Video: Student accused of duping Harvard

By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/14/2010 10:16:07 AM ET 2010-06-14T14:16:07

Many were surprised when news broke that student Adam Wheeler allegedly lied to get into Harvard. But it turns out that fibbing to make it into an Ivy League school is nothing new.

In 2008, Akash Maharaj was accused of lying to get into another Ivy League sister, Yale, and was eventually convicted of stealing scholarship money from the school.

An article about the swindle in the Yale Daily News, which included a host of admission fraud cases dating back to the 1970s, stated that Maharaj’s situation was “a startlingly common story: A student who, swept up in an admissions frenzy, resorts to bending the rules to secure a spot among the elite.”

Scores of students, often pushed by their parents, feel compelled to get into one of the Ivy League universities — including Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania — no matter what it takes because many see it as a surefire path to success.

“The Ivy League can open doors for you, through alumni and for interviews,” said Sheila Curran, a career and organizational consultant. “But there is a lot of hype about the Ivy League that is simply not true.”

An Ivy League degree can give you a leg up — and possibly a bigger paycheck — but Curran said that most people can still get ahead with any degree from any school. It has more to do with your personal characteristics, she said, adding that “some people go to Harvard and don’t do well.”

Even so, it’s hard to deny the appeal of being branded an Ivy Leaguer.

Among the elite
Wheeler’s attorney, Steven Sussman, would not comment on his client’s reasons for wanting to attend Harvard. But he acknowledged that the pressure on young people to get into an Ivy League school “is absurd.” He pointed to the 2009 documentary “Nursery University” about New York City parents who are trying to get their kids on the Ivy League university track as early as preschool.

Wheeler, 23, has pleaded not guilty to a host of charges including larceny and identity fraud. His trial is set for Feb. 7, 2011.

Norman Pattis, a Connecticut attorney who represented two students who lied to get into Yale in the 1990s, said his clients were motivated by the societal notion that elite degrees will hook you up for life. “People are hungry for the cachet they think an Ivy League degree will give them,” he said.

Getting that status, however, is harder than ever. According to the Harvard Crimson, the school accepted a record-low 6.9 percent of applicants this year even though the number of applications actually went up 5 percent — topping 30,000 for the first time in the school’s history. Other Ivy League schools also reported increases in applications this year.

What’s the allure? Statistics show you’ll make more money. “The typical Ivy League bachelor’s graduate earns about 27 percent more early in their career, and about 47 percent more by the time he or she is about 40, than the typical bachelor’s graduate from all U.S. schools,” according to compensation website PayScale.com.

And some employers look specifically for Ivy Leaguers. It’s not unusual to see job postings on the major job boards that say: “Ivy League preferred.”

“We don't limit ourselves to only Ivy Leaguers, but we certainly begin our search there,” said Dan Josebachvili, director of Urban Escapes, a Washington, D.C.-based outdoor excursion company. Of the company’s eight employees, five have Ivy League degrees, as do 80 percent of the firm’s interns. “So it's safe to say that our roots run deep within the Ancient Eight,” he said.

The prestige factor
Many who make it to the top of their professions often have an Ivy League degree in hand. If Elena Kagan — President Barack Obama’s recent pick for Supreme Court justice — is confirmed, that will be an Ivy League blowout among the highest nine members.

The prestige of an elite degree is hard to deny. Bill Deresiewicz, a former Yale English professor and essayist, understands the practical reasons that would cause a parent to push a child to get into an Ivy League school because of the potential to excel in four areas — finance, consulting, law and medicine.

“The disadvantages are only disadvantages if you have a different kind of value system of what it means to be successful and what it means to be happy,” he said.

He’s concerned that the Ivy League track has become less egalitarian. “The public school system is broken,” he said, adding that wealthy parents are able to give their kids private tutoring and coaching. “That doesn’t give everyone a fair shot.”

“It’s not the case today that the best and brightest are going to Harvard and Yale,” Deresiewicz said.

Indeed, not all the nation’s power brokers are from Ivy League schools. In 2009, just 13 CEOs of Fortune 100 companies held an Ivy League undergraduate degree.

“Not having an Ivy League degree hasn’t held me back as I’ve always had a spirit for entrepreneurial ventures and a passion for hard work, and that comes from within,” said Stephen Wiehe, CEO of SciQuest, who has also worked for SAS and GE.

While experts said an Ivy League university is a smart call for many students, the education may not be right for everyone, especially those students who don’t know what they want or who seek a more nurturing environment — more likely found in a smaller, lesser-known institution.

The environment also may be too much of a pressure-cooker for some kids.

Steven Roy Goodman, an educational consultant and admissions strategist who helps kids get on the Ivy League track as early as freshman year in high school, had a teenage client who went to a top school but dropped out after only six months because of a mental breakdown.

“She was a straight ‘A’ student who did everything right, but I could tell she was under too much pressure,” he recalled. “I had advocated for a gap year, but her parents overruled it.”

Goodman charges between $7,000 and $40,000 to help prepare students to get into top schools by guiding them on how to choose extracurricular activities, academic classes — even what they should be doing during summer and winter breaks.

“A lot of people say they want the right school for them, but what they really mean is, ‘I want the right school as long as it’s Princeton,’ ” he said.

Attending an Ivy League university is not always the best choice, he added. “If a student is 100 percent sure they want to be a chef, then a culinary institution makes sense. If your objective is to be a general, then it makes sense to try and go to West Point, if you can.”

‘Instant credibility’
Chad Dion Lassiter, president of Black Men at Penn School of Social Work Inc. at the University of Pennsylvania, said his Ivy League degree has given him numerous networking opportunities. “I’ve been able to interact with the governor of Pennsylvania, people in Congress who are Penn alum,” he said. “I think the aura of an Ivy League education gives you instant credibility.”

However, that’s not always a good thing. “There’s a segment of Ivy Leaguers who are elitist and don’t see the structural inequalities that exist in our society,” he said. “Sometimes they are in a deep fog.”

At the end of the day, he said, “it’s not about the degree but what you’re bringing to the table. Do you have a moral imperative? Do you understand how to use yourself to serve others less fortunate in society?”

It’s not always a guaranteed job offer either, especially if you’re several years of out of school.

“An Ivy League degree is relevant only for the first job out of school,” said Bruce Hurwitz, president of Hurwitz Strategic Staffing. There’s an assumption, he said, that an Ivy League educated candidate is smart and mature.

However, “if the graduate can’t do the work, they will be fired. A non-Ivy League graduate who is a hard worker and keeps their first job for two, three years, will be able to get their next job based on a track record of success.”

Hurwitz said he has interviewed grads from a host of top schools who were not hired. “Employers are looking for decision makers, decision implementers, and leaders. It does not matter where you go to school; what matters is whether or not you can deliver the goods.” 


Eve Tahmincioglu is a graduate of Hofstra University and damn proud of it. She writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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