Natasha Nagarajan contributed to this report.
Rich and famous celebrities buying their children’s way into prestigious colleges and universities. Top schools admitting to using fake research to get federal funding. A popular Chinese film star admitting to plagiarism and lying about his academic claims.
Cheating and lying - usually discouraged at institutions of higher learning - don’t seem to be going away.
A recent admissions scandal revealed very rich parents bought test scores and favors to gain their children’s admission to the University of Southern California, Yale University, and Georgetown University, among others.
The indicted, including actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, allegedly paid counselors and others hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure their children were admitted to prestigious U.S. colleges — such as Yale, Stanford and Georgetown universities — without having the credentials, skills or required abilities.
"We're not talking about donating a building so a school is more likely to take your daughter or son," explained U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling. "We're talking ... bribed college officials."
Many educators and students do not seem shocked.
"I think what surprised me was the lengths they went to create a false reality and fabricated image of their own child,” said Millie Evans, a senior at Georgia State University, citing instances in which parents created fake images of their children playing a sport.
“Photo-shopping their faces onto athletes and lying about their abilities, without even hesitating for a moment to consider whose hard-earned spot that it would be taking. It was a gross display of entitlement, privilege, and narcissism."
Thirteen of the 33 indicted parents have pleaded guilty, while 19 have contested charges ranging from racketeering, conspiracy, fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice. The fallout continues as students admitted under false credentials have been expelled or dismissed.
Cheating on standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT and TOEFL in Asia has reached such dramatic proportions the test administrators have canceled the exams, saying they couldn’t guarantee the answers hadn’t been widely distributed in advance.
A new study found that 15.7 percent of students admit to paying others to do their work. Professor Phil Newton from Swansea University was able to discern “contract cheating,” in which students pay for assignments written by others. Newton analyzed 71 samples from 64 studies back to 1978, concluding this form of cheating is “rising rapidly around the world” as “essay mills” make writing for hire cheap and easy.
“Let me tell you the amount of times I’ve wanted to put a medal on a parent’s neck at the Science Fair instead of on the child’s because that parent said, ‘Oh, I really think we should be able to help our child in academics, so I did a lot on this Science Fair project,” said an exasperated Principal Gerry Brooks of Liberty Elementary School in Lexington, Kentucky, in a recent viral video that reached more than nine million viewers of which nearly 10,000 made comments in agreement.
“Everybody is just so surprised about this,” Brooks says. “You know who’s not surprised? Every educator in the whole world. Because this happens every day in our schools.”
Students say they don't see the admissions system as fair or equitable. They point to parents who can pay for tutors and other focused instruction, to test and essay coaches, to better funded neighborhood primary and secondary schools, to summer camps in science and other specialities at universities that charge thousands of dollars to high-school students to attend them on campus.
And they point to families wealthy enough to donate large sums of money to colleges and universities far in advance of their child attending college there years later.
"For me, it wasn't surprising at all. I already knew how corrupt our country's education system was. I see it all the time in students who got accepted to college because their parents are alumni who donate a giant sum to the university every year,” said Natalie Dekker, a junior at the University of Georgia. “The idea that wealthy people think that they can buy their way (and their kids' way) to success is old news to me."
“I think [the college admissions scandal] was something that everyone was aware of, but now it’s just coming to light,” said Sana Mohammed of North Arizona University. “Obviously, I think it’s wrong, but if it wasn’t done in an illegal way it would have been done legally through buying buildings or giving donations.”
Long term consequences
Does this mean cheating will prevail? Research shows that it might get someone into and through college, but the workplace is a different story.
In a study from January 2018, more than 1,500 participants who witnessed someone acting immorally in a hypothetical situation - such as cheating on a lab task - rated that person as “less capable of doing their jobs, completing specific tasks or being generally competent,” reported lead author Jennifer Stellar, Ph.D., of the University of Toronto in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
And Stellar said she was surprised by the results.
"We found that most people rated immoral behavior in one's private life as irrelevant to determining how good that person was at their job. Essentially, people said they didn't think they would use moral information in that way,” she explained. “But when they were provided with it, they did."