College Bribery Scandal Raises Concerns Among Gen Z About Applying to Elite Universities

March 22, 2019

PSB conducted an online survey of a representative sample of 200 Gen Z-age Americans (16-23 years of age) nationwide from March 19-20, 2019. The survey measured awareness of the college admissions bribery and cheating scandal, and reactions to it upon being presented with a basic primer of the story.

Two thirds of 16-23 year olds have seen, read or heard about bribery and cheating in college admissions. While this proportion may be lower than we would see for other topical issues, it shows that many in the Gen Z cohort do pay attention to issues that are immediately relevant to them.

Familiarity with the Story
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Have you seen, read or heard anything recently about bribery and cheating in college admissions?

After reading a brief description of the story, 60% of 16-23 year olds say the information is not surprising to them. We know from other polling we have conducted that this generation is less trusting of business and government than are Millennials, which helps put the skepticism expressed about college admissions into context.

Reaction to the Story
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Reaction to the Story
As you may have heard, it was recently revealed by the U.S. Department of Justice that parents were paying bribes, and that test scores, essays and transcripts were made up or altered to help students gain acceptance to elite universities such as Yale and Stanford.  After hearing this, how surprising is this information to you?

Nearly three in ten (28%) 16-23 year olds say that the news makes them less likely to consider applying to an elite university. If we subtract out the proportion who say they weren’t considering applying to an elite university, that proportion goes up to 33%.  It’s unclear whether the 16% who say the news makes them more likely to apply are saying that because the scandal will lead to a clean-up of the system or that they think their parents might do the same for them!

Impact of News on Likelihood to Apply to Elite School
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Impact of News
Would this news make you more or less likely to consider applying to an elite university, if you are or had previously considered applying to an elite university?


The news that some students have been able to bypass the process for getting into elite universities – schools whose low acceptance rates are sometimes promoted as a sign of desirability – may have a chilling effect on the ambitions of those who already see gaining entry as a long shot. Scandals like this sustain the narrative about preferential treatment and outcomes for those already doing well in our current economic system and add ammunition to those who challenge the idea that merit has any meaning at all. For elite universities already fending off complaints of exacerbating a hoarding of opportunities by the wealthy and well-connected, there is now the additional task of convincing a very skeptical generation of young people that the college admissions system is not corrupt.

Colleges and universities may be challenged to demonstrate transparency in the admissions process. It is also not hard to envision a future in which admissions selection criteria and the admissions process become a factor in ratings by US News & World Report and other sought-after raters of higher education institutions.

Scott Elder is Senior Vice President in PSB’s New York office.  For more information on this study, you can contact Scott at

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