The massive university admissions scam in the U.S. disturbs, but does not entirely shock, Canadian specialists in exam writing, career advancement and cheating.
“It’s tricky. There’s the cynical side of me that says, ‘Yep, that doesn’t surprise me.’ Then there’s the other side of me that says, ‘That sucks. It’s just unfair,’” says University of B.C. geologist Brett Gilley, who takes a special interest in rooting out cheaters.
In a similar vein, Richard Dalton, whose Vancouver company tutors students in how to gain admission to leading U.S. universities, said he is troubled that authorities have charged 50 people in a scheme in which wealthy parents are said to have bribed insiders to get their children admitted to elite American schools.
“It really bothers me, because we have students who work hard to do well in the tests by studying for many hours and doing diagnostic tests. Then to have someone come in and pay to pass the test fraudulently? It’s really disturbing,” said Dalton, owner of Your Score Booster.
Vancouver businessman and former CFL player David Sidoo is among those charged with conspiracy in the far-reaching FBI investigation. Sidoo is alleged to have made two separate $100,000 US payments to have others take entrance exams in place of his two sons, including by providing falsified ID cards for someone who came to Vancouver to write the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) for a U.S. institution.
The sweeping U.S. investigation details multiple alleged university entrance scams by parents, including Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. The parents involved, officials said, spent anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million US to guarantee their children’s admission.
Many of the well-heeled parents are charged with bribing SAT exam supervisors, including to change their children’s score results.
They are also alleged to have falsely claimed their children were disabled, in part to get special treatment writing the exams. Others are charged with bribing at least nine college coaches to lie that their offspring are sought-after athletes, making them eligible for fast-track admission.
Gilley said there are at least two things about the way Canadian universities and colleges generally handle the admissions process that may make them less vulnerable to corruption and cheating than institutions of higher education in the U.S.
The first is that many Canadian universities, including UBC, don’t require SAT test scores from most students, Gilley said. Secondly, he said most Canadian universities do not place an extreme emphasis on building revenue-producing football, basketball, volleyball and other teams. So athletic scholarships are not as common in Canada as a side-door entry into higher education.
UBC’s deputy registrar Andrew Arida issued a statement Wednesday saying it has “a variety of safeguards in place expressly designed to help prevent abuse” of the admissions process. “To preserve the integrity of our systems, we do not discuss the details of the protections in place.”
The deputy registrar said that, unlike most post-secondary institutions in the U.S., UBC does not require SAT and ACT test results for every undergraduate applicant. It only asks U.S. high school applicants to provide those scores.
“The quality of secondary school education is consistently high across Canada, making standardized academic aptitude test scores unnecessary,” Arida said. He maintained UBC’s system has “much-clearer determinants of how applicants are ranked” compared to other universities, which he said can be more “subjective.”
SFU registrar Rummana Khan Hemani also said the post-secondary admissions systems in Canada differ from the U.S. with regards to SAT results, adding that SFU is confident in its registration safeguards.
Dalton said it can, unfortunately, be relatively easy for a wealthy person to deceive, or bribe, some of the staff hired by companies to supervise SAT and other admissions exams.
Some test supervisors, known as “invigilators,” are prone to making mistakes about exam protocol, Dalton said. “And some of these people are also not paid very well. That could mean the ones who aren’t ethical are susceptible” to bribery — either to allowing bogus test takers to use fake identities or to upgrade exam results.
Both Dalton and Gilley were intrigued by media reports that some of the parents charged in the U.S. scams had claimed their children were disabled, to help trick officials and give the children an advantage in exam writing and in the overall admissions process.
A recent Wall Street Journal article said almost one in four students at some elite U.S. colleges and universities are now classified as disabled, often in regards to anxiety and depression, entitling them to a wide array of special accommodations such as longer times to take exams. Dalton and Gilley were curious about how exactly such false disability claims could work in tricking the admissions process.
Even though the focus of the FBI investigation has been on various scams and bribes parents have used to get their children admitted to top U.S. schools, Gilley said he regularly focuses in Canada on working with faculty to track down classroom cheating by enrolled students.
That often means catching students who are plagiarizing or hiring “ghostwriters” to do their essays and assignments, he said. Gilley usually reports blatant cheats to university authorities on their first offence. Most students, he said, will be expelled after two or three incidents.
“People who tend to cheat always rationalize it by saying, ‘Everybody cheats,’” Gilley said. “I would say that about five per cent will cheat, no matter what you do. But that also means 95 per cent do not cheat. And you want to make sure you’re not punishing all the students to catch the few.”
Even though it can sometimes be difficult, Gilley said every effort must continue to go into rooting out fraud, cheating and general unfairness in all aspects of higher education.
“You want to hope, and the great dream is, that universities are a meritocracy.”