You May Be the True Victim of the College Scandal

Why do I mention that I am an Associate Member of IECA, the Independent Educational Consultants Association?

IECA is the gold standard of college consultants organizations. Members are expected to adhere to the highest ethical standards; those who do not are not allowed as members.

This brings us to the college admissions scandal currently in the news, a tale of avarice and cunning that will shake up some corners of the college admissions world. I think that there a few points worth noting.

First, the consultant at the center of the scheme was not a member of IECA. This is not surprising – IECA does not look kindly on consultants charging outrageous fees for college admissions. Frankly, the amount of work involved for a reputable consultant (in my view, 100-200 hours), does not justify tens of thousands of dollars in fees. (And the much smaller fee I charge is not enough to bribe a school mascot, never mind a college coach.  For information about my fees, see Why Hire Me?.

IECA also demands that college consultants not “guarantee” admissions, simply because there is no honest way to do that. In addition, college consulting is about finding the right school for each client. It is hard to accomplish this goal when your clients are fixated on doing whatever it takes to get into a “prestige school.”

Second, there has been no evidence presented that college admissions staff were bribed. I suspect that this is because admissions officers generally make decisions in groups – bribery would be cumbersome, more expensive, and risky (it would take only one admissions officer to talk to end the scheme). White-collar criminals generally find the “soft spot” in the victim organization; in this case, altering the records on which the admissions officers rely was simpler and cheaper. (Ask me how I know –  see About Me.)  Whatever the reason, I find the absence of admissions officers as defendants reassuring.

Third, and most important, the victims in this scandal are not really the universities, however they spin it. Yes, their employees accepted bribes, and some undeserving students were admitted. Some colleges – most notably USC – may suffer undeserved reputational damage.

But the number of students involved are a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of students enrolled in those colleges legitimately. More important, there remain other, legal, ways for those with money to oil the gears of the admissions process. Legacy admits (students whose parents attended the college) have a huge advantage in Ivy League admissions. And then there are contributions – for the reported $6.5 million one parent invested in bribery, that parent probably could have achieved the same result by simply donating to the university.

College counselors will be largely unaffected.  Perhaps those who are charging outrageous fees might garner suspicion as to exactly what services they are offering to justify same, but consultants belonging to reputable associations (e.g., IECA, HECA, NACAC) may even benefit from all of the discussion about what reputable counselors do.

The victims are students. To be precise, they are high school students with learning disabilities. If your student falls into this category, then you and that student are potential victims. This is because one of the tentacles of this scandal may be particularly far-reaching:  the college consultant claimed that he was able to bribe therapists to provide false documentation of a disability to be used to obtain accommodations on the ACT or SAT.

From the New York Times, March 13, 2019:

The conspiracy relied on the parents getting medical documentation that would entitle their children to extra time on the test, an accommodation normally made for students with disabilities. Students who need extra time generally take the test alone, supervised only by a proctor — providing the opportunity for the bribed proctor to rig the outcome. Mr. Singer advised parents on how to get the medical documentation needed to qualify.

According to court filings, in a conversation with one of the parents, Gordon Caplan, Mr. Singer explained that for $4,000 or $5,000, a psychologist he worked with would write a report saying Mr. Caplan’s daughter had disabilities and required special accommodations. He assured Mr. Caplan that many parents did this for their children.

“What happened is, all the wealthy families that figured out that if I get my kid tested and they get extended time, they can do better on the test,” Mr. Singer said in the conversation. “So most of these kids don’t even have issues, but they’re getting time. The playing field is not fair.”

This is a potential disaster for many of you. It can be tough for students with learning disabilities to obtain accommodations. Now we can expect the ACT and the College Board (the SAT) to make the process even more difficult. If psychologists (possibly a neuropsychologist, but the story does not say) can be bought, then how will the testing companies identify students who really do need these accommodations?

The initial reaction from the College Board was encouraging and helpful:

The College Board considers all reasonable requests for accommodations — such as large print, Braille, or extended time — needed by students with documented disabilities.

The board asks for documentation in some cases, Mr. Goldberg said, but in the “vast majority” of cases, the modifications are granted through the schools that students attend, where they are evaluated and given an individualized education program.

It appears that the best defense is to have a history of accommodations. Parents should be prepared to show current and past IEPs and 504 Plans. A long history of documentation is likely to allay suspicions. However, for those students whose diagnosis is too recent to have obtained an IEP or 504 Plan, or whose need for minor accommodations does not justify the hassle and expense of obtaining same, this scandal may prove troublesome.

This is another reason for parents of students with learning disabilities to consider paying for an assessment by a neuropsychologist and, if appropriate, obtaining an IEP or 504 Plan.

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