Students Allege Application Deception at um Rebecca Goddard

Many students who consider the University of Miami their “dream school” agonize over every word of their entrance essay and sacrifice countless nights to SAT study guides— anything to avoid falling within the 68 percent of applicants who get rejected.

But in the wake of a national college admissions scandal, students are starting to question if their hard work actually pays off.

The Miami Hurricane recently interviewed more than 150 UM students, high school students and college admissions counselors. A majority of respondents said they believe the college cheating scandal, which was uncovered in March, stretches beyond the 11 universities cited for admitting high school seniors who inflated their standardized scores and bribed college officials. They say that it happens everywhere.

They say it happens at UM.

The University of Miami is home to scenic views, blue skies and, according to some students, a growing population of cheaters. Hunter Crenian // Photo & Visuals Editor

A UM sophomore who asked to remain anonymous said she could not get into UM on her own. Blaming negative high school experiences for her low grades, she confirmed that her parents used donations to buy her an acceptance letter.

“I think my parents definitely influenced the school to let me in,” she said. “In the past, they have donated to the school. I did not do well in high school, and it was a horrible time for me.”

She called her parents’ help “a second chance” and said she feels “very blessed” to have the opportunity to develop a new love for academics at UM.

Multiple students report hearing about their peers taking advantage of family connections to the highest levels of UM’s administrative bureaucracy, all in the hopes of securing an acceptance letter.

“Yes, I know a yacht load of people who paid some absolute bills to be here in some form or another,” said freshman Elizabeth Cronin. “I actually do know a few of these kids personally, and it’s sad to see their lack of motivation to do well in school.”

A senior finance major who asked to remain anonymous recalls a former residential college floor mate actively bragging about such a relationship.

“There was a girl on my floor freshman year who told anyone and everyone who would listen that her dad was on the board and was able to manipulate the admissions process in order to get her in, even though she shouldn’t have by the book,” she said.

Former UM president Donna Shalala told MSNBC that she would receive calls from “very prominent people” hoping to charm a student’s way into college.

“Here’s what they would say to me: ‘Listen this kid has applied. I would like you to look into it. And by the way his parents would be very generous,’” Shalala said. “I would say ‘don’t have that conversation with me.’ It tells you a lot about the pressure that parents have to get their kids into the right schools.”

Many other students have made similar claims, citing conversations with friends, neighbors and classmates that allude to donations as indirect bribes.

“I don’t know of anyone who directly bribed the school, but I do know of students whose parents made considerable donations,” said junior marketing major Kayla Gardner. “To me, that’s basically the same thing. It’s annoying because I had to work hard to get here, and other people just had to write checks.”

Another student, an education major, acknowledged that her family’s donations to UM probably increased her chances of getting in, despite her inadequate test scores and GPA. She said she’s always known that her parents were huge donors and that “it’s no secret.”

“My whole family attended this school, so we have always given donations knowing that I would continue the legacy and go to school here,” said the student who also requested anonymity.

For admission purposes, the University of Miami defines a "legacy" as the child or grandchild of UM alumni. Legacy applicants are encouraged to submit their information on an online form “to ensure their legacy relationship is tracked by the Office of Alumni Relations,” according to the university’s undergraduate admissions page.

“Legacy can help you get in, but it’s not the same as saying here’s a check and here’s a letter of admission,” said Caitlin Kaplan, a freshman.“It’s pretty common to encounter kids whose parents donate buildings and end up going to that school. You don’t just randomly donate a building to a school you had no association with prior to your child applying.”

After the national admissions scandal broke, a UM senior who is a tour guide and a member of the President’s 100 said the university’s admissions office held a staff meeting to address how the guides should respond if prospective students and families have questions about the integrity of UM’s admissions process.

“The head of the admissions office was like, ‘As far as they know, it’s not happened here,’” said the student, who asked to remain anonymous.

An admissions office representative also reportedly told the tour guides that it is not their job to give their opinions about how students are admitted to the university. He told them that their job is to show off the school and talk about their experiences at UM, according to the anonymous source.

One Um tour guide said the office of admissions held a meeting to train its staff on how to react to inquiries about the national cheating scandal. Hunter Crenian // Photo & Visuals Editor

This exchange of wealth for acceptance is a practice that spans the country, creating a culture of elitism within America’s colleges and universities. Students report hearing about unfair admissions practices throughout their time in high school, with some of their peers openly bragging about their parents’ donations.

With costs skyrocketing among new expectations of a resort-like college experience, universities look to find creative ways to increase revenue. Some of this additional money comes from rising tuition, increasing the size of the freshman class, holding fundraising campaigns and soliciting generous donations.

During the 2017-2018 academic and fiscal year, UM listed $312.7 million in contributions, pledges and trusts. In 2017, USC reported contributions totaling a whopping $610 million, reminding students that universities are businesses as well as educators.

And while the universities are mainly concerned with their bottom line, parents are focused on the prestige that comes with their child’s acceptance into a prominent university.

Catie Cunning, 30, a college admissions counselor at Palmer Trinity School in Palmetto Bay, Florida, said that although she has never seen any solid evidence of cheating firsthand, she has heard parents allude to their connections with upper level administrators of prestigious universities.

“There absolutely are parents who are willing to pay the way for their child’s future,” she said.

The UM administration declined to respond to questions about how it responds to parent who offer donations in exchange for admission.

Many UM students say they’ve met these kinds of parents. A sense of stifling competition chokes the air in many high school hallways, especially in the elite private schools that attract wealthy families.

Nicole Habina, a junior political science major, said she knew of a father who asked a prominent southern school “if they wanted a new library or just a few hundred grand.” Dealings like these were commonplace at her high school, she said, since parents were willing to spend big bucks if it meant their kids got into prestigious colleges.

Freshman nursing major Jillian Meyer recounted a similar experience, but this one involved millions of dollars, not thousands. She said one of her classmates got into a different southern university, despite being a terrible student.

“She couldn’t break 1100 on the SAT, so everyone at my school looked up her last name knowing she had money and found her family’s charity had been donating upwards of $15 million,” said Meyer.

Claims such as these are causing students to question the fairness of the college admissions process, which remains largely shrouded in mystery. Members of the admissions department staff act as the gatekeepers of UM from behind closed doors, keeping their exact methods an enigma to the outside world.

The UM admissions department utilizes a "holistic" application process, according to the university. Hunter Crenian // Photo & Visuals Editor

However, the UM administration did say the undergraduate admissions process is “holistic and involves weighing information that includes high school grade point average, rigor of curriculum, standardized test scores, college essay, extracurricular activities and recommendations from many individuals.”

“All of this information is reviewed by a team of professionals dedicated to maintaining the University’s standing as an excellent, exemplary, and relevant institution of higher education that delivers an education that prepares students for future endeavors and careers,” said the UM administration in a statement to The Hurricane.

The university also reports that the average SAT score for students admitted into UM is 1340 and the average ACT score is 31. Of those who reported class rank, 36 percent of admitted students graduated in the top 5 percent of their class and 55 percent graduated in the top 10 percent.

But these numbers might not hold much significance. Multiple students report that cheating on standardized tests is a common practice among high school students. Lying about leadership roles within extracurricular activities and exaggerating community service hours on their college applications are also ways for students to dishonestly boost their resumes.

One of the most popular ways to cheat on exams is to have a doctor falsely diagnose a student with ADD or ADHD, attention disorders that grant test-takers additional time.

Cesar Tejeda, a sophomore advertising major from New Jersey, said he knew a girl in high school who used this method to increase her chances of scoring high on the SAT. She ended up going to USC, the same school that’s been implicated in the national scandal.

“I personally think it’s wrong that just because she had the money for that arrangement she was able to get extra time while people like me had to work with what we had,” Tejeda said.

Other students resort to more obvious measures to boost their scores, such as sneaking in cell phones and using them to look up answers during the exam. Many students report an uneven enforcement of rules within testing centers, some recounting memories of strict, watchful proctors and rule-abiding students, while others paint a picture of overcrowded rooms, lax adults and rampant cheating.

Miami Edison Senior High School is one of the local testing locations known for its lack of protocol and has consequently earned a reputation as a hotspot for cheaters.

Students report that Miami Edison Senior High School is a hotspot for cheating due to its lax enforcement of rules. Photo Source: Twitter, Miami Edison Senior High

“Sometimes they take our phones away, but most times people can sneak them in,” said Sara Padilla-Petit, a junior at Booker T. Washington Senior High School in Miami.

UM students say Miami Edison Senior High School does not thoroughly check IDs, and that it’s possible to enter the testing center using forged documents, or without any identification at all, if students know the right person.

Calls for comment from Miami Edison Senior High were not returned.

A representative from the College Board’s national office said she was not able to give specific information about the allegations against Edison, but that “whenever someone reports cheating, we transfer them to the office of testing and integrity and from there it becomes investigative.”

And the problem doesn’t stop there. More creative cheaters have been known to write answers on the back of water bottle labels or even pay someone else to take the exam in their place.

Parents involved in the national scandal shelled out $10,000 each to Mark Riddell, an expert test-taker from Florida, so that he’d fill out the SATs for wealthy high schoolers. He collected at least $239,449 through the scam, all of which has been turned over to government agencies since his arrest.

Status and power often come with wealth, and many people use their connections as well as their money to secure a spot at UM, students say.

Maggie Martelli-Raben, a freshman industrial engineering major, said she “absolutely” knows students who’ve made such claims.

Admissions department staff members answer questions from prospective students and their families during a typical information session. Hunter Crenian // Photo & visuals editor

“Many of my friends have admitted to knowing people on the admissions board and have also admitted to being under qualified compared to the average UM student that Miami would hope to recruit,” Martelli-Raben said.

These dishonest admissions practices are not just lofty anecdotes, students say. They are meaningful decisions that have a noticeable impact on UM’s classrooms.

Students report working with peers whose laziness is obvious, raising questions about how students with such poor work ethic could have passed UM’s high entrance standards. Accepting applicants based on wealth rather than merit might increase UM’s profits, but it only lowers the quality of education for everyone.

“I have been surrounded by students who lack motivation in the classroom, intelligence and the drive to succeed,” said Stephanie Longmuir, a senior public relations major. “Many a time have I been put into a group with people who will be unresponsive yet will be posting all over their Instagram stories flaunting their wealth, such as a yacht they were on.”

Some students whose parents may have cut corners to get them into the U say they nevertheless have to work hard earn their degree.

“My parents may have helped me get here but it is up to me to stay here,” said an anonymous source who said her parents’ donations helped her get into UM. “I go to the same classes as my peers and take the same tests. I have to study as much as everyone else to maintain my grades and staying here."

However, by admitting students who can afford donations but who can’t meet academic standards, universities perpetuate classism within higher education, many students charge. This practice allows unqualified, wealthy students to occupy seats that might otherwise be given to hard working, less affluent applicants.

“The American Dream motto of ‘hard work pays off” simply does not apply to the modern day college admissions process,” said Martelli-Raben. “Privilege, wealth and fame reign supreme over merit.”

Prospective students and parents walk into the Shalala Student Center while on a tour hosted by the admissions office. Hunter Crenian // Photo & visuals editor

Since the national admission scandal broke, low income students at UM have reported feelings of discouragement and say that the news has only solidified what they already knew to be true of America’s education system: that money is valued more than anything, even years and years of hard work.

“There are kids who balance hardships and have to give it their all to get into elite institutions, while other children simply cruise by and get the same end result because of their parents,” said Amrutha Chethikattil, a UM freshman double majoring in biochemistry and English. “This scandal plays into a ‘rich get richer’ society that is fundamentally incompatible with the American values of meritocracy.”

While UM students say some of their peers and parents are using backdoor methods to get into UM, many others say the people they know adhere to every ethical guideline.

“While I do not know of any student who cheated their way into the University of Miami, I do know plenty of students that worked hard to be here,” said Cinthya Franco, a junior electronic media and motion pictures major. “I have a friend who works a full-time job in order to pay off her student loans and tuition.”

Julia Sackett, a high school senior coming to UM from Westfield, New Jersey in the fall, is among the many who suggested that the admissions process might be better if standardized tests were removed. She argues for a more holistic admissions process

Meanwhile, Libby White, a freshman, offers the following advice for high school students going through the college admissions process at UM and elsewhere: “Stay true to yourself. And don’t get your hopes up.”

Alanna Cooper, Carolyn Batchelor, Erica Jones, Veronica Lucchese, Will McNeill, Olivia Ginsberg, Talia Mereles, Damaris Zamudio, Heidi Steinegger, Ceara Manship, Kay-Ann Henry and Esther Animalu contributed to this reporting.

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