Earlier this year, Netflix debuted “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal.” The documentary details the 2019 FBI investigation into a ring of college admissions counselors, coaches, and parents who helped their children secure admission to elite colleges through unethical actions, including cheating on standardized tests and faking athletic accomplishments.

While the scandal drew significant attention due to the scheme’s scope and involvement of celebrities like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, a recent survey found that cheating to help students get into college is not restricted to the wealthy and well-connected.

To discover the prevalence of cheating when it comes to higher education admission among average Americans, Intelligent.com surveyed 1,250 parents with at least one child who attends or attended college. Parents were asked if they took unethical actions to help their child gain college admission.

Intelligent.com defined “unethical actions” as the following:

  • Falsifying achievements or volunteer experience on a college application
  • Writing or paying someone to write a student’s application essay and/or letters of recommendation
  • Bribing college admissions officials
  • Making a sizable donation to an institution
  • Encouraging a student to cheat on standardized tests or having someone else take the standardized test for the student.

Key findings

  • 1 in 4 parents cheated to get their child into college
  • 1 in 2 parents of children who went to for-profit institutions cheated to help them get accepted
  • Nearly half of parents who cheated did so because their child’s high school GPA was perceived to be too low
  • 78% of parents who took unethical steps to help their child gain college admission say their child knew what they were doing

1 in 2 parents cheated to get their child into a for-profit institution

When reviewed by the type of institution students were applying to (public non-profit, private non-profit, for-profit), cheating is most prevalent among parents whose children attend for-profit colleges.

Although only 12% of parents surveyed say their child attended this type of institution, 52% of them took unethical steps to help their child secure their acceptance. By comparison, 33% of parents whose child attended a private non-profit college, and 19% whose child went to a public non-profit college took unethical actions on their child’s behalf.

While individual motives for acting unethically during the college admissions process vary, there are a few explanations for the prevalence of cheating at for-profit institutions.

For-profit advertising may drive parents to cheat

A recent investigation by the Government Accountability Office found that it was easier to get away with cheating at for-profit schools, due to less oversight and a greater emphasis on high enrollment than at non-profit institutions. Investigators were able to gain admission to 12 out 15 for-profit schools using falsified application materials.

For-profit colleges are also known for their aggressive and often opaque advertising tactics, which make their schools seem more desirable to parents and students, increasing the sense that they need an advantage to get accepted.

Most for-profit colleges offer career-focused diploma and certificate programs, not associate’s or bachelor’s degrees, which may seem more attractive to students eager to get out of school and join the workforce. However, as investigations have shown, the promises made by for-profit colleges about graduates’ employment opportunities and earning potential are often exaggerated or incorrect.

Competitiveness of non-profit universities likely driver for some to cheat

Meanwhile, the significant rate of cheating at private non-profit universities can likely be attributed to more rigorous admissions requirements and higher prestige of these institutions, which include Ivy League schools and top research universities. Acceptance rates for the most prestigious colleges in the U.S. typically hover around 10%, making every aspect of an application critical, to the point where parents and students may fudge some details to give their application a boost.

Parents who earn the most and least cheat the most

When examined by income, parents from high-income households ($125,000 or more annually) are most likely to take unethical steps to help their child secure college admission. Thirty-three percent of parents in this high-income bracket cheated.

Parents from low-income households (less than $49,999 annually) cheated at a similar rate of 29%. Interestingly, only about 19% of parents from middle-income households ($50,000-$124,999 annually) cheated.

“Every parent who takes unethical actions to help their child get into college has their own motivation for doing so,” says Intelligent.com spokesperson Kristen Scatton. “For lower-income parents, higher education may be the path towards a financially secure future for their children. It may seem worth it to bend the rules a bit to help their kids get into college.”

“On the other hand, high-income families may be more concerned with maintaining their social and financial status, often by ensuring their child attends a prominent institution,” Scatton added. “As we saw with the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, individuals with greater means may engage in unethical behavior from a sense of entitlement, or a belief that their money and status will protect them from consequences.”

Low GPA tops list of reasons why

When parents were asked to identify the reasons why they felt it was necessary to take these unethical actions, nearly half pointed to their child’s low high school GPA.

Additionally, 40% of respondents took unethical steps to “ensure a prosperous future for their child.”

How they cheated

Intelligent also asked parents a multiple-answer question regarding the specific actions they took to ensure their child’s acceptance to a particular college.

Among all respondents, 52% made a “sizable donation” to the school with the intent of improving their child’s chance of being accepted. In wealthier households, this practice is even more common. Seventy-three percent of high-income households helped get their child into a particular school by donating to that institution.

“This is more of a gray area than outright lying in an application or cheating on an exam,” says Scatton. “On the surface, making a donation can be explained as an altruistic move, but it becomes a lot murkier when there are strings attached, such as ensuring a child’s admission to the institution.”

As was the case in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, arranging for a separate individual to take their child’s standardized tests, such as the SATs or ACTs, is another popular way to increase a child’s chances for admission, with 41% of respondents saying they did this.

Other cheating methods practiced by roughly one-fourth of parents include listing false achievements on their child’s application, listing false volunteer work on an application, bribing one or more individuals responsible for the admissions process, and encouraging their child to lie or embellish life experiences in their application essay.

Methodology

The data for this report comes from two surveys designed and paid for by Intelligent.com and administered through Pollfish, an online survey platform.

In one survey, conducted on April 25-26, 2021, we surveyed 1,250 American parents with a child who is attending or did attend a four-year college or university. In a separate study, conducted on April 25, 2021, we surveyed 1,250 American adults 18 and older who are currently attending or did attend a four-year college or university.

Parents and students were asked a series of single-answer and multiple-answer questions regarding the admissions process, and whether they took any actions that could be considered unethical to secure acceptance to college.