Higher education spent a fortune for prestige. Now it’s for sale to the highest bidders. How did we get here?
WHEN WILLIAM “RICK” Singer was charged for using bribery and false information to get kids from wealthy families into school, few Americans were surprised to learn that some parents would do anything to get their kids a Yale or Stanford degree. What did surprise many people was that the scandal also involved traditionally second-tier schools like the University of Southern California and Wake Forest.
Why were parents like Lori Loughlin allegedly so desperate to get their children into these institutions?
The Singer scandal revealed a disturbing trend in higher education that many experts have been tracking for more than a decade: American schools, once considered the standard-bearers of integrity, now rely on baffling (and corruptible) admission processes designed to offset their soaring costs while maintaining the illusion of exceptional prestige.
How did we get here? I would argue that this toxic situation was created, in part, by two major forces introduced in the 1980s: federal funding cuts, initiated under Ronald Reagan, and the 1983 launch of the US News & World Report college rankings.
The Reagan-era cuts were sizeable. By 1989, the federal share of education funding had dropped from 12 to 6 percent; further state cuts to higher education followed. Strapped for cash and faced with a declining student population, colleges and universities found themselves in a race to attract applicants.
Around the same time, in 1983, U.S. News & World Report launched its college rankings, which, for the first time, solidified a set of standards by which all of America’s institutions — from commuter schools like Northeastern to nationally renowned universities like Stanford — would now be judged. Some of the metrics used to determine rankings directly addressed educational quality, but other metrics seemed more tangential to the actual task of teaching and learning.
Regardless of its merit, the proprietary algorithm would profoundly affect how higher education functioned. Plagued with financial challenges and a shrinking student population, colleges and universities began to compete fiercely with each other for applicants and cash, and they turned to the rankings metrics as a road map. Some institutions would dramatically transform, climb up the rankings, and thrive. Others would eventually be forced to close.
While the rankings appeared to offer impartial judgment on America’s leafy campuses and commuter colleges alike, clearly delineating prestigious schools (worth the money) from so-so schools (safeties), the rankings also created an exaggerated sense of good and bad. In short, a degree from a low-ranking school became equivalent to a career dead end. Why bother applying?
In the decades since, a noxious mix of money and rankings-driven antics has created a world in which parents apparently are willing to bend and break laws to guarantee a spot for their kids at the “top” schools. Which is why dozens of wealthy parents allegedly paid Singer some $25 million to use a “side door” into admissions. (Singer has admitted to paying off test proctors and athletic coaches, and instructing parents to pretend their kids had disabilities. He also allegedly had parents create phony images of their kids playing sports and lie about their children’s ethnicities.)
With 50 people charged across multiple states, the Singer scheme may be an extreme case, but by all measures, it suggests that we have a seriously compromised admissions process. Lloyd Thacker, founder and executive director of the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit that opposes “commercial interference in college admissions,” says, “I’ve seen so many shades of this. It’s on a spectrum. It’s all the same impulse: ‘We gotta win at any cost.’”
T BEGAN WITH cost-savings. David Stockman, the director of the Office of Management and Budget under Reagan, was on a quest to fulfill the president’s promise of tackling “waste, fraud, and mismanagement.” Although, in Stockman’s lifetime, Americans had enjoyed unprecedented economic mobility via education financed by student aid and the GI Bill, he devised a plan to severely cut back federal student aid.
“I don’t accept the notion that the federal government has an obligation to fund generous grants to anybody that wants to go to college,” Stockman told the House Budget Committee in 1981. “It seems to me that if people want to go to college bad enough, then there is opportunity and responsibility on their part to finance their way through the best way they can.”
Congress accepted the plan. By 1985, $594 million had been cut from student assistance programs and $338 million was cut from Pell Grants. When Reagan won a landslide reelection in 1984, state lawmakers followed his lead, further cutting state-level support to America’s colleges and universities. Legislators also cut enforcement staff for the Department of Education and, shortly after, the emerging for-profit college industry was “rife with abuses,” wrote David Whitman, a former speechwriter for Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
When federal aid evaporated, tuition costs escalated, forcing parents and students to justify the out-of-pocket expense of a degree. So they turned to the college rankings. “[Applicants] said, ‘Hmm, if I’m going to be spending this much money, I hope my degree is worth something, not just in the skills, but in brand value,’” says Steve Cohen, the coauthor of the 1983 book “Getting In!,” about college admissions.
In a short time, college applicants became brand shoppers. “Suddenly people had a much better idea of what other colleges existed out there and where they fell in the pecking order,” says Jeff Selingo, an authority who writes about higher education.
America’s institutions, which needed students’ dollars more than ever, were forced to appeal to this new kind of shopper. To attract wealthier and higher-achieving applicants, schools began to sink big money into aggressive marketing tactics, campus amenities, and pedigreed faculty. (Many schools were “recruiting top-notch college professors in much the same way professional sports teams lure star athletes,” reported The Washington Post at the time.)
Between 1995 and 2006, annual spending on college construction grew from $6.1 billion to $15.1 billion, according to College Planning & Management, an industry publication. As in the business world, the actual workers in higher education — primarily, adjunct professors — found their compensation inadequate while the number of highly paid college administrators, the executives, proliferated.
In the years that followed, schools that couldn’t play the rankings game fell down the list. Meanwhile, the exorbitant cost of enhancing an institution’s prestige was transferred onto students in the form of higher tuition. Americans’ educational debt now stands at $1.5 trillion.
HOW TWO SCHOOLS caught up in the admissions scandal — the University of Southern California and Northeastern — scrambled to rebrand themselves as national universities reveals the astounding forces at work.
In the 1990s, Northeastern was still a regional school, its campus mostly parking lots to accommodate its large commuter population. And it ranked 162nd. Reeling from shrinking enrollment and an economic recession, Northeastern’s president, Jack Curry, cut class size and 875 jobs. He sensed that the school’s time was up. “If we didn’t change,” Curry told me in 2014 while I was reporting a story for Boston magazine, “I don’t think we would have survived,”
“It was a traumatic time,” Bob Culver, a former Northeastern senior vice president and treasurer told me back then. “[Northeastern] was an institution that was physically and financially in need of attention at a time when all the sudden the market moved away from it.”
In 1996, Curry’s successor, Richard Freeland, saw the college rankings as an opportunity. Freeland had watched higher-ranked schools attract better students and bigger donations from alumni. He placed his bets: “There’s no question that the system invites gaming,” Freeland told me in 2014. “We made a systematic effort to influence [the outcome].”
Even as it published its methodology, exactly how U.S. News calculated its rankings was a closely guarded secret, and today the formula continues to be tweaked to reflect changing priorities. But like Google and Facebook algorithms, the formula can be inferred.
So Freeland had researchers reverse-engineer the rankings and calculate which U.S. News criteria he could manipulate, such as class size and graduation rate, to rise in the rankings. Freeland was so determined to advance that he even visited the U.S. News offices in Washington, D.C., to further divine the mysteries of the methodology with rankings guru Bob Morse. He also had a mission: to influence one metric. Due to Northeastern’s co-op program, most students were graduating in at least five years, rather than the traditional four, which counted against the school’s ranking, until Freeland appealed to the media company to reconsider the metric.
To improve graduation and retention rates, the school invested heavily in campus infrastructure, resulting in the construction of a seven-building complex, at the cost of approximately $1 billion. (Residential students are less likely to drop out than commuter students.)
On business trips, Freeland schmoozed with colleagues at other ranked institutions to influence the peer assessment portion of the U.S. News methodology.
Freeland’s plan for Northeastern paid off. When he retired in 2006, the school had moved up to number 98. Boston Business Journal called the climb “one of the most dramatic since U.S. News began ranking schools.” In turn, the one-time commuter school began attracting significantly more applicants from further afield, which Freeland attributed to its new reputation. “All those kids out in California don’t know a damn thing about Northeastern, but they know it’s rising in the rankings,” he told me.
PERHAPS MORE TROUBLING is the fact that many of the U.S. News metrics can be gamed. Selectivity, for example, offers a quick way to understand a school’s desirability and prestige, which is why virtually all institutions play some version of the admissions rate game. The goal is to encourage ever greater numbers of students to try their luck, which grows a school’s applicant pool and drives down its admissions rate. As a result, schools have watched their selectivity increase year after year. Stanford now admits 4.4 percent; Princeton: 5.5 percent; Williams: 12.2 percent. This year, Northeastern accepted 19.3 percent, according to the university.
Average test scores and GPAs of incoming freshmen, another important ranking metric, can also be gamed. Like other schools, Northeastern has found ways to work around these numbers, particularly standardized test scores, which constitute 7.75 percent of the ranking. Since President Joseph Aoun took over in 2006, the percentage of students from international schools attending Northeastern has quadrupled to 20 percent of the student body. (This high percentage of foreign students is not uncommon at American universities today; because they pay their own way, they’re very desirable.) When applying, these students are explicitly instructed by Northeastern not to submit their SAT and ACT data. (Both Boston University and NYU are test-optional for these students.)
U.S. News penalizes schools that fail to submit all scores they receive from students, but if the school in question doesn’t collect this information, it has nothing to report. Based on Northeastern’s percentage of students coming from international schools, at least one-fifth of undergraduate scores weren’t factored into the official average reported to U.S. News.
And then there’s the spring-entrant loophole: U.S. News asks for test scores and GPAs only for the students entering in the fall. “It’s possible that is a gaming window,” U.S. News editor Brian Kelly told me in 2014. “The question is, would it have a material impact?” Under Aoun, Northeastern introduced “N.U.in,” a program which sends some admitted students abroad for their first semester; they officially begin on-campus during spring semester. A Northeastern spokesperson has asserted that N.U.in students have the same academic credentials as their peers.
Freeland received a $2 million retirement supplement when he left the school and became the state’s commissioner of higher education. He maintained that any “gaming” of the rankings boosted the quality of the university and the student experience. “Efforts to improve our ranking were embedded in a much larger strategy focused on improving Northeastern in a substantive sense,” Freeland wrote to me after we spoke in 2014.
Indeed, Northeastern’s reported average two-part SAT scores have risen from 1230 in 2006 to 1469 in 2019, and it now ranks number 44 among national universities, tied with Tulane.
President Aoun has continued to strengthen Northeastern’s academic standing. In response to a request for comment, University spokesperson Renata Nyul wrote: “For the past 13 years our strategy has been clear: Dramatically improve every dimension of the university. When you achieve fantastic success as Northeastern has, external measures such as rankings will take care of themselves.” She noted that its student/faculty is down from 16:1 to 14:1 and its academic reputation, measured on a 5-point scale, moved from 2.9 in 2006 to 3.6 in 2019. “Rankings are not the focus — they are a byproduct of the university’s real success. Northeastern’s skyrocketing research funding, our high-talent students, and global impact are the real measures,” she wrote.
THIS IS NOT to suggest that Northeastern has operated outside normal practice. Indeed, other schools have been caught doing much worse: Eight colleges — Austin Peay State University, Dakota Wesleyan University, Drury University, Hampton University, Oklahoma City University, Randolph College, Saint Martin’s University, and St. Louis University — admitted misreporting data to U.S. News for the 2018 list. Those schools are now “unranked,” a status that will change with the next edition of the Best Colleges rankings if they supply accurate data.
Rather, Northeastern serves as a model for how dependent schools have become on the rankings to attract high-paying students, and how much the system begs to be gamed, just as Northeastern and others have done. Forcing colleges and universities to present themselves as elite brands invites increasingly questionable behavior. The stakes are now extremely high, both for the schools — on an endless hunt for new revenue sources — and for the applicants, who flood admissions offices of top schools, desperate for the cachet the colleges purport to sell.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the school Rick Singer targeted most frequently was USC, which looks similar to Northeastern in its deliberate and precipitous climb up the rankings.
In 1996, USC was 44; now it is tied for 22. From 2001 to 2017, applications to USC doubled, and the percentage of students admitted fell from 34 percent to 16 percent. By 2018, it had further dropped to 13 percent. Katharine Harrington, USC’s vice president of admissions and planning, told the Los Angeles Times in 2010, “It’s not by accident. . . . We’ve made very intentional decisions and investments in people and curriculum.”
Northeastern also has surfaced in the recent bribery allegations. Manuel Henriquez, a Northeastern alumnus and former member of the Northeastern University Corporation, and his wife, Elizabeth, have been accused of hiring Singer to help their two daughters cheat on college entrance exams and conspiring to bribe a Georgetown tennis coach to designate one daughter as an athletic recruit.
In lieu of paying Singer a $75,000 fee, Henriquez allegedly agreed to help the son of another client of Singer gain admission to Northeastern, according to a federal complaint. Henriquez and his company had “invested” $250,000 in the university’s Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute, according to a university announcement in 2017. He allegedly e-mailed Northeastern officials “repeatedly” about Singer’s applicant; the student was eventually accepted and his parents are said to have paid Singer $250,000 for that privilege, according to the complaint. No one has alleged that Northeastern violated any laws or acceptable standards of practice.
Henriquez has “voluntarily stepped aside” from the investment company he founded. As of this writing, he and his wife are each out on $500,000 bail and have not yet pleaded. They first appeared in court on April 3.
THE QUEST FOR the esteem and revenue that come with a high ranking, coupled with the exorbitant costs required to keep a school on top, have turned higher education into a prestige machine that can be bought and sold.
Schools that rank high will draw strong (and/or wealthy and/or foreign) applicants and big endowments. Those that can’t compete will close, consolidate, or pause operations. The Memphis College of Art in Tennessee was listed as “unranked” in U.S. News’s art schools list and is set to close next year. Grace University in Nebraska, whose U.S. News listing said, “Rank not published,” decided to “cease operations” last year. American Jewish University in California, which U.S. News ranked between 173 and 229 for liberal arts colleges (the magazine provides only a range for the lower-tier schools), announced it decided to “pause” undergraduate admissions. The list goes on.
While many would agree that schools like Northeastern benefited from working the U.S. News metrics, critics note that along the way, Boston lost a local and affordable school. Those who attended in the ’90s might not be able to get in, let alone pay for, a Northeastern degree.
Yet Americans are as determined as ever to pursue elite colleges at all costs. A YouGov poll in the wake of the bribery scandal found that 25 percent of parents said they would pay college officials to get their kids in, and 34 percent said they would pay a college prep company to take a test for their kids.
Meanwhile, colleges continue to make admissions exceptions for those students whose parents can pay (or donate or allegedly bribe their way in).
“It was an accident waiting to happen,” says Edward Fiske, founder and editor of the Fiske Guide to Colleges, which debuted in the early 1980s, of the revelations emerging from the Singer scandal. “The conditions were ripe because of the competitiveness, the amount of wealthy people, the one-percenters floating around.”
Have we reached a moment of reckoning? Institutions should use the bribery revelations as an opportunity to change how they’re conducting business, says the Education Conservancy’s Lloyd Thacker. “This particular scandal could be a wake-up call,” he says. “We got started on this in the ’80s, and we can now hopefully work together to move us in a different direction.”
Max Kutner is a journalist in New York City. He has written for Newsweek, where he was a senior writer, and Boston and Smithsonian magazines.