Reporting on a Very Bad Year for the College Admissions Industry

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It has been a bad news year for the college admissions industry.

In March, the federal government unveiled its Varsity Blues investigation, which by now hardly needs an introduction. The affidavit in the case reads like a crime thriller crossed with a comedy of manners. Rich parents staged photos of their children to make them look like water polo players. They had their children’s SAT bubble sheets corrected by a corrupt proctor. And they conspired with the consultant at the center of the case, William Singer, to evade the efforts of school counselors to fact-check applications.

The ludicrous details set off a race among reporters to do what we in the journalism business call “folos,” or analytical pieces that illuminate the trends behind big news events. (The word “folo” is a deliberate misspelling of “follow.”)

Our latest folo, published earlier this week, was about one of the more sensitive processes exploited by Mr. Singer and his clients: the one in which students with disabilities are allowed extended time to take tests like the ACT and SAT, often after psychologists diagnose conditions like anxiety and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

I am an education reporter on the National desk, and I began the reporting several months ago by speaking to high school counselors who were eager to vent about what they called “diagnosis shopping.” A growing number of affluent parents, they said, were paying up to $10,000 for disability evaluations not covered by insurance. Often, their children were enrolled in advanced classes but were not earning high grades.

With a 30-page diagnostic report in hand, a parent would show up at school requesting a “504 plan,” a federal disability designation that offers a student accommodations like extra time on classroom assignments and standardized tests.

A Times analysis of federal disability and census data, conducted with the graphics editor Jugal Patel, showed exactly what the counselors had told me: In the top 1 percent of wealthiest school districts, double the percentage of students held a 504 plan. In some wealthy enclaves around New York, Seattle and Dallas, more than 1 in 10 students had the designation — up to seven times the national average.

Though Varsity Blues set us off on our investigation, what we found was less a story of fraud than one of everyday inequality. Although some unknown number of 504 disability cases are likely misdiagnoses of students whose parents are particularly aggressive or anxious about academic competition, the majority of these wealth-related disparities are due to unequal access to psychological services.

Other admissions strategies, however, seem much more ethically compromised. ProPublica Illinois and The Wall Street Journal reported a shocking story this week. Several dozen well-off families in the suburbs of Chicago hired lawyers to transfer guardianship of their teenagers to other adults, in order for the students to claim financial hardship and qualify for federal and state aid.

The scheme may be technically legal, but there is little doubt it is grift. In many states, including Illinois, there is not enough state financial aid for all who qualify. A rich student who receives state aid may be taking it directly from a poor one.

The public is justifiably outraged. But some education experts have begun to worry that all the attention paid to the swindles and inequality of selective college admissions risks an overcorrection. In the case of our disability story, I’ve heard from readers who acknowledge the unfairness of the accommodations process, but are worried about students with legitimate conditions feeling more embarrassed to ask for extended testing time, afraid they’ll be mistaken for people trying to game the system.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which accepted students involved in the guardianship scheme, has already said it will ask for extra paperwork from some students who have had their guardianship transferred. That could be a burden on teenagers who are legitimately estranged from their families and have little help navigating the application process.

A narrative of pay-to-play college admissions could dissuade low-income students from even applying, said Wesley Whistle, a senior adviser on higher education at New America, a Washington think tank. And just as with other public programs, like food stamps, politicians could use stories of fraud to argue for funding cuts to programs like Pell grants.

The revelations in recent news reports are “upsetting and troublesome,” Mr. Whistle said. “But I worry about the public trust.”

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