19 March 2019 13:08:34 IST

A management and technology professional with 17 years of experience at Big-4 business consulting firms, and seven years of experience in high-technology manufacturing, Rajkamal Rao is a results-driven strategy expert. A US citizen with OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) privileges that allow him to live and work in India, he divides his time between the two countries. Rao heads Rao Advisors, a firm that counsels students aspiring to study in the United States on ways to maximise their return on investment. He lives with his wife and son in Texas. Rao has been a columnist for from the year the website was launched, in 2015, and writes regularly for BusinessLine as well. Twitter: @rajkamalrao

A corruption scandal shakes American college admissions

The scam, and the intense social media attention it generated, may help clean up the system a bit

This week saw the Department of Justice prosecute the largest college admissions scam in America's history. America has earned a reputation for practising the rule of law. Retail corruption — the kind that is rampant in most developing nations — is practically non-existent in the US. If you’re pulled over for a traffic offence, you can’t slip in a $50 bill to get out of getting a ticket. If your paperwork at a government agency is stalled, you can’t bribe a tout to have cash distributed to various officials within the agency to help move your paperwork forward.

Civic education in America starts early. Ethics classes at a young age drill home the message that cheating of any kind is punishable. In religious schools, the bar is set higher. It’s not only punishable but it is also immoral.

And there are laws. Bribing, corruption, nepotism — in short, all actions in which a person seeking a public benefit gains an unfavourable advantage are prosecutable offences. The powerful FBI has thousands of tools in its possession — technology to surveil, agents to conduct sting operations, a nearly limitless budget and scores of laws to prosecute — and perpetrators are often brought to justice. Although corruption is a civil offence, each infraction can carry a long sentence. When compounded, the guilty can spend dozens of years in jail.

Complex racket

So it was shocking when the US Attorney’s office in Boston revealed that many wealthy parents, coaches and a consulting firm were involved in a complex college admissions scandal designed to get undeserving students of lower merit into America’s most elite colleges. The underlying fuel for the scam was money, which exchanged hands through bribes. Going by the details, the perpetrators seemed to think they were not in America but in some banana republic.

Sit-ins taking the SAT/ACT tests for students or doctoring score-sheets, parents faking the mental conditions of kids to be granted special accommodation privileges to take the tests, often in a private office with only the student and a proctor present, doctors writing fake prescriptions and certificates to confirm these medical conditions, eager consultants photoshopping images of student faces on to the pictures of established athletes and creating fake athlete profiles, athletic coaches in colleges accepting bribes to recommend students with fake profiles to college admissions committees — were all reminiscent of corrupt acts common in other countries.

The top brands

Every country has educational institutions of such high repute that simply gaining entry into them can tremendously help a student’s brand. Your brand is your mark of distinction — a definition of who you are. How you build your personal brand and what you do to nurture it throughout your professional career are often integral to success.

The best way to build your personal brand is to associate yourself with something that already has a stellar brand name. Driving down congested city streets in a Mercedes doesn’t put the car to test, but it makes people want to believe that the person inside the car is successful. That the person may be under loads of debt and headed to bankruptcy court is of little consequence. Impressions are made, and first impressions are powerful.

For students (and parents) who care about education brands, getting into Ivy League schools — Harvard, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, Columbia, Cornell, Yale, Penn, and Princeton — is the most aspirational. Stanford, Chicago, Duke, and MIT, though not Ivy League, are also among the super-selective schools. Admission rates are very low, ranging from just 4 per cent for Stanford, to about 12 per cent for Penn. Worse, the number of seats is severely limited to about 2,000 each year.

Nearly 20 million students attend college each year in the US, and while most don’t apply to these selective schools, the competition is fierce. If students are not naturally outstanding in high school, they have little chance of getting into these top colleges.

Justice prevails

Even so, 99 per cent of parents and kids would never think to cheat in the manner described by the US Attorney’s office. Even if some of them did, they wouldn’t have the resources. Those in the scam paid upwards of $50,000 to secure a 1400 score on the SAT, something most students do for free by practising on Khan Academy. The entry point for making donations to the top schools — in order to receive favourable consideration — was set at $10 million. This wealth threshold involves the top 0.001 per cent of America’s population.

Luckily, the US proved again that, flawed though it may be, its relentless pursuit of justice caught the bad guys after all. These self-serving, unethical and narcissistic people will spend years in prison and will wonder each day if an Ivy League admissions offer was really worth it all.

This brings up an interesting set of questions. How rampant is this scandal? Is it damaging to the reputation of the colleges at its centre? How serious is it for ordinary children who simply want to work hard and try their chance at getting in?

No long-term impact

Actually, the scandal will likely have no long-term impact. The college scam got a lot of attention for a few days but, as it happens in our 24x7 news cycle, the story started to wither away. Other breaking events such as the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max 8 planes and the horrible Christchurch terror attacks took hold. If anything, the scam — and the intense social media attention it generated — shone a spotlight on corrupt admissions practices and this should help clean up the system a bit.

Also, most students don’t seek athletic admissions to get into colleges, a key weakness that the scam exploited. According to NACAC, more than 8 million high-school students play a school sport. But less than one per cent of them will go on to play sports at the collegiate level. And even fewer will ultimately go pro.

So, for most students, nothing about college admissions has really changed. Key admission factors — grades, strength of high,school courses (AP/IB, Dual Credit, Honours), SAT/ACT scores, college essays, class rank, extracurricular activities, teacher and counsellor recommendations, demonstrated interest in the schools that you wish to attend — are fundamentally the same as they were before the scam.

But the short-term damage to America’s reputation is clear. Bad apples are everywhere, and the last week just proved that the US too has its share of them.