This week, the FBI indicted 50 individuals—including celebrities, CEOs, college coaches, and test administrators—in a massive college admissions fraud scheme. By all accounts, this is most egregious cheating scandal in the history of higher education.
It’s no secret that corruption can exist in every institution, at any level. There’s fertile ground for fraud whenever you have outdated systems with loopholes. Someone will always find a way to manipulate the system with money, connections, and/or criminal activity.
At the college level, you’ll find loopholes via “back channels” like athletics. Here, a broker (e.g. college coach) will have a side conversation with admissions to boost their applicant. That’s a weak system that countless candidates have exploited.
What about in business school admissions?
Less brokering occurs at the MBA level, but tales of admissions fraud do exist. Merit-based systems have a greater level of checks and balances for these applicants, however. It’s easy to do a “sanity” check to see if the GPA, college degree, GMAT, work rigor etc., logically align.
The MBA version of “Varsity Blues” could touch on the legitimacy of the some of the rankings reports. Another sensitive topic might concern whether the in-house relationship managers at traditional feeders such as management consulting firms and private equity shops give their employees an advantage by networking with MBA admissions—that’s all fair and legit, though. In fact, we know of many applicants from these feeder firms who don’t get in, despite having the back channeling benefits.
There’s less parental desperation and involvement in the MBA space, though we do see some epic helicopter parenting. We’ve had conference calls with the child of a billionaire and their team of handlers discussing how an unqualified kid can get into HBS, and what sums of money are involved. While unfair, it’s not illegal. Still, that’s an aspect of the application process we walk away from, and focus exclusively on crafting the strongest possible package.
What’s Stacy’s take on MBA admissions fraud?
Here at Stacy Blackman, we often connect with adcomm representatives at top schools for intel and insight. But we never have a conversation about a particular applicant. Maintaining ethical standards is a top priority at SBC and any attempt at admissions fraud is dead on arrival.
In almost 20 years, no one has asked me to do anything fraudulent. But that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. I am sure it is, though it’s more difficult with smaller classes, fewer back doors like athletics, etc.
Likewise, SBC Principal Esther Magna recalls only a few instances of special treatment during her nine years with the company. Special treatment meaning privileged applicants with good—but not stellar—profiles.
“We’ve seen some offspring from big donor families get a magical admit into top 3 programs due to the influence of the donation,” she says. Similarly, a super heavy hitter, i.e. influential alumnus, going to bat for an applicant can be a dealmaker through the MBA admissions process.
“The vast majority of MBA applicants from big donor families actually are highly competitive,” says Magna. “So it’s not surprising when they get into Harvard, Wharton, or Stanford.” More surprising, Magna says, is how many children from big donor and/or legacy families get dinged without interview, or even a courtesy interview.
“Not one inquiry over the years, and I speak with about 1,000 per year, has asked me or even hinted about paying off a test taker/ broker/ admissions person,” Magna says. “These activities may exist at the black-market level, but not at the visible level like ours.”
This will likely become on ongoing conversation on fairness, privilege, ethics, and the win-at-all-costs ethos in academic admissions. We’ll weigh in on those issues again in this space in the future.