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Fixing Fraud in College Admissions

Harvard’s Hidden Hypocrisies

By Adelaide E. Parker, Contributing Opinion Writer
Adelaide E. Parker ’26, a Crimson News Editor and FM Comp Director, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House. Her column, “Harvard’s Hidden Hypocrisies,” runs tri-weekly on Wednesdays.

When sophomore Adam B. Wheeler transferred to Harvard in 2007, he seemed like a model student. His application said he’d graduated from Phillips Academy at Andover and earned perfect grades as a freshman at MIT.

As a Harvard student, Wheeler claimed to have maintained straight As and said he helped author six books. During his three years at the College, Wheeler won over $40,000 in grants and prizes — including the Hoopes Prize, a prestigious award given for undergraduate theses. His senior year, he applied for the Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships and seemed on track to earn Harvard’s endorsement for both.

But there was a catch.

A Harvard professor noticed some similarities between Wheeler’s writing and that from a colleague. Wheeler’s grades turned out to be fake, as did his SAT score — and he’d never been enrolled at MIT. His research was also plagiarized.

Wheeler’s entire narrative was fraudulent. He left Harvard and, one year later, pled guilty to 20 misdemeanor and felony counts including larceny and identity fraud.

Wheeler stands out as one of Harvard’s most egregious admissions scandals. But faking information to get into college isn’t that uncommon. The 2019 Varsity Blues scandal, where 33 parents paid college counselor William Rick Singer to bribe college officials and inflate their children’s test scores, brought college application fraud into the national spotlight.

As college applications grow steadily more competitive, students have been pushed to ever-greater lengths to gain admission — including mounting pressures to embellish or outright falsify application data. As one of the most selective colleges in the nation, Harvard is a prime target for falsified applications.

But the College’s administration has apparently not taken public action to crack down on this. Harvard must take a harsher stance on application fraud.

Absent Accountability

College applications are difficult to quickly and reliably fact-check. It’s easy for applicants to inflate their volunteering and extracurricular time commitments — or even manufacture false accolades — but quite difficult to catch them in the act.

There are potential actors who could provide accountability throughout the college application process: high school teachers and counselors, submission sites like the Common Application, and admissions officers themselves. However, a mismatch between the sheer scale of the national college admissions process and the resources available at each step of the way has rendered these checks insufficient for preventing student fraud.

High school administrators, especially those at large or underfunded public schools, often lack the time to fact-check their students’ applications. Most public schools employ general guidance counselors who are responsible for hundreds of students, making it hard to know each student well enough to corroborate anecdotal claims in letters of recommendation.

College application sites also shy away from the responsibility to check for fraud. The Common Application does provide a few accountability mechanisms: Administrators submit letters of recommendation without student oversight and students have the opportunity to submit test scores through verifiable channels.

However, Common Application representatives maintain that the responsibility to vet applicants lies with universities, not themselves.

At the college level, there’s a similar lack of resources. In recent years Harvard has received over 405,000 applications each application cycle, and experts report that admissions officers spend around twelve minutes reviewing the average candidate — nowhere near enough time to complete in-depth background checks on potential students.

The University of Pennsylvania’s former Dean of Admissions, Eric J. Furda, told the Daily Pennsylvanian that it’s simply not feasible for universities to vet every applicant. Furda said that when admissions officers flag something particularly suspicious, they often just reject the applicant in question.

However, if falsified data doesn’t appear egregious, it has a high chance of slipping under admissions officers’ radar — and there are almost no other systems in place to catch it.

Foiling Fraud

Even with limited resources, there are clear steps Harvard can take to quell application fraud.

Fact-checking every applicant — or even all accepted students — would place an undue burden on admissions officers. However, Harvard should select and fact-check a small, random sample of applications each year.

Doing so would add an element of accountability to the college application process, discouraging outright falsification. Implementing such a program wouldn’t be costly — it would rely more on deterrence than widespread fact-checking.

This fact-checking wouldn’t have to be fully comprehensive to be effective. It’s more trouble than it’s worth to verify specificities like exactly how many hours a week a student is spending on a club. Instead, admissions officers should seek to verify the foundational, basic facts of a student’s application — their recommenders, club leadership positions, and major awards.

Students found to be lying about key parts of their narratives should not be admitted. Moreover, if a given high school’s students are regularly guilty of application fraud, Harvard should subject that school to more regular scrutiny.

In an industry as sprawling and high-stakes as college admissions, there’s no way to completely eliminate fraud. But through simple deterrence, Harvard has a better chance to prevent future scandals like Wheeler’s.

The next time the University gives a student $40,000 in funding, they have the responsibility to ensure it’s for legitimate work.

Adelaide E. Parker ’26, a Crimson News Editor and FM Comp Director, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House. Her column, “Harvard’s Hidden Hypocrisies,” runs tri-weekly on Wednesdays.

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