British Columbia

University admissions expert describes 'billion-dollar business' of college application fraud

For those who work to prevent college admission fraud, allegations that dozens of powerful people helped their children cheat their way into elite U.S. universities are not surprising.

50 people charged in recent U.S. college admissions scandal

Fifty people were charged in the U.S. this week for allegedly paying millions in bribes, hiring stand-ins to take exams and falsifying credentials for college admissions. (CBC)

For those who work to prevent college admission fraud, allegations that dozens of powerful people helped their children cheat their way into elite U.S. universities are not surprising.

Fraudulent applications are actually a "billion-dollar business," according to the founder of a company that hopes to stop the practice. 

"The reality is that college admissions are very competitive and a lot of times people will do anything to cross that line and get their kid into the school," said Emilie Cushman, founder and CEO of the Toronto-based Kira Talent.

Her company works with universities like the University of Toronto, McMaster, Waterloo and Johns Hopkins, to try to create a fraud-free admissions process.

Earlier this week, 50 people were charged in the U.S. — including actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin — for allegedly paying millions in bribes, hiring stand-ins to take exams and falsifying credentials.

"It's a big problem," Cushman told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition.

"We're finally getting some headlines around it because there were some celebrities involved but it's definitely not a new problem," Cushman said.

Philanthropists, actors, lawyers, coaches accused

The list of those facing charges includes David Sidoo, a prominent Vancouver philanthropist and mainstay in UBC's athletics program, as well as influential actors, lawyers and coaches.  

Sidoo is accused of paying $200,000 to have someone take SATs for his sons in 2011 and 2012.

Court documents say a person whom Sidoo hired allegedly took the test in Vancouver and was under strict instructions to not score "too high" so the score would appear believable.

David Sidoo, a Vancouver-based businessman, philanthropist and notable alumnus of the University of British Columbia, has been charged with conspiracy to commit fraud. (davidsidoo.com)

Paying that kind of money is an extreme example, Cushman said, but hiring someone to help with the admission process is not unusual.

"There's the low-end consultants who might only charge a couple of hundred dollars and then there's the high-end consultants that are being hired by the richest families," she said.

"It's a billion-dollar business."

'Spotless fraud'

The help students get ranges from coaching during the application process to help writing better essays to hiring stand-ins to sit exams.

"A few years ago, we actually did a little experiment where we hired an admissions consultant," Cushman said.

"It was interesting because they really get to know you. They interview you, they get to know your writing style, they get to know who you are as a person, so the fraud is spotless."

Cushman is pushing for schools to change their application processes from relying on submitted test scores and essays.

"That really isn't getting the full story anymore," she said.

"Schools need to adapt and they need to start embracing technology that can help catch these things and give them a more holistic [application] process."

With files from The Early Edition