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Review: ‘Unacceptable: Privilege, Deceit & the Making of the College Admissions Scandal’

College admissions scandal mastermind Rick Singer / Getty Images

Jancen Power was a pole vaulter at Water Valley High School. Disappointed after finishing sixth in the Texas state championship in 2015, he decided to work harder for the title the next year, "[practicing] around his volunteer gig" and "[driving] 90 miles each way" for lessons. His hard work paid off as he cleared 14 feet to win the state title in 2016. The victory featured a photo of him clearing the bar for the win. 

Rick Singer, the mastermind behind the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, decided the photo of Power would be perfect to photoshop to make the children of his clients appear as student-athletes—all in an effort to help get them into the school of their choice. Just like that, as the authors of Unacceptable: Privilege, Deceit & the Making of the College Admissions Scandal put it, "Jancen's year of sweat and sacrifice were stolen."

To be sure, when the story first broke in 2019—implicating more than 30 parents in a $25 million conspiracy to bribe and cheat their children into elite universities—there was plenty of outrage. But many at the time preferred to view it as an anomaly. In Unacceptable, authors Melissa Korn and Jennifer Levitz refuse to let their readers believe that. What they make clear is that many parents would have done the same if given the opportunity. But they also show how the scandal hurt students like Power.

Korn and Levitz chronicle the rise of college ranking systems, like the U.S. News & World Report, and how parents began to use their children's college acceptances as a way to compare and evaluate themselves. This coincided with schools wanting to diversify their campuses. Many rich white parents began to worry about how their children could separate themselves without being diverse. Singer, who was a coach before becoming a college counselor, offered a guarantee for parents who wanted their kids to get into a prestigious school but were afraid their children would be rejected.

Rankings also helped schools attract students. Northeastern University, for example, undertook a huge recruitment effort to rise in the power rankings. In 2014, the Boston school's applications rose to 50,000, catapulting it into the top 50 in U.S. News. Northeastern became competitive overnight and remains prestigious enough for wealthy parents.

Unfortunately, as Korn and Levitz explain, these parents don't always exercise the best judgment. Take Devin Sloane and his son Matteo. Sloane was an entrepreneur who lived in Bel Air. Matteo was a good student, but Sloane lied to Matteo about fixing his college admissions test. When Matteo found out, he questioned his dad, "Why didn't you believe in me?" Stephen Semprevivo's son Adam was struggling with mental health. Semprevivo thought that if Singer could get Adam into Georgetown, it would make his son happy. Instead, his GPA and mental health plummeted. Unacceptable is full of examples like this, where parents misread their children's needs. Rather than help, these parents only made things worse for their children.

Toward the end of the book, Korn and Levitz describe the first annual National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) conference after the end of the Varsity Blues case. It was the first opportunity for counselors to reconvene and admit their fault in the scandal. Instead, then-NACAC president Stefanie Niles said that while she was shocked by the participants in the scandal, she was dismayed to hear that "a significant portion" of people believe that the college admissions process is unfair.

While the individual stories of the students and parents are troubling, what is worse is that those who need to take the most responsibility are thus far refusing to do so. The Varsity Blues scandal may be out of the public consciousness, but it's likely something similar will happen again. Unfortunately, it seems that the people who most needed to learn from the scandal did not. Korn and Levitz write that many people involved in this case have tried and will continue to abdicate responsibility. Their book forces many parents and administrators to reckon with their actions.

The college admissions process is unfair, and those with the power to change things need to recognize this. As long as these pressures and gaps in college admissions remain, others like Rick Singer will continue to try to gain advantages for their clients. This case is not an anomaly. If anything, it is just the start.