Alan Dershowitz: College cheating scandal is big -- and it may get much worse

The federal racketeering indictment filed Tuesday in a college admissions scandal in which wealthy parents allegedly paid bribes to get their children into elite universities is the most serious such scandal ever exposed – and may get worse.

Federal prosecutors in Boston charged 33 parents, more than a dozen college coaches, the founder of an admissions consulting company, two standardized test administrators and a test proctor in the alleged scam.

Prosecutors said William “Rick” Singer, the California man who heads the Edge College & Career Network college consulting firm, pleaded guilty to charges including racketeering, money laundering, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to defraud the United States.


The indictment alleges that parents – including celebrities – paid Singer a total of about $25 million between 2011 and February this year to get their children into top colleges by falsely representing the athletic and academic abilities of the students. The celebrities include actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.

Admission to many colleges and universities has never been entirely meritocratic. I went to a college where it was. To get into Brooklyn College, I and other applicants in the late 1950s either had to have a sufficiently high grade-point average in high school or do well on an exam.

The real victims in this purported bribery scandal were qualified students who worked hard and earned high grades and test scores in high school, but were in some cases denied admission to top universities because the children of wealthy parents improperly took their places.

Since Brooklyn College was a public school, parental financial contributions didn’t help. Nor did athletic prowess.

But this has never been the situation at elite private universities, which have always favored alumni children, major contributors, athletes and others.

The majority of students at these top universities have always been admitted on merit, but a significant number were put into special categories. Race-based affirmative action – though very different in its applicant pool and purpose – has also resulted in the admission of students who received an advantage because of their race or ethnicity.

But what is revealed in the indictment is quite different: namely, allegations of overt cheating and bribery. If the allegations prove to be true – and the presumption of innocence must be maintained – the admissions system at some of America’s most prestigious universities was corrupted for the parents who paid large amounts of money for the services of Singer, the alleged mastermind.

The SAT and ACT tests were compromised, and the special admission criteria for athletes was abused in the fraudulent admissions scheme, prosecutors charged. And according to the indictment, the parents apparently knew what they were doing, and so did at least some of their children applying to the top schools.

Universities will now have to decide how to deal with students who are currently enrolled but who never would have been admitted had their parents played by the rules. It will be interesting to see whether these less-qualified students have done any worse than the highly qualified students who were admitted on their merits.

This scandal should incentivize all universities to look hard at their admissions policies. There is a legal difference between a multibillionaire who donates a building to get his or her less- qualified child admitted, and a parent who engaged in the activities alleged in this indictment.

If the indictment is correct, the latter group of parents crossed a legal line by becoming complicit in test cheating and bribery.

However, the moral line is not as clear.

In the case of admissions preferences that were given legally, less-qualified students took the places of more-qualified students in order to achieve results deemed beneficial by the universities that admitted them. These include financial contributions from affluent parents, athletic success and racial diversity.

In the case of the alleged illegal admissions, there were few benefits to the universities – only to the alleged cheaters and the students they helped receive undeserved admissions.

The real victims in this purported bribery scandal were qualified students who worked hard and earned high grades and test scores in high school, but were in some cases denied admission to top universities because the children of wealthy parents improperly took their places.

Will this scandal move schools toward more meritocratic admissions policies? Will it lead to the restoration of grading in schools that have moved away from giving grades?

Today it is very difficult to fail at a university – or even to get a grade of C or D. Even unqualified students do relatively well. Would this alleged scam have worked as well if schools went back to tough grading policies under which unqualified students flunked out?

Following Singer’s guilty plea, others accused in the case will probably plead guilty as well, if they feel they have been caught red-handed. As with more than 90 percent of federal indictments, there may be no trials at which the full extent of the problem is revealed.

But universities have an obligation to self-police. Not only the universities named in the indictment for unknowingly accepting students who shouldn’t have been admitted, but those like my own Harvard should look hard at their admissions processes.


America is the greatest land of opportunity in the history of humankind. In no other country can first-generation immigrants with no financial resources become so successful so quickly. The reason for this great achievement has been meritocracy which, despite its imperfections, has created opportunities unknown elsewhere in the world.

The indictment Tuesday reveals deep flaws in our commitment to fairness. Let’s hope it results in rethinking certain aspects of college admissions that create inequality and undercut meritocracy.