Reflections on the Admissions Scandal

Most people are probably aware of the admissions scandal that exploded in the national news yesterday. If not, I invite you to review the following link:

In a nutshell, many were charged in a money-for-admissions scam that targeted some of the nation’s most elite schools including Stanford, Yale and Georgetown University, where I worked for almost a decade. The cast of characters includes college athletic coaches, standardized test administrators, corporate CEOs and even some famous actors. Felicity Huffman, of Desperate Housewives fame, was among those indicted. Say it isn’t so Felicity - I loved you in Desperate Housewives! This will forever tarnish my viewing enjoyment as I watch reruns of you playing Lynette Scavo.

At the center of this web of deceit is Rick Singer, CEO of The Key, a life coaching and college counseling company. The indictment states that Mr. Singer received ~ $25,000,000 from wealthy clients to bribe athletic coaches, doctor test scores and falsify credentials. Singer created what he called a “side door” to college admissions. The front door is how students get in the old-fashioned way: they earn it with their accomplishments. The back door apparently goes through institutional advancement. You know what this is - it comes in the form of donating buildings, endowing scholarships and the like. Singer’s side door paid off athletic coaches to designate students as athletic recruits, despite the fact that many didn’t even play the sports they were purportedly recruited for! The scheme was elaborate, to be certain, and this thumbnail sketch does not do it full justice.

So why am I writing about this? Because there are some people in my line of work who are justifiably concerned that members of the general public might think all educational consultants are somehow on “the take” or are otherwise suspicious. But we all know that there are bad apples in every profession and we shouldn’t let them spoil it for the rest of us. As an attorney, I know there are certain lawyers out there whose ethics are - shall we say - less than sterling. Similarly, we’ve all heard about doctors who have received kickbacks or other remuneration from pharmaceutical and device companies for using and/or recommending certain products. The fact that these physicians exist does not mean that we should stop going to the doctor! It just means that we should vet our healthcare providers thoroughly.

Unlike other professions, educational consultants are not licensed. We do not have the equivalent of a state bar or board of medical examiners. It is my sincere hope that this will one day change and we will be subject to stringent credentialing and licensing requirements. I would welcome them! For the time being, however, what we have are memberships in professional associations. IECA (the Independent Educational Consultants Association) and HECA (Higher Education Consultants Association) are the two main (although not only) players in this arena. Membership in these organizations requires more than just paying a fee. One must apply and submit proof of experience and credentials. Once admitted, members are held accountable to the organization’s code of ethics or best practices. For example, IECA’s Principles of Good Practice can be found here: Members are forbidden from taking compensation, in any form, from schools to facilitate admission for clients. We are also forbidden from even implying that we have influence over admissions representatives that could sway a decision in our client’s favor. It should go without saying that we are forbidden from paying off or bribing anyone!

Does membership in one of these organizations guarantee ethical behavior? Sadly, it does not, anymore than medical or legal licensure guarantees that someone with nefarious motives won’t behave badly. Are educational consultants who do not belong to these organizations de facto unethical? Absolutely not! In fact, some of my most respected colleagues have chosen, for personal reasons, not to be members. Yet, the best practices of these organizations serve as a metric you can use when interviewing potential educational consultants.

The most important takeaway I hope to impart is that it is incumbent upon you to thoroughly interview potential consultants. If you have questions, please ask! If something doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts! The vast majority of us behave ethically and appropriately. We provide valuable services to help students with the complicated admissions process while hopefully reducing anxiety along the way. We have neither crystal balls nor magic wands and students will, at the end of the day, be admitted based on the quality of their credentials and application materials. The selection of an educational consultant is a critical investment. As with any critical investment, caveat emptor is the controlling principle.