Case suggests vulnerability

For some applicants, a Yale education is worth lying for.

After discovering serious discrepancies in the transfer application of a Morse College junior, Yale rescinded his admission last summer, and police arrested him in September for larceny and forgery. In a season of single-digit acceptance rates, the case is a jolting signal of the vulnerability of the Ivy League to admissions fraud.

Facing stiffer competition and heavier pressure than ever before, an increasing number of increasingly desperate students are willing to bend the truth to get into their dream schools, experts say. And with 23,000 applications to read in 90 days, it would be simply impossible to catch them all, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel said.

“Could you eliminate the possibility entirely?” he said in an interview. “It seems hard to imagine.”

University officials said they have no way of knowing how many applicants have gotten away with forgery, fraud or even minor exaggerations.

But if the accusations levied in court documents are true, this student did not merely pad his resume; he defrauded Yale University wholesale.

And he was not the first.

According to a sworn affidavit obtained by the News, the Yale Police Department has investigated admissions fraud before, including instances of inaccurate birth dates, altered or counterfeit transcripts and fake letters of recommendation. Such cases at Yale and other elite schools have captured national headlines in the past.

In 1992, James Arthur Hogue, a 32-year-old man who posed as a 20-year-old Princeton student and fraudulently received almost $22,000 in scholarships, was sentenced to nine months in jail. Charges of forgery and falsifying records were subsequently dropped in a plea bargain.

Then, in 1995, Lon “L.T.” Grammer, a 25-year-old senior in Davenport College, was expelled and charged with stealing $61,475 in loans and scholarships. Yale officials said the student, who transferred from a California community college where he maintained a C average, forged his transcript and letters of recommendation.

And as recently as 1999, Tonica Jenkins, a 24-year-old Ohio woman, pleaded guilty to larceny and forgery for forging recommendations and transcripts in her application to a Yale graduate program. She was ordered to return $16,000 in scholarships.

The student arrested in September has repeatedly denied forging his application and, according to his attorney, Glenn Conway, has submitted a plea of not guilty.

The impregnable bastion

In responses to the News’ inquiry into the former student’s September arrest, most administrators maintained that their hands were tied by strict confidentiality policies. But they could speak about procedures for handling admissions fraud — and for trying to prevent it.

Forged applications are sometimes caught, Brenzel said, but there is no way of knowing how frequently admissions fraud is attempted.

The admissions office does attempt to confirm anything in an application that seems suspicious, he said, but it would be impossible to corroborate everything.

“In cases where any significant doubt arises about any aspect of an application, we call school guidance counselors or registrars for verification,” Brenzel wrote in a statement to the News on Monday night. “Also, every applicant signs a statement on the application to the effect that the information contained is accurate, and the student’s own work.”

The procedures for the 800 or so transfer applications each year are no different than for first-years, Brenzel said.

Under the admissions office’s “current operations,” Brenzel said those procedures are not undergoing any review or revision in the wake of the student’s alleged forgery.

The revelation that someone could infiltrate Yale shatters the mystique of the Ivy League as an impregnable bastion of the elite.

That is exactly the point Grammer tried to make to validate his attendance. By showing he could hold his own with those who were admitted honestly, he seemed to try to delegitimize the entire admissions process.

Whether or not he misrepresented his qualification when he applied, he countered that he had proven that he was qualified once he was here. He told The New York Times in 1995 that he had earned his place at Yale, earning a B average.

It turned out, as the News later reported, that he had received C’s and D’s and was suspected of plagiarism and room thefts.

The student arrested in September — whose name is being withheld by the News because of his documented history of emotional instability — also insisted he belongs at Yale.

“It’s not like I wasn’t up to the task,” he said. “I’m not someone who had to forge to get in.”

During his junior year here, the student won an academic prize for an essay. And in class, teachers and classmates said they remember him as intelligent and engaged, if sometimes a tad too eager.

Professor Wai Chee Dimock, who taught the student in an English seminar, said he participated well in class but was “emphatic” about asking to rewrite his papers.

“He was obsessed with getting a good grade,” she said.

‘Not a trend’?

Perhaps it was the same obsession that allegedly drove him to change the grades on his Columbia transcript to straight A’s, as charged in the sworn affidavit submitted with the warrant for his arrest.

But he is not the only one feeling the pressure to present a flawless transcript, insiders of the college-admissions process said, although logistics simply preclude scrutinizing every claim on every application.

“Is anybody really going to check? No,” said Rachel Toor ’84, a former admissions officer at Duke and author of “Admissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process.” “How much checking do you think is really going on with 20,000 applications?”

With so many more qualified applicants than available spots, it matters less than before to the admissions officer which student to take over another, even though it could mean the world to the applicant, she explained. So the applicant has a greater incentive to exaggerate than the reader has to ferret out embellishments, she said.

And applicants, under intense pressure to gain admission, are ready to exploit that trust, she said.

“Embellishing is the whole point of the art” of getting in, she said. “Kids will do whatever they can, which often involves a bit of hyperbole.”

Students’ desperation fans the burgeoning market for professional college-counseling services, which she said “are popping up like mushrooms after the rain.”

Lloyd Thacker, author of “College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy,” said the pressure on students applying to the Ivy League is higher than ever, and they will do “anything to get in.”

He said students have told him that the “process is so crazy that it’s making me do things that conflict with my values.”

As more students resort to exaggerating their accomplishments, admissions officers become better at sniffing out unrealistic claims, said Michael London, president of College Coach and editor of “The New Rules of College Admissions: Ten Former Admissions Officers Reveal What it Takes to Get Into College Today.”

But augmenting a resume is a far cry from forgery, he said, which only “someone who’s basically a criminal” could pull off.

“I don’t see admissions fraud as a trend,” he said, “but as other times when someone breaks a rule or a law, it happens infrequently, but when it does, it’s pretty startling.”

While exaggerations may be increasingly common, cases of outright fraud, fabrication or forgery are “exceptional,” Toor said.

Thacker said no amount of due diligence could catch every fraudulent application, so a better approach may be to try to prevent the pressures that motivate applicants to lie. He said colleges need to take responsibility for their role in creating the “frenzy” that drives students to cheating.

“Are colleges culpable in terms of their admissions practices? Yes,” he said. “The preventative approach is more important than catching them at the other end.”

Thacker’s organization — the Education Conservancy, a non-profit dedicated to overcoming the commercialization that has made college admissions what he calls “a culture that’s been built without conscience” — has received a donation of at least $5,000 from Yale.

Yale’s penalty for lying on an application is revocation of admission, Brenzel wrote in a statement Monday night.

The University did not directly answer a question about how many students’ admissions have been rescinded after they started attending Yale.

See the Editor’s Note.

Comments

  • Yale News Reader

    Whether or not the admissions office in an undergraduate institution "catches" the misrepresentations in an application or not, should these students go on to graduate and professional school, it's very likely their lies will catch up with them and may jeopardize their licensure-- medical or legal -- then they can ask themselves whether the lying was worth it.

  • Anonymous

    No. 1 is right. And even when you are qualified, the experience can be difficult enough -- a C student from a California community college must not have had a pleasant experience just to trying to keep up (and a poor student from Columbia -- well that's probably almost as good as a Calif. community college ;) ).

  • Rina

    All that to go to Yale? The guy sounds sick in the head.