The Public’s Radio political analyst Scott MacKay talked with the book’s co-author Jennifer Levitz, formerly a reporter at the Providence Journal.



Highlights from the interview:

MacKay: Your book gets to the heart of the American obsession with getting their kids into the Ivy League and other top schools. You have a great character in Rick Singer, a hustler who devised ways to cheat the system. He figured out a new way to wedge students into college through what he called a side door. What was the "side door?"

Levitz: Rick Singer was a former college basketball coach at Sacramento State University. He learned something really crucial as a coach. He learned that coaches, particularly on these lower-level sports, don't have a lot of oversight. Kids have a huge advantage applying to college as athletes (not just the scholarship kid getting a full-ride for a popular sport like basketball or baseball). A walk-on athlete has a great advantage over other kids. He also learned that a lot of coaches have to fundraise for their program and they don't like to do it, they'd rather be on the court. And [the coaches for the lower-level sports] sometimes feel resentment for the pay they get compared to the football coach. So he took all that and created what he would call "the side door." Here's what he would tell people - you can go in through the front door, which is you apply like a normal person - imagine that - as yourself with your normal test grades. You can go in the back door, which is you're going to give a big donation to the library. But that's not going to guarantee you anything and you're going to have to give a ton of money. Or you can go in the side door. And what that was, he would go to coaches and say: look we know you have to raise money for your program. I'll help you out. I'll get you money for that, you can even take a little for yourself. All you have to do is put one of these kids down on your roster as a walk-on. You have some extra slots there. You're not going to miss them and the kids won't even play.

MacKay: These rich people -- call them helicopter or snowplow parents -- already gave their children a leg up in admissions. They sent them to the best private schools, got them tutors and fancy internships. Why did they need to cheat?

Levitz: They moved in very elite circles with their kids. There were certain they were going to continue moving in that direction - maybe even felt entitled to move in that direction. They get to junior year and sit down with their guidance counselor and maybe they're not going to get into Yale or they need a back-up plan. Some of these parents couldn't accept that. A former employee of Singer's said that some of the parents were really successful people and couldn't accept that they had an average kid. A lot of kids are just average in high school.

MacKay: It's no surprise that top athletes gain an advantage in admissions. But these privileged kids didn't play the sports that fill stadiums, such as football and basketball. They were in minor sports --think water polo or tennis--that few spectators care about. Why these sports?

Levitz: The coaches of these kinds of sports had a lot of incentive to engage in something like this. Some of them have really big rosters and you don't need that many people so you have some spots to play around with. You're not paid much, there's no real oversight and you can just hand over some of these spots.

MacKay: One of the coaches who was bribed hits home in a sad way for many Rhode Islanders. That's Gordon Ernst, one time tennis coach at Georgetown. Ernst is the son of a legendary Rhode Island high school coach and he himself was a great athlete at Brown University. He got more than $2 million in bribes. Why did it take so long to catch him?

Levitz: Ernst has pleaded not guilty in the case. He was removed from Georgetown and came to URI. Georgetown had a limited investigation. It seems they didn't go back and audit. I think it was probably a case of there was a huge red flag and they didn't widen their look into him enough.

MacKay: The colleges aren't innocent here. It doesn't seem like they have the proper guardrails to deter and detect this cheating.

Levitz: That was a theme that we saw throughout this. The coach would designate someone as a walk-on... and with that it was almost a rubber stamp, almost a guarantee. In several cases a little bit of oversight, a little bit of fact-checking, you'd think... And I think that's what they're trying to do now more.

MacKay: One of the scams was to fake SAT scores. How did this happen?

Levitz: [Rick Singer] exploited some real, perhaps flaws in the system. He hired this guy who is a test-taking wiz. Rick Singer knew that they didn't check IDs well enough [at the test-taking sites]. First he made fake IDs for [the test taker]. Then he had to bribe the people who were running the test-taking sites to look the other way. [Singer] found two financially struggling schools and he bribed the people manning the door to let his guy in. He knew that teens who had designated learning disabilities had a lot of flexibility of where they take the test. He would have parents go to doctors and have them diagnosed with anxiety or ADHD. In some cases it was pretty dubious.

MacKay: As you covered this case, were you surprised at how far people would go tell people at cocktail parties that their kid was kid was at Yale or Georgetown? As if their lives would be ruined if God forbid, they had to study at Bowdoin, Trinity, UVM or UNH?

Levitz: The whole scam seemed so unnecessary because there are so many good schools. One of the judges said it best that they had socialized themselves to think that there were only about a dozen or so schools that were worth going to. The parents were used to writing a check to fix a problem. Some of the cases did seem pretty transactional. 'I've got a problem. I've got to get my kid in. You've got to help me out.'

MacKay: It's almost like a Tom Woolfe novel when I read this. When he said, "Everyone in American life cares about their status."

Levitz: How do you change that dynamic? But there's plenty of people who care about status but they just have to make a plan B and live with it and adjust.

MacKay: That's how most of us who aren't zillionaires do it.