New college admissions scam

May 19, 2023 • 12:00 pm

This article at ProPublica  (also co-published at the Chronicles of Higher Education) recounts what I consider a “scam” because it seems to be a largely unethical way to get students into college. Now that affirmative action is about to go down the drain, and standardized tests like the SAT are becoming more and more optional (the two issues are connected), canny entrepreneurs are developing new ways to give students college-worthy credentials.  But it sounds dubious to me.

Click to read:

Here’s how it works:

A.)  A company arises that promises to help students get into college by having them get some research published. (Real published research by high school students is rare).  They charge huge fees: from several thousand dollars to more than $10,000.

B.) Usually the companies pair a student with a “mentor”, a professor or graduate student who can help the student cobble together a paper.  (As you can imagine, many–but not all–of these papers are not of high quality.)  The “mentors” are paid huge fees for this: up to $200 per hour, far higher than graduate student wages)

C.) A publication is founded that will consider and accept papers written by high-school students (as you might guess, the ideas and writing itself often comes from the “mentors”).  Here’s one of them: the Scholarly Review. These journals also show “preprints”, unreviewed manuscripts that a student can put on their college-application c.v. There are many of these journals, and, unfortunately, some are connected with the very companies that charge students for getting mentors to help them write papers for college applications. Looking at the link will give you an idea about what counts as “publication.”

As you can imagine, many of these journals aren’t very selective, and publish papers with no reviews and no corrections. As the article says, “Almost any high school paper can find an outlet,”

D.) The papers are then touted on college applications. They do seem to help, but of course few evaluators are able to find time to read the papers, much less assess the research. Overall, it does burnish an application, though a lot of the burnishing is bogus. Given the stiff competition to get into good schools, though, parents are willing to pay high fees for the “service.”

E.) As it’s even harder for foreign students to get into American universities, there’s a lot of money to be made getting students overseas to “publish”. Here’s one company in India:

A short walk from India’s first Trump Tower, in an upscale neighborhood known for luxury homes and gourmet restaurants, is the Mumbai office of Athena Education, a startup that promises to help students “join the ranks of Ivy League admits.” An attendant in a white uniform waits at a standing desk to greet visitors in a lounge lined with paintings and featuring a coffee bar and a glass facade with a stunning view of the downtown skyline. “We all strive to get things done while sipping Italian coffee brewed in-house,” a recent Athena ad read.

Co-founded in 2014 by two Princeton graduates, Athena has served more than 2,000 students. At least 80 clients have been admitted to elite universities, and 87% have gotten into top-50 U.S. colleges, according to its website. One client said that Athena charges more than a million rupees, or $12,200 a year, six times India’s annual per capita income. Athena declined comment for this story.

Around 2020, Athena expanded its research program and started emphasizing publication. Athena and similar services in South Korea and China cater to international students whose odds of getting accepted at a U.S. college are even longer than those American students face. MIT, for instance, accepted 1.4% of international applicants last year, compared with 5% of domestic applicants.

A former consultant said Athena told her that its students were the “creme de la creme.” Instead, she estimated, 7 out of 10 needed “hand-holding.”

For publication, Athena students have a readily available option: Questioz, an online outlet founded by an Athena client and run by high schoolers. Former Editor-in-Chief Eesha Garimella said that a mentor at Athena “guides us on the paper editing and publication process.” Garimella said Questioz publishes 75%-80% of submissions.

Athena students also place their work in the Houston-based Journal of Student Research. Founded in 2012 to publish undergraduate and graduate work, in 2017 the journal began running high school papers, which now make up 85% of its articles, co-founders Mir Alikhan and Daharsh Rana wrote in an email.

Last June, a special edition of the journal presented research by 19 Athena students. They tested noise-reduction algorithms and used computer vision to compare the stances of professional and amateur golfers. A survey of Hong Kong residents concluded that people who grew up near the ocean are more likely to value its conservation. Athena’s then-head of research was listed as a co-author on 10 of the projects.

Publication in JSR was “pretty simple,” said former Athena student Anjani Nanda, who surveyed 103 people about their awareness of female genital mutilation and found that they were poorly informed. “I never got any edits or suggested changes from their side.”

As colleges abandon indices of merit (this is of course a way to accept students who would not get in using traditional merits), and go to “holistic” evaluation, this kind of scam will become more and more common. For you can include anything that makes you stand out as “holistic”, and money-grubbing  people will find a way to take advantage of that.

h/t: Steve

12 thoughts on “New college admissions scam

  1. Im glad I got into tech when I did. Job interviews are based on merit (coding problems, math problems, random questions like “how many unique three letter words can I make from the word ‘hello’ ” etc.) and other jobs for tutors and independent contractors are also based on merit. People will not hire you if you are not good at your job and it is pretty easy to tell how good someone is after talking to them for 15 minutes. With information being so easily accessible, I would avoid an expensive university unless it is nearly or entirely free.

    1. The choice of higher education destination depends upon the student and the fields. For many a more practical community college program is better as they can give immediate employable jobs. For others wanting to study in more detail and less immediately practical, then university is for you. Either way both these institutions should be relatively inexpensive.

  2. When we were looking into college for our son we did attend a meeting for students attending Oxford and Cambridge. When some one asked what the universities were looking for in their admissions they said they don’t care about sports, they don’t care about charity work you do, they don’t care about irrelevant extra curriculars, they care about academics solely. That’s the way it should be.
    And unfortunately the price was way beyond our means which is probably good as a student attending those universities needs to focus on one subject only and can’t take courses outside his or her field.

  3. Not surprising. And why not reduce time and overhead by having ChatGTP write the paper?
    Another entanglement is that meanwhile the universities receiving applications from overseas can be tempted to not look too closely since foreign nationals will pay premium tuition costs.

  4. This particular thing seems like a scam, but I wonder if there’s a hidden gem here as well. What if there were a program that legitimately paired top-flight high school students with university graduate students or professors for purposes of engaging in scholarly research? And what if there were a journal (or journals) devoted to such “young researcher” projects? That would be cool. Maybe there already is/are such programs and journals.

    When I was a professor, I almost never had contact with high school students interested in research. I gave a few talks to some public school students, but that was about it. When I was a high school student, I only once or twice had an opportunity to talk with a science professor at my local university. Once it was to get have some fossils identified (with a professor who eventually became a life-long friend and mentor), and another time it was to get someone to identify a salamander I had found (it was a beautiful Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum). It would have been great to have more contact with the university as a high-school student.

    1. There is plenty of that. There are summer research programs where area high school students are brought in to dip their toes in doing some research for a few weeks. Faculty on smaller campuses can very much value these sorts of things since the profs can really use the help, and doing this was why they got their research grant. It’s also seen as a good recruitment tool. There is considerable encouragement for faculty to visit area schools to show the kids science and wildlife. Doing that is worth points in our annual evaluations.

    2. I agree with mark. At NASA Langley Research Center, we had several summer programs, some of which extended through the year, for high school students and undergrads. Most mentors involved the kids in actual on-going research, teaching them some background material and giving them some specific tasks to do. In general they (in the 80’s and 90’s) learned computer programming, some applied math in statistics and dafa analysis, andwriting up and presenting results. More recently I had a friend who is aneuro interventionist at a local hospital, an md/phd, who takes on high school and college undergrads as research assistants. Andwe have a high school governors school program in which allstudents are paired with a research scientist or engineer from local government or industry labs and universities. Plenty going on!

    3. There are many places where high school scholars can authentically publish their work. The Regeneron ISEF is one. In the school I lead, we had an ISEF first prize winner, $100,000 Siemens award winner, Broadcom masters first place winner, etc.
      Quite frankly, this comes as no surprise since 1. Professors can also find such journals in which to publish their work and 2. Parents will stop at nothing to increase the chances of their student being admitted to a prestigious university. I am a longtime college counselor and I have seen deplorable behavior.

  5. Here we see the end result of abandoning indices of merit: corruption. And it’s going to become increasingly prevalent as our society decays. As usual, the well-off will benefit, regardless of their race.

  6. Activists and the media have spent decades promoting the big lie that standardized test scores are simply a function of parents’ income. In point of fact, test scores have a correlation of about 0.3 with parents’ income, and most of that is attributable to the genetic heritability of academic achievement, rather than to a true causal effect of parental income.

    In fact, not only are high standardized test scores not particularly susceptible to the influence of parental income, but they are arguably the component of a college application least susceptible to the influence of parental income. The elimination of standardized has made admissions to elite universities easier to buy, not harder.

  7. Where there are market imperfections there will be arbitrage. I live my life as an utilitarist and that has helped keeping my blood pressure low tremendously. I don’t get upset about arbitrage of market imperfections (the higher education market is very imperfect) and I don’t operate on emotions (thanks you too Ayn Rand).
    Now here’s an area where IA will help tremendously. Including in filtering out bogus applicants based on a multifactor analysis. Provided the Unis use it honestly.

  8. Note that this new scam (unlike the old ones) is legal. Of course, this scam will make it easier for very rich parents to buy their way into elite schools. The ACT/SAT made it too easy for (very bright) middle-class kids to get into elite schools. Under James Conant, Harvard was a leader in promoting the SAT to make admission more meritocratic. Now, Harvard goes to extremes to make admissions less meritocratic.

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