Admissions of Guilt?

Adam Wheeler was hardly the first student to be accused of faking his way into the most hallowed grounds of academia — and he won’t be the last. Welcome to the new era of dishonesty.

“Who doesn’t want to be a Harvard graduate in this day and age when credentials equal financial success?” says David Callahan, an Ivy League graduate and author of The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead. “We live in an incredibly status-oriented society, and there are major economic and social rewards for having the highest credentials. And you don’t get much higher in terms of educational credentials than going to Harvard. The difference between going to Harvard University and Boston University could translate into hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in difference in lifetime earnings…. So at some level, it should be no surprise that people fake their credentials.”

Admissions experts agree that nearly all college applications contain elements of untruth — whether it’s exaggerated extracurriculars or professionally polished essays — and that it’s impossible to fact-check every claim. “There is embellishment in a disturbingly large number of applications — as many, perhaps, as 5 percent,” says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “The admissions process is designed around data integrity…. We have [verification] techniques that have evolved over time, none of which is absolutely foolproof…. No institution can afford to verify everything people submit.” Robert Bardwell of the American School Counselor Association says, “You have to assume people are honest.”

It’s not just admissions, though. Suzanne Pomey was a working-class Kentuckian who, in 2002, was charged alongside another student with embezzling more than $91,000 from the student group Hasty Pudding Theatricals. More recently, there was Kaavya Viswanathan (’08), who signed a $500,000 book deal while still in high school only to have her first novel pulled from shelves amid allegations of plagiarism. She’s now in her third year at Georgetown Law.

There have always been con artists, cheats, and thieves, of course. What’s alarming is that these episodes are no longer an aberration, but rather an example of a new era of dishonesty that’s especially pervasive among ambitious, privileged kids, according to psychologists and cultural analysts. Adam Wheelers are becoming much more common, says Jean Twenge, coauthor of The Narcissism Epidemic. “And it’s not just college students. This seems to be a trend among people of all ages. People are cheating at everything. It shows up for young people because it’s the only culture they’ve ever known.”

According to a study coauthored by Twenge and published in the Journal of Personality, cases of high narcissism among college-age kids increased by 30 percent from 1982 to 2006; today, two out of every three students measure high on the narcissism scale. “Someone who’s highly narcissistic thinks, The rules don’t apply to me; I’ll do anything it takes to get ahead; and if I have to cheat, so be it,” says Twenge. White-collar criminals, she notes, are almost always clinically narcissistic. So are reality TV stars.

“Adam Wheeler is an extreme case, but I don’t think a surprising one,” says Callahan, The Cheating Culture author. “The idea that somebody would be so focused on having higher status that they’re willing to risk their entire academic career, not to mention criminal action, suggests just what kind of pressure-cooker time we live in.”

Still, it’s tough to say which comes first: narcissism or the Ivy League. Elite schools tend to produce as many big personalities as they attract. “Certainly there’s some truth to the idea that high achievement…often goes hand in hand with a certain arrogance and self-involvement,” writes Douthat. “And that the kind of people who change the world in dramatic ways aren’t always the kind of people you’d want as next-door neighbors.”