Money and Admissions

With the shock waves from the William Rick Singer admissions conspiracy still reverberating from the set of ‘Desperate Housewives’ and the walls of PIMCO to the water polo office at USC and the women’s soccer room at Yale, it’s as good a time as any to assess the role of financial influence on college admissions.

The admissions system is subject to people constantly pushing the very limit of whatever legal boundaries have been set. Many make their own rules and defy convention aggressively and proudly. They’re intent on getting an edge no matter the game or circumstance.

One such example is Michael Lynton, a former Sony CEO and Harvard University graduate. In 2013 Sony’s archives were hacked exposing Mr. Lynton’s efforts to improve his daughter’s chances of getting into Harvard or Brown University. Mr. Lynton contacted Tom Rothman, chairman of TriStar Productions, a Brown alum and a member of Brown’s board of trustees, who set up a meeting for Mr. Lynton with the President of Brown, Christina Paxson. Mr. Lynton proposed making a $1 million donation to create a scholarship for a full-need student, and Maise Lynton was admitted into the Brown Class of 2019. (You may visit the Sony Archives in Wikileaks at and follow Michael’s journey in getting his daughter into Brown.)

Harvard and the application of Jared Kushner, the son-in-law to Donald Trump and the heir to a billion- dollar real estate investment fortune, are not far different from Brown and the application of Maise Lynton. According to ProPublica, an online investigative reporting site, Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, gave Harvard a $2.5 million donation in 1998, right after the admission of Jared. Records indicate that Charles pledged this money after he had met with Neil Rudenstine, the Harvard president at the time.

So, there is a model, based on two documented cases of students who gained coveted positions in the most selective schools. Propose a donation, meet with the president, get admitted and make the promised donation.  

Then there are the advantages of being a legacy (alumni and faculty relatives) of a college. At Brown, The Brown Daily Herald reported that the school’s fund-raising office arranged meetings between faculty members and applicants who were legacies or connected with wealthy donors associated with the fund-raising department. In certain instances, faculty were encouraged by the fund-raising office to write letters on behalf of various applicants to admissions. According to Darrell West, a former Brown faculty member who was part of these fund raising-faculty connections: “…the wealthy students had admissions advantages over the average applicant because the latter were not getting one-on-one meetings with faculty members or special consideration by the admissions office.”

Another monied means of gaining advantage in certain applicant pools is by paying full price. ‘Need aware’ or ‘need-sensitive’ schools (some costing upwards of $75-80,000 a year) look favorably on candidates who can foot the bill. These would include such schools as Boston University, Carleton, Colgate, GWU, Reed, Smith and Tufts.

Elizabeth Myers Houston, on the Oberlin (another ‘need aware’ college) admission’s blog explains the practice: “We do accept some students on the edge of admissibility because they can contribute to the costs of an Oberlin education. On the other hand, we invariably find ourselves wait-listing or denying some students each year who are otherwise well qualified and appealing, due to a high level of financial need.”

Playing and paying the system is allowable. Manipulating and gaming the system by setting up false recruited athlete ploys, as did William Rick Singer, is not.