Admissions Scandal: When ‘Hard Work’ (Plus $6.5 Million) Helps Get You Into Stanford
My dad paid $6.5 Million for me to get into Stanford University
Yusi Zhao in a screenshot from a video in which she offers advice about getting into prestigious American universities. Her family is said to have paid $6.5 million to help secure her admission to Stanford. Credit YouTube screenshot
Billionaire Tied to $6.5 Million Payment for Stanford Is Window Into China’s Elite
The parents behind the largest-known payment in the scandal offer a window into the elite world of the ultrawealthy Chinese business class.
Pharmaceutical executive Zhao Tao led delegation of entrepreneurs to event in Washington and met with President Trump
Looks like no scandal is complete without Donald Trump?
Like many affluent Chinese, pharmaceutical billionaire Zhao Tao cultivated close ties with Beijing while also seeking to move in influential circles abroad and securing a top-flight foreign education for his child.
Sitting in a plush chair and wearing a white blouse buttoned up to the neck, the young woman looks into the camera, smiles and offers advice about getting into a top American university.
“Some people think, ‘Didn’t you get into Stanford because your family is rich?’” the woman, Yusi Zhao, says in a video posted on social media. It wasn’t like that, she says. The admissions officers “have no idea who you are.”
A Chinese billionaire’s Stanford bribe shows how the college admissions scandal makes both zero and complete sense
How much is too much for an elite US credential?
What has never made sense about the college admissions scandal is that seemingly smart businessmen couldn’t find a better return on their investment.
And we may now have found our least-savvy palm greaser.
Meet Chinese billionaire Tao Zhao, whose family reportedly funneled the largest check received by William “Rick” Singer, the admissions consultant at the center of the explosive case brought by federal prosecutors. The pharmaceutical executive’s daughter, Molly, earned a spot at Stanford University by casting herself as a recruit for the school’s sailing team, according to the Los Angeles Times, which broke the story, at a cost $6.5 million. There is “no indication” the young woman ever participated in competitive sailing.
Zhao was not charged in the first round of indictments — in fact, the $6.5 million figure isn’t mentioned in the actual charging documents; it was spoken in court. Courtroom bombs like that are just another indication there are more shoes to drop in this case, and it’s got Silicon Valley’s mega-rich on edge.
What the Zhao family did not fully appreciate is that there are cheaper so-called “side doors” to an elite institution like Stanford.
The special consideration given to “development cases” — in the parlance of high-end college admissions, that means the children of prominent donors — is well documented. Daniel Golden, an author who spoke with Stanford University officials as part of his book on these special admissions arrangements, told the Stanford Daily a few years ago that existing or potential donors could see the admissions benefit of something equivalent to hundreds of extra points on their SAT score.
And for how much? Well, there aren’t exactly how-to guides for quid pro quos, but the Palo Alto Patch reported that a $500,000 donation to the school was about the amount needed for an applicant to receive special consideration.
“The threshold to make a difference in admissions is very high given the incredible amount of money in this area,” Marci Reichelstein, a former Stanford admissions official, told the outlet.
This wouldn’t be the first time a wealthy person paid even bigger money. The father of presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, now a senior adviser to Donald Trump, infamously pledged $2.5 million to Harvard just before Kushner’s acceptance to the school, a gift Golden speculates played a role in his admission.
That’s what has never made total sense about the college admissions scandal. It has always seemed like amateur, ham-handed behavior by some of the world’s most privileged and in-the-know people. College development offices welcome major gifts like these: Stanford, for instance, lists how much you must donate to qualify for various levels of “gift opportunities” on its website. Stanford has a $27 billion endowment, but the money drawn from that each year only covers about a fifth of the school’s expenses, which means it relies on income sources like gifts and tuition to run school operations.
That’s a long way of saying: $6.5 million stands out on a financial statement.
Which brings us back to the Zhao family: For far less than $6.5 million, a billionaire could’ve found a far more legal way to influence-peddle his way into good favor with one of America’s elite universities. After all, Singer’s other clients paid typically $250,000 for access to one of his side doors — about 26 times cheaper a rate.
But here’s another way to look at it: For the wealthiest people in the world, who retain their standing in the upper crust through credentials like elite schools, it is perhaps surprising that someone like Tao Zhao wouldn’t pay more.
After all, the $6.5 million reportedly offered by his family is only 0.4 percent of his total net worth, according to Forbes’ latest estimate. Zhao is the founder of Shandong Buchang Pharmaceuticals and one of the 200 richest people in China.
And the gift speaks to just how much value Chinese billionaires place on US credentials and social signifiers like a Stanford diploma. Alibaba founder Jack Ma has said that he was rejected by Harvard 10 times, but Chinese billionaires have long been known for their “love affair” with Ivy League schools.
“We work with many wealthy Chinese families who feel that sending a child to an elite Western university is a way of signaling status and prestige — yet ‘another luxury brand purchase,’” says college admissions consultant Paul Lowe. “For wealthy families seeking a safe haven for their assets — by one estimate more than $1 trillion in capital left China in 2015 — a US college education for a child can serve as a first step toward addressing capital flight, foreign investment, and even eventual emigration.”
When you look at it that way, a price tag of $6.5 million makes total sense.
A Chinese Cheating Ring at UCLA Reveals an Industry Devoted to Helping International Students Scam Grades
Operation TOEFL Recall was overshadowed by Operation Varsity Blues, but it’s just as scandalous
On paper, Liu Cai was a model student. After moving to the United States from Beijing, he majored in biology at UCLA and volunteered at the Boys & Girls Club. A former teacher, Jose Echeverria, remembers him as “an excellent student” and a “great person” who was “easy to get along with.” Cai graduated in 2017 and landed a job at a health care technology company in Santa Monica. He appeared to be doing everything right.
So it came as a surprise when, on a Tuesday morning in March, federal authorities arrested him on suspicion of facilitating an international cheating ring. According to prosecutors, Cai, along with four current and former UCLA students and another student at Cal State Fullerton, helped at least 40 Chinese nationals obtain student visas by fraudulently taking the TOEFL, an English proficiency exam, on their behalf. Cai’s ringers would show up to testing sites with fake Chinese passports bearing their own photos but with the names of the clients. Where Cai slipped—and where investigators caught up to him—was charging 39 test registration payments to his credit card.
Any other day the UCLA bust might have made national headlines, but the news got swamped by a bigger, sexier college cheating scandal: Operation Varsity Blues. (The UCLA investigation was dubbed “Operation TOEFL Recall.”) While the UCLA case is less shocking—bribes in thousands of dollars instead of millions; Chinese high schoolers instead of Full House cast members—it represents an equally notable underbelly of American college admissions. If Varsity Blues is about the American ruling class perpetuating its privilege, the UCLA scandal reveals the extreme pressures and perverse incentives facing international students, many of them far less privileged and desperate to not screw up their shot.
It’s hard to find data on cheating that is broken down by country of origin, but a survey of 14 public universities by The Wall Street Journal found that in the 2014-15 school year, those universities reported cheating among international students at a rate five times higher than among domestic students. In 2018 a professor at UC Santa Barbara told the Los Angeles Times that Chinese students comprise 6 percent of the student body but account for a third of plagiarism cases. A 2016 study conducted by United Kingdom newspaper The Times says that students from outside the European Union were four times more likely to cheat than U.K. and European Union students.
Few suggest that Chinese students, who make up a third of all international students in the U.S., cheat at higher rates than students from other foreign countries. “People are understandably reluctant to make many assertions here,” said Gary Pavela, who runs the Academic Integrity Seminar, an instructional program for students caught cheating. “It’s become very sensitive and somewhat politicized.” In March a professor at the University of Maryland resigned after students accused him of discrimination for allegedly saying that all Chinese students cheat.
It’s safe to say, though, that Chinese students bear the brunt of scrutiny. In 2016 Reuters reported that the University of Iowa was investigating at least 30 students—most, if not all, believed to be Chinese—over allegations of cheating. In 2015 federal prosecutors in Pennsylvania indicted 15 Chinese nationals for a standardized test-taking scheme similar to the UCLA case. ACT Inc. and the College Board, which owns the SAT, frequently delays or cancels scores in Asia when test materials leak.
As supply follows demand, an entire industry has sprouted to help Chinese college applicants and students cheat. A Google search yields countless websites offering substitute test-taking services for the SAT, ACT, GRE, and TOEFL. A site called Cherry Blossom promises a “safe,” “honest” experience for clients and contains numerous screen grabs of chats between the proprietor, who goes by “DemonHunter,” and satisfied customers. I messaged DemonHunter, offering my services as a test taker. “You may need to go to Saudi Arabia for your first mission,” he wrote back. I asked how much it paid, but he never responded. He could smell a fake a mile away.
Indeed, scams in this industry are rampant. It can be hard to find a trustworthy cheater. While researching this story I paid a Chengdu-based website called HotEssay to write an article for me about the problem of international students cheating in the United States (it charged about 11 cents a word). The result, while not quite publication worthy, contained no plagiarism, as least as far as I could detect. A+!
“They think it’s a gray area, but in the U.S. it’s a no-no area.”
Many consulting companies work to exploit flaws in the standardized testing system. The College Board often reuses SATs, administering them first in the U.S. and then in other countries months or years later. Test prep companies in Asia can therefore compile information about past exams to create a study booklet—or, if they’re pros, to re-create entire tests. For exams offered on the same day around the world, some students will even exploit the time difference, taking the test in one time zone and then relaying details to students in a later time zone (a strategy dramatized in the 2017 Thai film Bad Genius).
But domestic students have access to these schemes, too. Why do international students exploit them more? Experts I spoke with cited family pressure, as many young Chinese students are only children and the first in their families to study abroad; opportunity, as cheating companies actively hawk their services in Mandarin to incoming students; and a general lack of preparedness for the rigors of an education in a non-native language. “The biggest factor is not their international status but going to school in a language that they’re not proficient in,” says David Rettinger, president of the International Center for Academic Integrity. (In 2017 the Chinese state-run Global Times ran a trend story about foreign students, including Americans, cheating at Chinese universities.)
Cultural differences play a role, too, particularly when it comes to perceived gray areas. Chinese students might think it’s acceptable to collaborate on homework or to find the answers to a test online in advance, says Andrew Chen of WholeRen, a firm that helps Chinese students apply to schools and jobs in the U.S. “They think it’s a gray area, but in the U.S. it’s a no-no area.”
Cheating can self-perpetuate if unchecked. Chen tells the story of a student who faked his TOEFL score to get into Purdue University. Once there, he paid someone to attend classes for him. His (employee’s) grades were good enough that he got into Columbia University for grad school, but then, struggling, he hired someone to take his classes there, too. Hoping to land a job at Goldman Sachs, he sought Chen’s help. “I think his English was at a high school level,” Chen says. All told, the beleaguered Chinese student spent nearly $1.2 million on not going to school.
Fixing cheating requires a comprehensive approach. Pavela compares it to airport security. Safety relies on a combination of ID checks, no-fly lists, metal detectors, and X-rays, and see-something-say-something vigilance. You don’t just tell people not to bring a bomb on a plane. Standardized test companies implement ever-stronger security measures, including, in the case of the Educational Testing Service, which administers the GRE and TOEFL, facial and voice recognition software (still a far cry from the fingerprinting and radio-signal-detecting drones used at some testing sites for China’s hypercompetitive college entrance exam). They also maintain a “rogue’s gallery” of suspected cheaters and cross-reference new test-taker data against that, says Ray Nicosia, ETS director of testing security.
But reducing academic dishonesty might ultimately require, of all things, education. “It’s good old-fashioned teaching,” says Pavela, who runs the anti-cheating seminar. Getting through to students means helping them understand their goals and how cutting corners runs counter to achieving them. In his program, Pavela has students write a “gratitude statement.” “You don’t have to hire someone to do that,” he says. He also screens Shattered Glass, a 2003 film about fabulist journalist Stephen Glass in which, Pavela says, “he started to deceive himself.” From there it’s a matter of getting to know students on an individual basis. “What you’re teaching has got to be engaging,” Pavela says. “It’s got to seem relevant to them in some way. If you can do that, you’ll dramatically reduce academic dishonesty.”
Which sounds great, if schools have the resources for such personal attention. But in the meantime there’s a huge, unthinking profit-driven apparatus steering students toward shortcuts. After getting my paper back from HotEssay, I asked “Lisa,” a customer service rep, if the company worried that students use its services to cheat. “I don’t know what they use it for,” she replied. When I pressed her, she offered an analogy: “The vegetable seller doesn’t ask you whether you’re going home to boil your food or fry it. Just worry about your own food.”