The nation has been riveted by the college admissions scandal that has revealed the dark secrets of the higher education admissions game. Federal prosecutors have charged 50 people—including Hollywood headliners, a Big Law leader and financiers—and allege a complex scheme of fraudulent ACT and SAT scores and a network of athletic coaches at elite colleges who were on the take.
Few people know the admissions world better than Anna Ivey, former admissions dean at the University of Chicago Law School who now coaches applicants on how to get into top colleges, law schools and MBA programs. We talked with Ivey on Thursday about whether such illegal admissions schemes exist at the law school level, and how applicants legally circumvent the traditional admissions process. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.
First off, you inhabit this world of wealthy parents who want to get their kids into the best schools. Did this scandal surprise you? Yes. Some form of behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing is not unusual. But the scope and the scale were pretty eye-catching. It was something out of an episode of “Law and Order.” There were wiretaps. There were witnesses being flipped. There were stakeouts at this weird, fake testing center in West Hollywood. I read the whole 270-page complaint and it was just mind-boggling. Even for people who are used to the shenanigans in the higher ed world, this was just a whole new order of magnitude.
The fraud is happening on two different tracks: one was the standardized testing track and the other was the actual bribing of the administrators over on the coach side. To make both of those work at the same time is kind of impressive. It’s bad, but it’s impressive.
Have you heard of these types of things happening in the law school sphere? Most of the things people do to influence the admissions decisions are legal, even if they are distasteful. Whereas [the allegations in the latest scandal are] a felony. What people are used to is some level of the shenanigans that happens all the time. I’m talking about things like big donations to schools in hopes of influencing the outcome.
But no, I haven’t heard of felony-level stuff where parents are bribing people at a law school. It could be happening, but I’m not aware of it. I think the way the fraud operated in this particular case wouldn’t really work at the law school level because what they did is exploit this whole phenomenon of college sports and the power that coaches have at these schools. There’s really no equivalent on the law school side. As a law school admissions officer, you don’t have an athletic coach where you go to them as say, this year you have X number of spots and you get to pick them. For better or worse—I think for better—you don’t have the corrupting influence of college-level sports. If you were going to bribe someone at the law school, it would have to be the actual admissions officer. Thankfully, in the college bribery standard, there’s no suggestion that I’ve seen that actual admissions officers were involved. Could it happen in theory? Sure. But I have not heard of that happening.
Let’s talk about the LSAT. Could people exploit that test by claiming disabilities they don’t actually have in order to gain accommodations such as extra time on the test, like the federal complaint claims some college hopefuls did for the ACT and SAT? There is abuse of being qualified for accommodations, and I think that has become more common over time across the standardized tests. It’s governed by a number of federal laws, and increasingly what has happened is the eligibility decision is very much governed by the question: Have you been accommodated before in college, in high school, on other standardized tests? So that precedent really matters in being considered going forward. That’s true for the LSAT and other standardized tests.
It’s possible that in the past the LSAT may have been harder to get accommodations on, but I suspect that has flattened over time because of legislation and the lawsuits [pertaining the granting of disability accommodations on the LSAT]. But it is possible to buy these diagnoses. It happens all the time. It’s enraging and depressing because there are people out there who legitimately need those accommodations, but there is plenty of abuse going on, no question.
One thing that struck me in reading about this scandal is the lengths these parents would go to get their kids into top colleges, and their heavy involvement in the process. Is that more of an undergraduate phenomenon, or do you see that much parental involvement with people applying to graduate programs and law school? Often yes. It’s not just for students who are still in college. I see it even with people who have graduated from college and are already in other graduate programs. These are people well into their 20s, and their parents are highly involved. Not always, but it happens a lot. I kind of wonder: At what point do these grown children age out and their parents let go?
You mentioned the traditional—and legal—way to influence admission decisions is to write a big check to the university and hope its results in an acceptance letter. Does that happen at the law school level? Yeah, it happens at every level of a university. In the graduate level, it’s going to happen more at professional schools. Is there bribery happening to get a master’s degree in Welsh? Maybe, but I don’t think there is a lot of money in play there. So I think we’re likely talking about professional schools. But yeah, it happens all the time. People offer to make big donations. They do make big donations. That’s not restricted to the undergraduate world.
What things should change as a result of this scandal? Some of the changes I‘d love to see with respect to the scandal are specific to the undergraduate level. The problem with the sports coaches and lack of oversight is clearly something that needs to get fixed. That doesn’t exist on the law school side.
The fixes that might pertain to the law school side is that there is clearly abuse happening of the accommodations process for the LSAT, as there is with the SAT and the ACT. You don’t want to make it so hard and burdensome that you’re keeping out people who legitimately need accommodations. There are trade-offs to tightening up that process. But anyone who sees the underbelly of higher education knows full well that that process gets abused all the time. It needs to get cleaned up.
To some degree, I’ve really respected the law school admissions process because in a lot of ways it is a bit more objective than some of the other admission processes out there. That’s a double-edged sword. If you go to the [Law School Admission Council’s] calculator and plug in your GPA and LSAT score, if you move those numbers around you can see the admission odds moving in lockstep. There is such a strong correlation. It’s hard to get around poor numbers. That can sometimes be a good thing.