Takeaways from the College Cheating Scandal


By Jennifer Kunze, Ph.D.

Director of Ramp-Up to Readiness


As the director of a college and career readiness program that aims to increase and diversify the numbers of students earning a postsecondary degree, I was thoroughly disgusted to learn about the recent college admissions scandal. Our program provides a college and career readiness curriculum for students in ten different states across the country, beginning in 6th grade. Why so early? It is because we realize that to bust up the mindset about what college is and who it is for, to help students develop the academic, social, and emotional habits they will need to earn a degree or certificate, to learn about the vast array of careers and their prerequisites, and to have a financial plan in place to pay for college takes most students and families years to accomplish. They do not just quickly write a check to bribe admissions officers and college coaches or pay off college entrance exam personnel.

It angers me, therefore, to think of the time numerous, dedicated middle and high school counselors and administrators have spent coming to our workshops to learn how to help students be prepared for college. It exasperates me to think of the throngs of teachers across the U.S. who are dutifully helping their students learn about the importance of going to school each day every day so they do not get behind in their classes, or who are teaching students how to persevere so they can be successful in college—on top of teaching the content they were hired to teach. It frustrates me to think of all the family members who may now think that unless they have an extra $10,000 to $500,000 sitting around their children might not be able to earn a postsecondary degree.

Then I get saddened—crushed—to think about the messages our students heard within the college cheating scandal. I worry that our students will start to think this is how all colleges work, or that there is no way in the U.S. to work hard, improve yourself, and achieve the American Dream anymore. 

NPR recently asked college students to reflect on the cheating scandal, and in many cases, what they said is tough to take. Rugile Pekinas, a junior at UCLA said, "My initial reaction was disgust. [I was] not surprised at all, really. What you're born into is a lot of what you get in life, as this shows." Selena Bemak, who is applying to grad school at Boston College, said the scandal is a reminder of what less privileged students are up against when they apply. "I will always worry in back of mind," Bemak said, that those who come from more will have a better shot than she does.

The New York Times asked middle and high school students what they thought about the college cheating scandals, and their responses were depressing, too. Emily Sedlak, from Carlisle, Pennsylvania said, “While I am not surprised, I am appalled that this has been going on for years and that parents and people with money feel the entitlement they do. Thousands of students across the country, myself included, work tirelessly at several jobs, are heavily active in their communities, and maintain high and REAL grades and scores just to have a sliver of a chance to be accepted to our dream school, and to be able to afford it without an enormous amount of student debt.” Thomas D. from J.T. Hoggard High School said, “I have a very strong opinion on this one that can be boiled down to three simple words. It’s not fair. A simple opinion? Yes. Childish? Maybe a little. Incorrect? Not in the slightest. Students work hard to get into college . . . . Sometimes they don’t get in. It’s sad, but it happens, and it often means that the person who did get in worked harder, and that the person who didn’t get in might need to work harder. That’s fair. What isn’t fair is a hardworking student not getting into the school of their dreams because they weren’t born with deep pockets. That’s unfair.”

However disheartening the cheating scandal is, though, these takeaways are not the ones I want to tell our students, their families, and our educators. The takeaways are bigger and better than the scandal because the story is more than that. 

The reality is that there are some noteworthy things to consider about the highly competitive schools involved in this scandal. Truth be told, the most selective schools, such as Yale, Stanford, and Harvard, are not necessarily the best colleges for all students. Sure, a lot of people might want to go to these colleges in hopes of gaining status and future connections, but in terms of metrics such as promoting economic and social mobility and diversity, they are not as successful as other, lesser known schools. In fact, in terms of mobility rates, some of the best schools are Cal State University—LA, Pace University, and SUNY—Stony Book. In fact,  Jesse O’Connell at the Lumina Foundation wrote that “Amid the tarnish brought by the criminal inquiry, respect is due the nation’s community colleges, regional public universities, minority-serving institutions, and innovative private colleges and universities — they are the real talent engines in our higher education system.”

In addition, it is wise to remember that the colleges involved in the scandal serve a tiny slice of the population. The vast majority of students are earning their college admittance the noble way—through hard work and perseverance. They are graduating from postsecondary institutions with both well-known and lesser-known names, and nonetheless are creating a strong future for themselves and for our country.

I asked Julie Sweitzer, the Executive Director of the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota what she wanted middle and high school students to take away from the cheating scandal. She mentioned multiple things including the following, “The cheating scandal reflects the misplaced overemphasis on getting into the 'best', most elite colleges. While those colleges serve many students well, most students can find another, in fact multiple colleges that will serve them equally well if not better. Focus on your goals and where you will feel supported and succeed.” This is great advice for students. They do not need to go to an Ivy or other elite school when there are multitudinous great options at four-year universities, two-year colleges, apprenticeships, and military programs where no bribes or scams are required. These postsecondary options, which may not always make headlines, are doing their part to keep American meritocracy alive. 


About the Author

Jennifer Kunze, Ph.D., is the Director of Ramp-Up to Readiness at the University of Minnesota, and is thoroughly committed to college for all. Her additional professional interests include high quality instruction, professional learning systems, and labor trends. She is also a licensed social studies teacher, and has worked in K-12 settings, leading efforts in curriculum and instruction, mentoring/coaching, alternative compensation, and postsecondary readiness.

Learn more about Ramp-Up!