It was the summer of 2006 and I was writing an admission essay for Brown University. Not for me, of course. I’m not Ivy League material. This was for an ambitious young man who simple couldn't muster the time, energy or interest to write his own personal statement. Besides, I’d graduated four years prior. This was just another day in the life of an academic ghostwriter.
I was a contract cheater and I made a pretty decent living helping students cheat on research essays, take-home exams, online modules, capstone projects, thesis statements, and yes, tons and tons of admission essays.
The Brown essay included the usual boilerplate prompts:
In reading your application, we want to get to know you as well as we can. We ask that you use this opportunity to tell us something more about yourself that would help us toward a sense of who you are, how you think, and what issues and ideas interest you most.
My client offered this generous insight:
This is where I need you to throw some sort of hook that will make them really look at me. I need about 1500 words that will really blow the wall open with explosiveness.
That was all he said, so I took him literally. I wrote a really solid essay about his character-building experience as a grizzled 1850s gold prospector whose specialty was dynamiting passageways into Old West mountainsides. Obviously, I was picturing Yosemite Sam the whole time. The customer was pissed, but the ghostwriting gig can get tedious if you don’t take the occasional creative liberty.
Comparatively speaking, the whole gold prospector thing seems so much less absurd now. Last week, the Justice Department announced the details of a massive and sordid college admissions scandal, one involving celebrity parents, doctored photos, fabricated athletic resumes, sketchy test proctoring, false disability claims, imaginary charities for underserved children, and countless additional layers of sensational absurdity — surreal acts of deception that seem uniquely at-home amidst the hierarchy and hyperinflation of higher education.
Operation Varsity Blues
When news of the giant college admissions cheating scandal broke last week, I couldn’t help but feel a little sentimental. My old business was grabbing some big-time headlines. After working the job for ten years, I retired and shared my story with the educational community. No more ghostwriting for me. That was almost a decade ago.
Clearly, not a lot has changed since I left the academic ghostwriting business. To the contrary, it would seem cheating has become more elaborate, more absurd, more entrenched.
On March 12th, the Justice Department charged nearly 50 individuals for their roles in the biggest college admissions scandal ever prosecuted. Defendants include Hollywood stars, corporate CEOs, college coaches, test proctors, test-takers, and — at the center of the scheme — “entrepreneur” William Rick Singer.
As I read the hot-takes and watched the wall-to-wall cable news coverage, it all felt a little personal. Dishonest coaches, scheming parents, privileged children. There was a time when that was my whole world. Watching the Varsity Blues news, It was all so familiar, and obvious. The shock and outrage, all so predictable.
But equally predictable is our ability to compartmentalize these events, to contextualize them, and to eventually forget them. This time, we can focus on the privilege, the wealth, the inequality, the bad actors, and we can do it all without confronting the true systemic failures of higher education. And this will make it much easier for us to turn the page on this news story without doing a single thing to fix it.
Is this a story about privilege and inequality in higher education, or is it about something even bigger and more penetrating?
Well, it’s definitely both, but the privilege is the obvious part. Less obvious is the permeating educational rot beneath it, a kind of rot that knows no class or socio-economic prejudice. Cheating is part of the system. Part of the system is cheating. The two things are inextricable.
I Don’t Want…Your Life
No disrespect intended, Mr. Van Der Beek, but the true of story of Operation Varsity Blues — a tale of celebrity cheats, buyable coaches, and wire-wearing FBI informants — would make a better movie than its namesake. Seriously though, read the FBI’s criminal affidavit for the full details. The scope of deception was as brazen as the execution was hamfisted.
The details are still unfolding but it’s already been characterized as the biggest college admissions scandal in history. All in all, says NBC News, “Of the 50 people charged so far, 33 are parents and nine were college coaches. The others were a mix of standardized test administrators, a test proctor and Singer associates.”
According to the charges, wealthy parents made sizable charitable donations to Singer’s Key Worldwide Foundations, a phony foundation that would then funnel bribe money to athletics coaches in exchange for student admission into top colleges like Stanford, Yale and Georgetown. Singer also used the "donations" to dispatch professional test takers, fake exam proctors, and an array of other co-conspirators.
The details of the scam are kind of amazing, even hilarious if you’re not the kind of person who gets bummed out by the generally sad state of human affairs. From parents who photoshopped their children into dynamic athletic poses to those who ponied up as much as $6 million for fake charities, this story reeks of absurdity.
Truly though, the most absurd details of them all concern parental behavior. The things parents will do for their children…
The Parent Trap
I know there’s a bit of schadenfreude in all this. We feel a little better about ourselves watching rich folks get handcuffed and frog-marched into courtrooms. But the wealth is a red herring.
True Confession time: I totally had a crush on Lori Loughlin when I was a kid.
Fast-forward to 25 years later, when she doctored a photo of her daughter on a rowing machine to convey the ruse that she was a varsity coxswain on her high school crew team. I’m sorry, but that’s funnier than any part of Full House ever was.
Now Loughlin, Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman, and a bunch of big, bad CEOs are just like hundreds of other customers I dealt with back in my ghostwriting days — cockpit parents determined to steer their children through life, to spare them challenge, hardship, failure and all the other things that allow us to become well-adjusted human beings.
If you could take that description and refine it into a target demographic, you’d have the perfect marketplace for a full-service college cheating business. The act of photoshopping your kid into a coxswain action pose — this is not uniquely the behavior of a wealthy person. It is uniquely, the behavior of a parent.
An abbreviated story from my ghostwriting days:
Way back when, I was writing a 13-page paper on Human Resources for a college senior that we’ll call Jub-Jub. Over two days of emailed correspondence, Jub-Jub’s tone veered wildly between polite, appreciative and well-mannered; and aggressive, impatient, even a little insulting. He’d request something nicely. I’d say “sure, you got it.” He’d thank me with friendly exclamation points. Then, unprompted, he’d follow up ten minutes later with something kind of menacing like “don’t you dare screw me on this.”
It was making it difficult to decipher his instructions. Plus, it was kind of unnerving. I sent a passive aggressive email apologizing if I’d done something to displease the customer. I received an illuminating reply:
I have to tell you that I am Jub-Jub’s mother, some replies were not from Jub-Jub, but from me…Anyway, I hope you will finish the ordered essay in a good quality and hope Jub-Jub will get it from you as soon.
thanks very much
Suddenly, everything had become so much clearer. Jub-Jub and his mother were in it together. They were co-conspirators, partners in crime, both in pursuit of the same goal. That was probably the first time I spotted the tell-tale signs of parental interference. After that, I couldn’t miss them.
Whether it was the Daddy’s name on the credit card, Mommy’s voice in email, or even just the pressure applied by family expectation, parents are more often than not standing close by their cheating children, encouraging, cajoling, insulating, inciting.
Some of my customers were rich, but most were not.
They had all the same dreams as rich kids. They wanted to go to the same Ivy League schools as the rich kids. Like the rich kids, they were hardly above cheating to get there. And most importantly — like the rich kids — their parents just wanted what was best for them…even if the best was probably just outside the reach of their abilities.
The current scandal — embroiling a small cross-section of stinking rich folks who have a lot less to brag about at the Yacht club this weekend — is nothing new at all.
Higher education is one giant pay-to-play casino that favors the players with the biggest chip stacks. Rich parents — the ones with the biggest stacks — play for status, and this priority is more important than integrity, knowledge, and even the rule of law. This has always been true.
But it’s not just the wealthy that aspire to play this way. The same moral ambiguity permeates American higher education at every tier, and the same mindset impacts all the demographics that belly up to the table with chips. Everybody has a different sized stack, but nobody’s above pulling a card from their sleeve if they’ve got it.
The wealthy parents at the center of this scandal are a small part of what really happens. I had more cheating customers in an average month than were charged in this whole scam. And I was one of hundreds of writers, writing thousands of papers, for one of tens of thousands of companies, selling a million bullshit essays to countless bullshit students and their bullshit parents, all over the world.
Generation Participation Trophy
What’s the big takeaway?
We’re meant to think this whole thing is about privilege. This was certainly the picture painted by the Justice Department.
U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said that “This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth, combined with fraud.”
He continued…“There can be no separate college admission for the wealthy, and I will add there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”
Well obviously, none of that is true. There is definitely a separate college admission system for the wealthy. I’m still pretty confident that if you donate a building to a stellar school, they’ll let your average child enroll.
As for separate criminal justice systems…hold my beer.
The rules and opportunities are different for the wealthy. A few arrests and all the hand-wringing in the world won’t change an unequal system. The colleges tied up in this whole scam charge roughly $50K per year. The cost of college saw 500% inflation between 1985 and 2011. Collectively, Americans owe more than one trillion dollars in student loan debt. Wage growth for college grads is absolutely dwarfed by these figures.
The system of higher ed basically prints filthy lucre. I oughta know. That’s all I got paid in for years.
The Varsity Blues bust simply puts a privileged face on academic dishonesty. It’s a face that’s easy to hate. But is it really the face of cheating?
The truth is, you don’t have to be famous, wealthy, or status-obsessed to help your kids cheat. This kind of shoddy parenting is totally mainstream. Your friends, neighbors, and PTA BFFs are pulling the same shenanigans. I can tell you with great certainty. Parents were my customer base as much as their children were.
I’m not going to moralize about how to be a better parent, or about how these kids are being deprived of meaningful growing experiences, or how instead of raising functional adults these parents are nurturing the spineless, quibbling, gelatinous masses of inert carbon that will someday comprise the American workforce.
I won’t get into all that, because there is something much bigger at play than bad parenting. Take the words of this bad parent, for instance. Bill McGlashan, managing partner of private equity firm TPG Growth, conspired with William Singer’s to convince USC that his son — who doesn’t play football — was a star kicker. When the FBI caught up with him, McGlashan observed of the crooked college admissions game:
“The way the world works these days is unbelievable.”
Cash Rules Everything Around Me (C.R.E.A.M.)
McGlashan no longer has a job, but he does have a point. This is how the world works. And it’s how college works. Pay to play. The richest folks get the best opportunities, qualifications be damned.
In fact though, the stakes are so much higher if you aren’t rich. Whatever money you’ve invested in your higher education, it’s all you’ve got. If you’re a middle class parent paying for college, you don’t need a financial advisor to tell you that cheating is probably a better investment than failing.
Cheating is practical. It’s just part of parenting. If you’re rich, it’s about ensuring that your kids can sustain your status. If you’re not rich, it’s about giving your kids a boost so they can have more than you did.
It is the truest indicator that higher education isn’t about learning, knowledge, enrichment, or personal growth — it’s about advancement. Sure, maybe all that enrichment stuff was true 30 years ago, before college tuition rates exploded, before our debt exceeded our earning power, before the relationship between your degree and your earning potential became a little murkier. As higher education has grown in cost, it has become increasingly unmoored from the ethical high ground.
College is an economic proposition, not an educational proposition. As such, cheating is an economic proposition, not an ethical one.
Cheating may be wrong and unfair. But the cost and debt that come with college, they are also wrong and unfair. So it’s more than a little patronizing to assume that we should all just play by the rules. In a system where the distribution and saturation of money aren’t fair, cheating is pragmatic, practical, and deeply commonplace.
This is not my opinion, and it is certainly not an endorsement of cheating. It’s a calculation that countless students and parents make every day. If you’re doing the math, you can make the case that cheating is rational. It’s also kind of an effective strategy…that is, as long as you don’t get caught.
To learn more about cheating from a guy who did it for a living, check out the following: