Why 25% of parents used unethical behavior to get children into college

Cheating the system isn’t only for the wealthy.
By: | July 21, 2021
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After celebrities Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman pleaded guilty to using their influence to get their children into preferred colleges, a question circulated among those following the high-profile stories: Could there be more?

The answer appears to be yes—and they might not be limited to stars, but also include your neighbor down the street or an office co-worker.

In newly released surveys conducted by Intelligent.com in April, 25% of 1,250 parents who have at least one student in college admitted they resorted to “unethical actions” to try to get their kids into a postsecondary institution. Many of those parents, researchers said, were not from upper-crust backgrounds but earn less than $50,000 per year.

“We’ve heard stories and scandals about college admissions cheating among celebrity parents, but this survey reveals that it’s not uncommon for average parents to use unethical practices during the college application process,” Intelligent managing editor Kristen Scratton said.

Researchers said a little more than half the parents tried to influence decisions by making a “sizeable donation” to colleges and universities, and noted this practice was common among high earners.

More than 40% opted to have intelligent individuals take standardized tests for their children —a seeming advantage even at institutions that have gone test-optional. And there were other brazen attempts to influence, such as “listing false achievements on their child’s application, listing false volunteer work on an application, bribing one or more individuals responsible for the admissions process, and encouraging their child to lie or embellish life experiences in their application essay,” authors said in their report.

Parents indicated five main reasons for their rule-breaking, including the highly competitive admissions process occurring at institutions that are receiving record numbers of applications:

  1. Their children’s grade point averages were perceived to be too low to get into choice colleges (48%)
  2. They want their children to have better future financial outcomes (40%)
  3. They felt their kids would gain better exposure to extracurricular activities (35%)
  4. They simply did not want to risk their children not being accepted (32%).
  5. The potential for social or family status to be impacted (30%)

The $125,000-plus group of earners led the way at 33% in attempts to sway decisions, but the low-income group was not far behind at 29%. Just fewer than 20% of moderate-level parents, those earning between $50,000-$124,999, said they tried to exercise influence.

One of the easiest targets was for-profit colleges, Intelligent.com said, because of fewer restrictions in the admissions process, noting a General Accountability Office report that showed the relative ease in which parents could lie on documentation and get accepted. True to form, of the parents surveyed who made attempts to get their children into these institutions, 52% used unethical measures.