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Harvard gets hoodwinked | Globe Editorial

Asleep in Admissions?

May 19, 2010

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ADAM WHEELER, 23, is accused of hoodwinking admission officers at Harvard and finagling tens of thousands of dollars in grants. Yesterday, the alleged scheme landed him in the prisoners’ dock at Middlesex Superior Court. But Wheeler, who faces 20 counts including larceny and identity fraud, isn’t the only one hanging his head. Admission officials at Harvard have a lot to explain to legitimate applicants.

The Internet is awash in fake transcript services and dealers in bogus recommendations. Investigators aren’t sure yet if Wheeler made use of these shady sites. But it is no secret in academic circles that some applicants engage in résumé padding and more. Admissions offices are only as reliable as the internal controls they use to flag potential fraud.

Investigators allege that Wheeler, of Delaware, left a documentation trail strewn with altered grades, plagiarized essays, and phony recommendation letters from MIT and Phillips Academy, Andover. And the Middlesex investigation revealed mistakes that any attentive admissions official would be expected to catch. A forged transcript from MIT, for example, includes letter grades, though MIT uses a numerical grading system. And his transcript from Andover included classes that the academy did not offer.

The oversights are even more egregious because it is standard procedure in college admission offices to give extra scrutiny to transfer students.

Some universities rely on outside evaluators to check the accuracy of applications. It’s more common in the case of foreign students, especially since 9/11. Not every domestic applicant requires that kind of scrutiny. But a prudent admissions office should at least consider using an independent evaluation firm to review procedures and internal controls.

Small private colleges without the reputation and resources of Harvard routinely find the time and money to check the veracity of their applicants. Are the phones — and the admission office — in decent working order at Harvard?

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