A Rhodes Scholar recipient at the University of Pennsylvania saw her scholarship candidacy revoked when the truth rose to the surface: Her life story, as told to the Rhodes committee, was falsified.
Mackenzie Fierceton wrote a compelling story, starting with her application to University of Pennsylvania, known as Penn colloquially, where she claimed that she survived being a foster child. However, an anonymous complaint led to an investigation that debunked her story.
The Rhodes committee found that Fierceton consistently “created and repeatedly shared false narratives about herself” in order to make her a more competitive or attractive applicant. As the Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out, the scandal exposed elitist colleges and universities like Penn to show that they are treating so-called unprivileged people much better than in the past. Many college applications focus on applicants proving that they overcame obstacles, which feeds into the tendency for applicants to lie.
She claimed that she grew up poor, went through the child welfare system, bounced from one foster home to the next, but somehow excelled academically in high school. She was profiled by the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper, which spurred an anonymous complaint that said Fierceton’s story was “blatantly dishonest.”
The complainant said that Fierceton grew up in an upper-middle class family, (her mother worked as a radiologist), attended a high-class private high school and enjoyed activities such as horseback riding. Upon investigation, it was discovered that Fierceton did grow up in a stable home that was “on a [suburban] tree-lined cul-de-sac with large houses and well-groomed lawns.” Fierceton also had a brief period of being in the foster care system, but not as long as her story suggested. Her high school, Whitfield, costs $30,000-a-year in tuition.
There was also a controversy between Fierceton and her mother. Fierceton, in 2019, claimed that her mother threw her down the stairs in 2014. Her mother disputed the allegation and said it was a fall of a couple of steps. But the charges of felony child abuse or neglect and misdemeanor assault against her mother were dropped because of uncertainty around the facts of the case.
Fierceton won the prestigious scholarship to study at Oxford University in the United Kingdom in 2020, which made her one of thirty-two finalists selected from 2,300 applicants. Her university president, Amy Gutman, was effusive in her praise for the achievement. Gutman said, “Mackenzie is so deserving of this prestigious opportunity” because of her background. She noted, “As a first-generation [college attendee] low-income student and a former foster youth, Mackenzie is passionate about championing young people [and] dedicating herself to a life of public service.”
But after the committee’s investigation and findings in April 2021, it recommended Fierceton withdraw her application, which she did. Then, she was under investigation by Penn in August 2021 for fabricating her story that she was a “first-generation” college student. Her mother has a bachelor’s degree, but she did not get it at an elite Ivy League institution. Under Penn’s own expanded definition, which covers students who are the first in their families to be enrolled at an “elite institution,” Fierceton got a slight pass.
Her master’s degree in social work is being withheld pending disciplinary action, which she was supposed to receive in May 2020. But it is likely that she will not have her bachelor’s degree in political science revoked.
Fierceton, who changed her last name while in college, sued Penn in December 2021 and claimed that it conducted a “sham investigation” into her life story. She said it was punitive for Penn to withhold her master’s degree and said that one of Penn’s employees allegedly bullied her.
Penn said, “There is no basis for Ms. Fierceton’s claim.”
There are several issues facing Penn in the aftermath of this scandal. First, it did not vet her story, but it made it worse by praising it as the truth. Understandably, Penn receives many applications every year, but it is obligated to do basic vetting to ensure that the truth is being told. A basic scan of an applicant’s social media pages could verify whether the applicant is telling the truth or not.
Another issue is that Ivy League and other elitist institutions prioritize their legacy and name recognition over reality. Other than them, there are few people who are concerned with an institution’s prestige. After all, it is doubtful that an anthropology degree from an Ivy League school is viewed as more prestigious in the real-world workplace than an economics degree from a state school such as the University of Kentucky.
Also, a major issue is that higher education institutions are trying to portray themselves as vehicles for social justice. Many college applications require an essay on overcoming hardships, which convince students to exaggerate their experiences to get ahead of other applicants. Colleges should be admitting students who are prepared and mature to handle the rigors of college classes and assignments. These institutions should not be in the business of righting past and perceived wrongs, but to provide quality education to prepare college students for the workforce and the real world.