Column: Cheap Cheats and Expensive Bribes

The nationwide college cheating scandal and how each of us is involved


illustration by Melina Bowser

Students, schools, and the culture at large need to do more to defeat the temptation of fake success.

By Jonathan Ross, North Allegheny Senior High School

I think it is safe to say that a majority of students in our school have, at some point during their academic careers, cheated, finessed, conned, bluffed, or otherwise bamboozled their way to a grade that was better than what they likely deserved. I myself am included in this—we have all felt the all-too-prevalent pressure of due dates for work that we have put off.

Regardless, this article is not about minor infractions on homework assignments. It is about the institutionalized flaws in the principles of our education system, the blatant lack of academic integrity in our schools, and a group of incredibly affluent people buying entrance for their children into our nation’s most prestigious colleges.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts filed an indictment alleging a massive case of college admissions fraud: Operation Varsity Blues. For those unaware, twelve defendants are accused of giving or accepting bribes for the purpose of guaranteeing collegiate admission for students. Among those involved were several college coaches and athletic directors, two teachers who regularly proctored the ACT, and a Harvard graduate who would take the actual ACT and SAT tests in the place of students. Prior to their indictment, three other people involved with the fraud, including its mastermind Rick Singer, acted as cooperating witnesses. Wiretaps of conversations revealed disgusting details, highlighting the reprehensibility of the scheme—the co-chair of one of the country’s most venerable law firms was taped saying “To be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here.”

Yet, as easy as it may be to regard the scandal as the immoral ventures of the super rich, the motivation behind the scandal is wholly applicable to the halls of our school, and the halls of schools across the country.

At North Allegheny, the problem is not necessarily actually bribing our way to grades and achievements—at least, I would hope not. From my vantage point, there is simply a disturbing lack of academic honesty, one that is the fault of both the students and the school itself.

Take the National Honor Society applications as an example. NHS is a prestigious program that rewards students for painting themselves in the best light, where the student is disincentivized to reveal even the smallest of blemishes. Granted, this is a far cry from fraud, but it’s one of many examples of morality and honesty potentially being compromised by the school’s promise of laurels.

Perhaps a more specific example of this can be seen in the day-to-day test taking and work ethic of students. As I mentioned earlier, students at our school, of all levels of aptitude, are inevitably going to cut corners at some point. This tendency, however, can be differentiated from the blatant academic dishonesty in the cheating scandal and in our classrooms.

How, then, is this the fault of the school, as the issue seemingly stems from unethical students? Simply put, the school provides the means and the incentive to cheat. As far as I am concerned, in the larger circumstances of the scandal, the education system is not just the market for the business, it’s also the direct supplier. I say this not to diminish the illegality of the situation, but rather to highlight that, if something is to be done, students and schools need to diminish the demand for academic dishonesty. Again, this raises a question, this time one of why and how exactly this shift is to occur.

It needs to begin with a change in the mindset of students, followed by a change in that of the school and, ideally, the culture surrounding perceived achievements. Students need to recognize that a person’s value is not dependent on their report cards, nor on the colleges to which they are admitted. Instead, value needs to be something determined holistically—something that many colleges purport to doing in their applications process, but often wholly ignore. That idea, however, is not one accepted easily, as parents’ and teachers’ desires and expectations can be misconstrued as unnecessary pressure and extremism. Falsifying the need for special accommodations, editing test scores and athletic documents, and engaging in bribery are undoubtedly wrong but, at the very least, the parents involved in the recent scandal can claim to have done so in the “best interest” of the children. Therein lies the cultural issue.

The best interest of a student should never compromise the student’s integrity. The value of a fifty-point (or even 400-point) SAT score boost should not be equivalent to the value of being an ethical person. The benefits provided by cheating your way into Harvard are not worth an indictment. That general idea can also be tied to the pressure to take AP classes. Often, the inspiration behind taking a college-level course is the GPA boost, not necessarily interest or passion. Without real inspiration to put in honest work, many students taking these classes resort to cheating.

Schools need to work harder to help students recognize that any fake success, achieved at the cost of morality, is not tantamount to genuinely earned success—students across the country, in turn, need to buy into the philosophy, working to eliminate the disgusting immortality like the kind on gross display in the latest cheating scandal.

This story was originally published on The Uproar on March 15, 2019.