06.04.2019 Author: Henry Kamens

Cheating Scandal in Admission to Elite American Universities is Telltale Sign of Decay in Higher Education


One only needs to give a few lessons about how to apply to US universities – you teach students about the admission policies, motivational letters, etc. However, it is also necessary to make an attempt to get across to them the simple truth that they are most probably wasting their time and money applying to the so-called elite universities, unless they have super-rich parents or sugar daddies (gender notwithstanding).

As a graduate of a US academic program, I would advise them that it is better to aim for the average universities, as the quality of education there is just as good, if not better; they are also far more likely to get accepted at one of these. But this advice applies mostly to the above-average students dreaming the Great American Dream, as the best of the tribe would not pay heed to my advice, howsoever logical it might be.

As a teacher, what is most discouraging and disheartening to know is that deserving students cannot obtain the places they deserve, just because they are not from families through whom they can call the Clintons and the Obamas family friends.

But what is especially discouraging is when foreign students, and those from working class families, who have brains and can actually get accepted, fail to get accepted to their dream Universities. What is even more disheartening is that, when deserving students have asked me over the years how the kids of the rich, famous and the powerful have always managed to enroll in the elite universities, I have had no answer.

But I now have. It should always have been obvious – they scam their way in.

When, in March, Federal prosecutors in the US charged nearly 50 parents, including celebrities and others in higher education, some of the who’s who among the “rich and famous”, with taking part in a massive cheating scandal designed to get their less than “so bright” children into elite universities, I understood why deserving students I knew were missing out on university seats that should rightfully have been theirs. While a lot many of us will rejoice that the perpetrators have been booked, as someone who understands how the underground power structure of the world works, I know very well that this is just the tip of an iceberg, and something that has been going on for a long time.

In reality, elite universities are often just a country club for the brats of the rich. They are full of legacy admissions. One only has to think of George W. Bush, and how he got accepted into Yale and then somehow managed to graduate. The latest scandal even involved paying bribes to a so-called charity, and then using the bribe as a tax write off, a trick your Average Joe would never be able to get away with.

I am close to Berea College in Kentucky, which is technically an elite college based on academics, as you had to be poor with lots of brains to get accepted. It is perhaps the only college in America that will not even consider your application if you come from a higher income class and are not in financial need. Back in my day, it had a 12 percent admission rate. You also had to work at least 10 hours a week to earn your keep at various college-based jobs and industries.

But I would add the caveat that my characterization of corruption, and better choices of where to attend an American university, is more applicable to undergraduate education. The top universities are still the “go-tos” for masters and PhDs, I would say—those where you get the most bang for the buck. In this context, where academics are key, the admissions process is generally a legitimate one.

I still wouldn’t discourage undergrads from applying to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and such-like, because they often get better financial aid packages as well as perhaps more useful connections in terms of internships or work later on. Many such universities have blind admission policies, which means they don’t look at your financial status when examining your candidature. If they find you eligible, and if you don’t have the money, they will find it for you.

But for those who fail to get into the American Ivy League, I sincerely advise them to look into other places where the educational experience is just as rich, if not even fuller.

What I always try to instill in my students is a sense that education is a way of self-formation, of growth, of something that will make them inherently valuable. I think many of them appreciate that approach.

As one of my former students wrote, “My life experience has been so different. I’m quite spoilt, and I continue to be spoilt. Can you imagine the Virginia taxpayer is footing the bill so that I do things I love – read and write? God bless them. I often wonder how and when I’ll give back to so many to whom I owe so much.”

But – no offence – that’s a stupid sentiment to have. My friend, albeit well-intentioned, is overlooking how little he is involved in the entire scheme of the world. He is like a slave worrying about the dire condition of other worse off slaves. The true problem is that his only choices are “reading and writing”, and the State of Virginia pays him to remain ineffectual.

The “God bless them” statement in his email is to me the ultimate affirmation of his own superiority and his own self-deception. It appears that he thinks his reading and writing are authentic experiences, rather than empty distraction for faux intellectuals. Once hooked by such ideas, foreign students often have a tendency to look down on those less fortunate.

Thinking of my own college experience – who wouldn’t want a unique, fantastic education like that, especially if it was on a full scholarship? But you must find the money for most colleges, unless you fit their selection requirements: academically strong, motivated, and committed to the Appalachian region. I was deeply privileged, blessed, and just plain lucky to have managed to get funded. That’s a key element in the mix, needless to say.

Another colleague recently shared with me about the status of higher education in the USA, “As part of my Ph.D. studies here in the US, I am participating in a small seminar course on the state of the university and academia in general. It has been very eye-opening. I always knew I wouldn’t want to be a part of the cut-throat publish-or-perish world, but I didn’t realize how, for example, disciplines, sub-disciplines, and tenure committees are as a rule highly specialized and rigid in their expectations – to the extent that, as a professor awaiting tenure, one is actively discouraged from engaging with the world through, say, op-eds in newspapers or blogging or other such public activities.”

If you believe me, it is all about your field, and publishing in certain important journals and getting one or two academic books out (which should, in turn, be published by certain key university presses). It all seems a bit much to me. I think I just want to return to the classroom and teach, tenure be damned. But ask me again in a few years, I suppose.

That is why plagiarism, even self-plagiarism, is so common amongst university professors – publish or perish.  I took a graduate course on the economics of education, and how programs are funded, and universities ranked, based on publications, even volumes of books in libraries. All that goes into the national and world rankings. The other side of the coin is former USSR countries, where little or no research is being conducted. Lecturers are using the same notes year on year and are paid peanuts—no outside research, no office hours and little student interaction in or outside of the classroom.

Special Relationship

But how is it in Europe, and specifically the UK, the country the US long had a “Special Relationship” with? That may be the next great scandal waiting to happen, as foreign students push out native Brits, who cannot afford to go to university anymore because tuition fees were tripled by the previous coalition government, despite one of the coalition parties, the Liberal Democrats, having won a lot of votes on a public promise that it would abolish tuition fees.

Those Brits who can afford to go are now focused on diplomas rather than the once-dominant social aspects of university, for obvious reasons, But their parents have watched in horror as the value of their degrees is progressively eroded, to the point where being well connected is a greater guarantee of a job and a future, exactly what opening up higher education to all was supposed to prevent.

Of course, tongue in cheek, such a cheating and bribery scandal could never happen at a British university, as Brits already know not to apply where they are not welcome due to their social class. But like Americans, Brits are also a bit naive at times, especially when it comes to white privilege and the Golden Rule -he who has the Gold makes the rules.

Unlike Americans, Brits make a distinction between how you talk to a dustman and how you talk to an elected politician. As they don’t see the problem this causes, as it does in other countries, cheating by those who can becomes a way of life, as universities such as Exeter – described in guides as having a “high twit factor” –  amply demonstrate.

But keep in mind that the American system is completely different. You can’t get access to Cambridge, for instance, by means of sports achievements. There is no such system there. The entrance requirements for new undergrads are strict, and 87% of the students selected for each year are either from the UK or have lived in the country for most of their lives (it’s really difficult to get accepted as a foreigner on an UG course).

The problem is that if you have two candidates, both brilliant, one coming from a state school in a non -prestigious place and the other from an elite school, in all probability they will take the rich kid – or they will send the rich kid to the most exclusive college, e.g. the likes of St John’s or Brasenose, and the poor one to a second-rate college.


The UK is effectively run by an aristocracy which still owns 1/3 of the land and has most of the financial power. This class is very well represented in the academic world – to put it simply, it can’t get rid of itself.

When it comes to post-grad, MD or MSc etc, the criteria are completely different. There is much more flexibility. But say a rich Chinese or Arab entrepreneur tells the college: if you take my son, I will give you a donation of 25 mln pounds. You know what the college will do, and there are many examples – all those chairs of Islamic Studies, funded by and named after Arab businessmen and sheikhs, haven’t appeared out of academic curiosity or considerations of balance.

Who would say no?

Another thing to investigate is that there’s quite a rich history of the sons and daughters of people who studied at Oxford or Cambridge, politicians and businessmen, ascending to degree courses by some sort of hereditary right. Is it possible, for instance, that the son of a couple of former Pakistani prime ministers is so gifted that he was able to pass the severe tests again?

Was that in his DNA? I’ve never heard of any serious investigation of how so many of these cases occur. They might be more credible through the private school route, where donors buy privilege routinely, but not amongst comparative arrivistes who think privilege can subvert democracy, though not without foundation. .

So there you have it – even what makes America Great is not what it used to be, and elite universities are proving themselves to be rotten to the core. But I see hope, as at least the new generation is starting to realize, not only on the international level, that the financial payoff from an expensive American degree is not what it is billed as.

But is any degree worth it for that matter?

Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.