UP CLOSE: Before and after “Varsity Blues”

UP CLOSE:
Before and after "Varsity Blues"

Published on April 25, 2019

Of the applications Yale received in 1976, one in particular — Andreas Stephan Alrea’s — was perfect.

An orphan of a Cambridge-educated anthropologist and a Stanford-educated anesthesiologist, Alrea had cared for himself and his younger brother since the age of 12 after his parents died in a car crash. Before coming to Yale, he amassed a $30 million fortune through investments and business deals in the three years since he graduated from high school — enough to buy a house in Brazil. In his spare time, he managed to master several languages, including a no-longer-spoken Native American dialect.

Admissions officers were impressed with his glowing recommendations and his nearly perfect high school transcript. They accepted him without second thought. One admissions officer called him “a modern Horatio Alger,” according to a News story at the time.

But four months after matriculating, the 21-year-old Timothy Dwight College freshman finally decided to tell the truth — everything about Andreas Alrea was a lie. In reality, Alrea was Patrick Michael McDermit, an odd-jobs worker from California with a shoddy high school record, no special gift for languages and certainly no fortune.

In January 1977, he told University officials that he had forged transcripts, faked recommendations and falsified documents. He reportedly spent around $15,000 renting a post office box and printing fake stationery to write fictitious recommendations for himself.

When the gig was up, students and faculty members alike saw McDermit as a hero. His final days at Yale were filled with congratulatory phone calls from strangers, kudos from professors on the street and a standing ovation at lunch in the Timothy Dwight dining hall. His roommate said that McDermit “did everything I would have done if I had had the balls.”

Then-Dean of Admissions Worth David told the News in 1977 that his office did not verify all applicants’ records.

“As long as the transcripts look legitimate, we don’t question the student’s record,” he said.

The New York Times reported that because McDermit had withdrawn from the school, the University was not addressing the matter “with any urgency.”

That was 1977.

Forty-two years later, the cheers in Timothy Dwight have transformed into a national outcry against another type of fraud with the same aim — admission to elite universities like Yale. In March, federal prosecutors announced the findings of an investigation into what they called the largest admissions scandal ever. Over 53 people were implicated in the scandal, including former women’s soccer head coach Rudy Meredith, who was charged with accepting bribes in exchange for recommending at least one fraudulent women’s soccer recruit to the University.

As Meredith left the Boston courthouse after pleading guilty to wire fraud and conspiracy charges in March, one reporter, perhaps channeling the nation’s sentiment, shouted after him — “How do you feel about the students you betrayed?”

What has happened in the past four decades that has transformed enthusiastic cheers for someone who has the wiles to cheat the system into outrage against those who “steal someone else’s spot?” And after the largest admissions scandal in the history of the Department of Justice, what can Yale do to better protect itself from the fraudulent applications that have plagued its admissions office for at least 40 years?

NO STRANGER TO APPLICATION FRAUD

Since Alrea’s remarkable case, two other notable examples of fraudulent applications have slipped through the cracks of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

In 1995, Lon “L.T.” Grammer — colloquially known as “Yale’s O.J.” due to his abbreviated name and the concurrence with the O.J. Simpson trial — was a popular Davenport senior who transferred to Yale with an almost perfect grade-point average and stellar recommendations.

He was arrested in April 1995 when his roommate overheard him bragging about his successful gaming of the system. After the roommate reported it to Yale officials, the University discovered that almost every item in his application was fake. He was arrested and charged with first degree larceny — on the grounds that he allegedly stole $35,875 in Yale financial aid and $25,000 in federal grants and loans. Even then, students wanted more accountability, with an anonymous student telling the News at the time that admitting the student was a “huge mistake … that no one will ever forget.”

Despite students’ frustrations, the administration downplayed the incident’s importance. According to a story from the News, then-University President Richard Levin said in 1995 that he did “not see this as a serious problem for the majority of Yale graduates.”

Still, in 2006 Akash Mahraj — an allegedly straight-A student from Columbia University — also transferred into Yale only to be kicked out the next year for lying on his application. Mahraj, like Grammer, was charged with larceny and forgery and had his admission rescinded.

When interviewed by the News in 2008, then-Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel said that Mahraj’s alleged forgery had not initiated any changes in admissions procedures. Despite these examples of admissions fraud, forgeries remain rare, he said.

Brenzel declined to comment for this story.

While each instance of fraud has temporarily stolen the spotlight, it eventually passes and fades out of memory. Or, as the News predicted in 1977, “Alrea’s joke, in the long run, will not affect admissions policy much, if at all.”

“You don’t want to, because of any one incident, arrive at drastic conclusions about a process which is fundamentally sound,” then-Director of Undergraduate Admissions Margit Dahl told the News in 1995.

Barmak Nassirian — the director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities — said that up until the 1970s, many admissions offices operated with a “genteel-era” mindset, in which officers considered themselves “academic gatekeepers.” Because of the much lower number of candidates, he said that many offices simply needed to differentiate between the candidates who could and could not do the work, and then “things … worked themselves out.” He admitted that this relative dearth of candidates was a product of “fundamental inequities in our society.”

But over the past 40 years — and especially over the past 20 — a college degree has turned into a much more valuable commodity than it was in the 1970s, according to Nassirian. He explained that many institutions do not realize that “what they are dealing out might be worth half a million dollars.”

“If you are running an admissions office, I may very well understand why it doesn’t even occur to you that you need anti-fraud techniques similar to those in an investment banking house,” he said. “But guess what? We are in an age where what [admissions officers] do — certainly at most selective institutions — is beginning to be that sort of a perceived commodity.”

A DIFFERENT BRAND OF FRAUD

In each of the six years since Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid Jeremiah Quinlan took the helm of the admissions office, the Admissions Committee has voted to withdraw some applications because of “concerns about the veracity of the credentials and/or other information in the application.”

It is not uncommon for outside actors — applicants — to provide fraudulent information to the school. To Yale’s knowledge, just three undergraduates over the course of four decades before the admissions scandal —  McDermit, Grammer and Mahraj — made it through the cracks.

But “Varsity Blues” was unlike past cases of application fraud at Yale.

This time, the fraud came from within. In March, federal prosecutors unveiled that an insider — Meredith — had accepted bribes from outsiders to provide false information to the admissions office. This type of insider plot was new.

As acceptance rates continue to plummet and admission to Yale becomes an increasingly scarce commodity, parents and prospective students alike are increasingly willing to carry out more elaborate schemes to gain entry into an institution that they see as a ticket for success.

In the past five years, application numbers at Yale and its peer institutions have skyrocketed. For the class of 2016, for example, Yale received fewer than 30,000 applications. This year, Yale received 36,000. For the first time in recent memory, Yale’s acceptance rate  — for the incoming class of 2023 — dipped below 6 percent.

Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management at DePaul University Jon Boeckenstedt told the News that universities benefit from increased competition to gain admission. He explained that the marking of any given school is based off its admissions rate — how exclusive it is. As a result, universities try to deflate their acceptance rates in an effort to elevate their profile, he said. Boeckenstedt calls this the “admissions industrial complex” — an “increasing escalation in the militarization of the tools and other things we use to make those numbers look good” to improve a university’s ranking.

According to Boeckenstedt, studies show that the deflation of college acceptance rates is a self-perpetuating cycle — the lower an acceptance rate in any given year, the more applications the school will receive in the next cycle.

Still, after Yale received a record number of total applications for the class of 2023 in January, Quinlan told the News that “quality matters much more to the admissions committee than quantity.” Still, he said that the scarcity of spots at Yale can cause people to “lose perspective” and want to “manipulate the process for gain.”

“Visibility, importance, prestige bring consequences,” said Nassirian. “One of those consequences is that you become a target for much more insidious, much more potent potential attacks than you imagine in your wildest nightmares.”

THE LENGTHS THEY’LL GO

William “Rick” Singer — the mastermind behind the “Varsity Blues” scandal — believes there are three ways to get into college.

In conversations with parents recorded by the FBI, Singer said that there is the “front door” — apply and see what happens. Then, there’s the “back door” — apply and benefit from one’s parents’ multimillion donations to a university. And finally, there is the side door — Singer’s special entrance. To access this entrance, ultra-wealthy parents paid Singer to bribe testing administrators and varsity coaches to facilitate cheating on standardized tests and fake sports endorsements to universities’ admissions offices, respectively.

Following news reports of the “Varsity Blues” scandal, many students questioned whether there is an ethical distinction between bribing one’s way into college and receiving an added advantage in the admissions process because one’s parent is a significant donor.

“Technically, the donors aren’t bribing Yale’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions, and Yale isn’t breaking any law. But Yale is still sanctioning the unethical. Giving an advantage to children of donors erodes the admissions meritocracy on which our University depends. When social structures that we believe in, like admissions, perform unethical deeds, it undermines those systems’ principles, breaking a kind of social law,” wrote Sammy Landino ’21 in a News opinion piece on March 28.

Late last year, the News reported that some prospective applicants who are children of major donors — which Yale labels “VIP” candidates — receive special treatment and are allowed to visit campus and organize meals with first-year counselors before they even submit an application. No such formalized program exists for non-”VIP” candidates until after they are admitted to the University.

In response to the News’ story, Quinlan said in a statement that all applicants submit the same materials and are “evaluated through the same whole-person review process.”

Daniel Golden — author of “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates” — told the News that there is often a price tag associated with getting students into elite universities.

Although he noted that things may have changed since he wrote his book in 2005, he said that a decade ago, the price tag depended on the caliber of the applicant.

 

“The further the candidate was from admissibility, the bigger the gift [would have to be] to make it a reality,” he said. “You have a system that’s vulnerable to wealth, people will come up with more sophisticated schemes to get what they want.”

Still, even students applying through the “front door” sometimes cheat. According to experts interviewed by the News, most common are small exaggerations on applications.

Julie Zauzmer, author of “Conning Harvard: The True Story of the Con Artist Who Faked His Way Into the Ivy League,” said that based on her research, cheating is often “driven out of pressure that kids feel — especially in some very competitive high school environments — to get in [to college].”

“Cheating is a broad term. There are people who say they spent 20 hours a week on an activity that they actually spent five hours a week on,” she said. “And, maybe say they were the president of the French club when they were actually just a member. That, I think, is very common.”

Experts also said that students often lie on application essays. Nasirian called a student’s application essay “almost a piece of literary fiction.”

“So much of [the essay] is conjured and embellished and not really grounded in any verifiable fact,” he said. “And even if they are verifiable, I’m not sure if anyone ever verifies them.”

HOW YALE SAFEGUARDS

On the day officials announced the findings of the “Varsity Blues” scandal, Yale University President Peter Salovey did not respond with the same nonchalance as administrators in admissions scandals in the past.

Within hours, he sent a community-wide email asserting that the University was “the victim of a crime” and claiming that Yale did ”not believe that any member of the Yale administration or staff other than the charged coach knew about the conspiracy.”

To protect against such conspiracies, the Admissions Committee relies on several safeguards to protect against fraud, according to Quinlan. First, students’ applications have to “verify across dimensions.”

Quinlan explained that in an applicant’s file, the Admissions Committee receives information from the student, two different teachers, a guidance counselor, an alumni interviewer, a third-party standardized testing agency and other people who may write third-party letters of recommendation.

“We are talking about five different perspectives, at minimum, about an applicant by the time we are viewing the application,” said Quinlan. “So you can imagine … that there is a lot of different verification about who the student is.”

While these different sources may talk about different parts of a student’s profile, Quinlan said that “the stories you get, the accomplishments you hear about, the vibes you get — when that all adds up, that’s the type of student that ends up separating themselves in the Admissions Committee.”

If consistency is not apparent, it does not necessarily raise concerns about fraud, but it does make it very difficult for an individual to stand out in a pool of nearly 37,000 applicants, according to Quinlan. When faced with inconsistent information, admissions officers often “pick up the phone” to verify recommenders’ letters, transcripts or any other information they are confused about. Quinlan explained that if the Committee ever has doubts about an applicant’s credentials, they will instruct the responsible admissions officer to try to get an explanation from the applicant’s school, councilor, recommender or coach.

“Just a few weeks ago, there was a student whose high school transcript was trying to represent the community college-dual enrolment courses they were taking and the high school courses they were taking at the same time,” recounted Quinlan. “The committee couldn’t get a 100 percent grasp on the courses the applicant had taken so they told the admissions officer, ‘Call the community college directly, and see if you can get the transcript so they can get better information and figure out exactly what classes this young woman is taking.’”

In addition, Yale will only accept transcripts if they are sent by the school in a sealed envelope, faxed by a school official or submitted via direct transmission. Yale will not accept transcripts sent by students or by coaches.

What is more, Yale relies on “hand-selected, well trained, long-term” interviewers to make sure that an interview “lines up” with everything else in the application.

Still, Yale’s reliance on third-party information might at times do the University a disservice, since some testing companies have had difficulties protecting their tests from fraud.

As recently as last month, SAT tests were cancelled in Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia because advanced copies of the test were allegedly being sold to test takers.  In another incident that occured last August in South Korea, posts on social media suggested that a SAT test was available online before the testing date. In response, the College Board issued a statement that it would cancel the test scores of anyone who they found to be cheating and in some cases, ban individuals from retaking the test.

Kurt Landgraf — president of Washington College in Maryland and former CEO of the Educational Testing Service, the company that administers the SAT — said that there is “increased scrutiny in Asia” when it comes to standardized testing, requiring additional security measures to ensure the validity of test scores.

“Any time you have something that is so life changing, there are always going to be people who go around doing it the honest way,” Landgraf said.

Landgraf said that ETS implemented major security changes in 2011, in part as a reaction to a major cheating scandal in Great Neck, New York. Changes will include mandating test takers to bring a photo ID and mandating proctors to verify them.

Landgraf said ETS also became “far more … thoughtful” before granting “disability waivers” and now uses algorithms to mark major jumps in scores “beyond what would be normal.”

“While ETS has always been very concerned with test security — after all, without test security, ETS has nothing — we found out there had been some lapses … that prompted us to increase our test security procedures significantly,” he said.

Still, in spite of all these precautions, this scandal still transpired.

Quinlan noted that, in light of the most recent scandal, the admissions office is conducting a “bit of a process audit.” In a set of two March emails, Salovey announced several changes to the admissions process for athletes — now, Director of Athletics Vicky Chun will conduct reviews of every coach’s roster of recruits before these rosters are sent to the admissions office. Salovey emphasized that situations in which a recruited athlete “fails to make a team will receive close scrutiny.”

Alongside Quinlan, Chun will “implement a code of conduct for athletic recruitment,” and the two will implement “more robust training for all coaches to ensure they understand” Yale’s recruitment policies, according to the email.

Quinlan told the News that even more changes are forthcoming, although he declined to comment on what those changes were specifically, saying that discussion would be “premature.”

“You don’t go through something like this without thinking of other safeguards that could be added,” he said.

Still, he stressed that he “feel[s] deeply” that Yale will continue to rely on standardized testing agencies, schools, counselors and students to “put an honest foot forward in this process.”

“The events of the last few months doesn’t necessarily shake my confidence in most of the work being done out there to put the best foot forward,” he said. “I think we have to acknowledge and create better safeguards, but I trust in some of these important partners.”

CAN WE DO BETTER?

 

In 2008, in conjunction with the Mahraj case, Nassirian — then-associate executive director at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers — said that “absolutely ingenious credential fraud is hitting us like a tidal wave” and that higher education was unprepared for “the triple whammy of globalization, the Internet and higher education becoming big business.”

Against these forces, some college admissions experts question whether elite schools like Yale can do anything at all to prevent fraudulent admissions. Still, they told the News that there are ways to help decrease its prevalence.

Zauzmer suggested iThenticate for admissions, a service provided by plagiarism-detection provider TurnItIn, to help detect forged application essays. A spokesperson for TurnItin told the News that since being released in 2005, their service for college admissions has spread to 65 percent of colleges and universities in the United States.

“Without [our service], admissions officers are relying on gut instincts and manual efforts, such as running an essay through a search engine, to check each essay for potential plagiarism. Checking for plagiarism in this way is not only time-consuming for an office with tens of thousands of applications and hard and fast deadlines, but also only addresses search engine plagiarism,” said the spokesperson.

According to the spokesperson, institutions that use iThenticate for admissions find, on average, that 5 percent of applicants have potentially plagiarized their essays.

While Quinlan said they have considered using it in the past, Yale does not use iThenticate. He noted that one of the challenges in implementing it would be that Yale uses three different platforms — Common App, Questbridge and Coalition Application — to accept applications.

On the topic of standardized testing, one answer to prevent fraud is to make testing optional all-together, according to Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest — a long-standing critic of the College Board.

“We have never claimed that test-optional admissions is a magic bullet that solves manipulation of college admissions process or cheating or diversity issues. It’s one tool that schools use,” he said.

Yale is not test-optional and Quinlan reaffirmed the Office’s commitment to rely on the work of the ACT and SAT to identify and respond to instances of cheating.

“Both organizations share information with Yale and other colleges when they uncover instances cheating — either by individuals or through coordinated efforts by larger groups,” he said. “Although these instances are unfortunate, they are relatively rare among the millions of test-takers worldwide.”

Some experts, however, argue that fundamental changes are needed in order to improve the system.

Boeckenstedt argues for a “clearing house” system which would give better information to students and colleges about chances of admission rates and better connect students to colleges that want them. Others, like Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Natasha Warikoo, have argued for a lottery system, where students who hit a certain academic threshold would be randomly sorted into different schools.

Still, many experts say that there may not be a “silver bullet” to “fix” the problem of fraud. The key is that admissions offices are aware that it exists and try their hardest to address it.

“Other than creating a system that is so heavily laden with bureaucracy and compliance, which would bring its own problems, I don’t think you can leverage against every potential weak spot in any system,” said Boeckenstedt. “So as long as there’s one coach, for instance, who’s willing to sell a spot on his team for $100,000 to an athlete who is not an athlete, you’re going to have problems and issues.”

When the News asked Nassirian whether the American higher education system is better equipped to handle the effects of globalization, the internet and the corporatization of the admissions process now than it was a decade earlier in 2008, his answer was simple.

“No … I think in many ways things have gotten worse,” he added.

That “genteel” mindset of admissions offices half a century ago has not changed, said Nassirian.

Perhaps this summer, as Quinlan and Chun are set to announce more changes to admissions procedures, it might.

 

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