In March 2019, the federal government indicted William Singer, a college admissions consultant based in Newport Beach, California, on charges of bribery and racketeering for fraudulently helping wealthy parents get their children into college. Along with Singer, thirty-three parents were indicted as well as college coaches from top universities such as University of Southern California, Yale and Georgetown.
In total, dozens of parents have been accused of paying millions of dollars in bribes to help their children get into the schools. According to US News, federal prosecutors called this brazen scheme the “largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice.”
This alleged scheme pervaded virtually every level of the college admissions process. Although Singer led the main effort to bribe coaches and test monitors, falsify exam scores, and fabricate student biographies, he was not alone in this plot.
College athletic coaches played an integral role, accepting millions of dollars from parents to help admit undeserving students to a variety of colleges including Wake Forest and Georgetown by suggesting to admissions officers that they were top athletes.
In addition, some parents paid anywhere from $15,000 to $75,000 for higher test scores. Someone could either take the test for the child or the test proctor in the room could “correct” the answers. Many students were not even aware that their answers were altered.
All the payments were covered up appropriately and conveniently disguised as donations to the school so that parents could still claim tax deductions.
The consequences of this scandal for America’s top colleges were far-reaching. The admissions system has been revealed as broken, exploitable and in need of major reforms.
Jared Faux ’20 echoed this sentiment. He stated, “College recruiting seems like a scam. People are getting into these extremely selective schools based on athletic capabilities rather than their intellectual ones.” He explained, “I think intellectual strengths should be prioritized.”
Selena Martineau ’19 agreed and further elaborated on how the recent college admissions scandal reveals the greater systematic unfairness in the college process. She said, “I think this is just one example of many that goes to show the injustice behind the college process.”
Mark Spencer, Director of College Advising, was very much surprised to learn of the scandal, while Charles Davis, Dean of Admission & Financial Aid, was not.
Mr. Davis shared, “My point from an admissions perspective is that, though we are not a college, we’re sought after, selective, and I see a similar culture of frenzy in the prospective students who apply to our school.”
He added, “Though there is no scandal that I am aware of at Deerfield, I get why it might have happened, because we are prone to a portion of the frenzy seen in the college process. I was not shocked at all to read of the scandal.”
Jazmine Ramos ’20 agreed with Mr. Davis, expressing that she was not surprised to hear of the scandal. She clarified, “The scandal was expected. I’m just surprised it’s only now coming out.”
Yet, Mr. Spencer offered an alternative perspective, stating, “In my twenty years’ experience, this is the first time I have heard of this kind of criminal enterprise. I do not think this happens often, nor do I think it is widespread.”
Mr. Davis said, “Another aspect of the scandal that connects to Deerfield admissions is that college coaches were shown to have a large influence over the admissions process. The place where Deerfield can relate to that and where we have to study our own process is that at Deerfield, coaches and program leaders submit names for advocacy, a wish list of sorts.”
The culture of cheating and bribery has been found even in other preparatory boarding schools. Mr. Davis recounted, “It turns out the Dean of Admission at IMG Academy, where some of Deerfield’s athletes go, was taking standardized tests on behalf of clients for a sum of $10,000 for a long time.” Mark Riddell served as the director of college exam preparation at IMG, and used his role to illegally provide testing services as part of Singer’s larger scheme. Upon learning of the allegations against Riddell, IMG took swift action and suspended him indefinitely. The head of communications at the school additionally stated that Riddell’s actions have no direct relation to the Academy itself.
Although this recently unearthed college scandal does not relate directly to Deerfield’s own admissions process, it does encourage the office to examine its own process more thoroughly. In the spring, the office will have the opportunity to study and evaluate its selection process and ask itself questions, such as whether or not certain students have unfair advantages.
Mr. Spencer agreed that “one positive takeaway has been a valuable discussion addressing other forms of privilege.”
He continued, “How does access to test preparation, private tutoring, a dedicated college advisor, and legacy status prepare students for college? Students without this access are at a significant disadvantage in the admission process, regardless of their academic ability. What can be done to even the playing field and address these inequities among college applicants?”
He hopes that this case has revealed that “a disproportionate focus on [college prestige] can be at the least unhealthy, and at its worst, can drive unethical and even criminal behavior, as we have recently discovered.”
Speaking specifically on behalf of Deerfield’s college advising office, Mr. Spencer said, “We guide students and families in a process to discover ‘goodness of fit’ between a student and a college, not by brand names or rankings.”
Neither Mr. Davis nor Mr. Spencer said they had any reason to suspect a scandal of similar nature to be occurring at Deerfield. Mr. Spencer stated, “I don’t know of any such criminal activity associated with boarding school admissions.”
“The schools like USC and Yale that were named in this scandal will certainly be studying their processes going forward,” Mr. Davis said.