On Tuesday, federal prosecutors exposed dozens of people in a massive college entrance exam cheating scheme. The investigation, known as “Operation Varsity Blues,” resulted in charges against 50 people, including ACT/SAT administrators, nine coaches from elite schools, an exam proctor, and 33 parents, among them actors Lori Loughlin of Full House and Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives.
The scandal dominated headlines and lit up social media. Many were shocked by its scope and intricacies. But Rachel Toor, a former admissions officer at Duke University and the author of Admissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account Of The Elite College Selection Process, found the public reckoning unsurprising—and long overdue.
“I wasn’t even a little bit shocked,” says Toor. “This has been going on forever. The one percent has always had an advantage, and part of what you get when you go to these schools is contact with those kinds of people. But these parents really aren’t helping their kids in the long run, they’re just not.”
Toor says the majority of parents she came across while working in admissions “loved their kids and wanted the best for them and really believed that the system would work,” but that there were “definitely some outliers” who tried, sometimes successfully, to rig the process.
Toor recalls a potential Duke student whose parents donated a large sum of money to the school to guarantee his admission. When he got in, he knew what happened and felt embarrassed.
Shortly after Toor released Admissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account Of The Elite College Selection Process in 2001, she says she was approached by an elite boutique college counseling firm looking to hire her as a consultant.
The firm molded students into people they thought would be better candidates, given the demographics of the school they were applying to.
“Like, if you’re Jewish don’t apply to Yale, because there’s too many Jewish students, apply to Dartmouth. Or, if you’re Chinese American don’t play music or do math competitions, take up ice hockey,” she explains. “If you’re helping someone find out what their passion is, that is only a good thing. But if you turn them into something they’re not…that’s truly nutty. And I hope that’s not what parents want for their kids.”
When Toor was told the firm’s fees—which ranged from from $175,000 to $2 million per student—she was “beyond shocked.”
“If I wanted to sell my soul [and do college advising], there’s a buyer and it’s worth a lot of money,” she says. “What people are willing to pay for something where there’s not even any guarantees shocked me.”
The man running the boutique firm is not the same person who, on Tuesday, was accused of being the mastermind behind Operation Varsity Blues. That man is William Singer, and he has pleaded guilty to four charges.
“Yes, it’s not the same person,” she says says, “But there are lots of those guys, so many of those guys.”
Toor has since released several other books, including Write Your Way In: Crafting an Unforgettable College Admissions Essay.
“The goal with Write Your Way In was to show students that the admissions process can actually be fun and a real opportunity to reflect on who you are and what you care about,” Toor, now a creative writing professor at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, says. “Being able to write well is truly a valuable skill.”
“I wish all those parents who are throwing money away to have other people take tests for their kids would use it to hire underemployed or out of work writers,” she adds, “to teach their kids some real skills.”