.theiia.org/authors/Pages/Art-Stewart.aspx


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