By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
US federal prosecutors in Boston yesterday charged 50 people over a $25 million bribery scheme to help wealthy Americans buy their children’s way into elite universities including Georgetown, Stanford, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Southern California, the University of Texas at Austin, Wake Forest, and Yale.
William Singer was charged by federal prosecutors with running the racketeering scheme through his Edge College & Career Network. Thirty-three parents were also charged, as well as thirteen university sports coaches or associates of Singer’s businesses, including two SAT and ACT test administrations.(I have embedded a copy of the Indictment below).
Parents spent anywhere between $200,000 and $6.5 million to guarantee admission of their offsprings.
Some arrested and forced to post bail include Gordon Caplan, a lawyer and chairman of the international law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher; Douglas Hodge, former CEO of Pimco, one of the largest global bond fund managers; Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, actors; and William E. McGlashan Jr., a senior executive at TPG, one of the world’s largest private equity firms.
Coaches include Rudolph Meredith, former head women’s soccer coach at Yale; and John Vandemoer, former sailing coach at Stanford (see here for the Department of Justice press release providing a complete list; or here for the New York times version that includes further details).
No students were charged.
Prosecutors say investigations continue, and that means further indictments may well follow. At this point, no university admissions officers have been charged.
These indictments follow from a nationwide investigation, involving more than 300 investigators, in multiple states. The defendants are faced with potential serious jail times – including maximum sentences of twenty years – and significant monetary damages.
Just Some of the Scams: Front, Back, and Side Doors
Every once in a while, there’s a story that pulls band-aid off the scab, so to speak, revealing what lies beneath. This is one such story.
Here are some highlights from the Affidavit in Support of Criminal Complaint (which I have embedded below).
Front, Back, and Side Doors. So, now to the nitty gritty, how was this scam pulled off? The parent and Singer’s organization followed two general routes. One involved various forms of cheating on college entrance exams; the other involved fabricating or inflating a candidate’s athletic qualifications.
Those unfamiliar with the American system of university admissions may not know just how much weight is given to athletic prowess – even at elite universities.
According to the indictment:
All of the Universities recruit student athletes, and typically apply different criteria when evaluating applications from students with demonstrated athletic abilities….The admissions offices at the Universities typically allot a set number of slots to each varsity head coach for that coach’s recruited athletes. At each of the Universities, the admissions prospects of recruited athletes are higher – and in some cases significantly higher – than those of non-recruited athletes with similar grades and standardized test scores (Indictment, pp. 6-7).
Parents paid the organization for these services – sometimes in the form of a “charitable donation” to Key Worldwide Foundation (KWF), a non-profit corporation Singer established as a purported charity in 2012. As a charity, KWF was exempt from paying federal income tax, and KWF in turn made bribe payments to various coaches, test administrators, and others.
According to the government’s affidavit, confidential witness 1 (CW-1), had a telephone conversation on or about June 15, 2018 with Caplan – the law firm partner – which the government monitored pursuant to a court-authorized wiretap:
Okay, so, who we are – what we do is we help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school …. Every year there are– is a group of families, especially where I am right now in the Bay Area, Palo Alto, I just flew in.That they want guarantees, they want this thing done. They don’t want to be messing around with this thing. And so they want in at certain schools. So I did 761 what I would call, “side doors.” There is a front door which means you get in on your own. The back door is through institutional advancement, which is ten times as much money. And I’ve created this side door in. Because the back door, when you go through institutional advancement, as you know, everybody’s got a friend of a friend, who knows somebody who knows somebody but there’s no guarantee, they’re just gonna give you a second look. My families want a guarantee. So if you said to me, here’s our grades, here’s our scores, here’s our ability, and we want to go to X school’ and you give me one or two schools, and then I’ll go after those schools and try to get a guarantee done. So that, by the time, the summer of her senior year, before her senior year, hopefully we can have this thing done, so that in the fall, before December 15th, you already know she’s in. Done. And you make a financial commitment. It depends on what school you want, may determine how much that actually is. But that’s kind of how the the side and back door work (Affidavit, p. 13)
Scope and Logistics of Scandal
A couple of things here. The witness claims he did 761 of these “side doors.” If he’s telling the truth, this means many more applicants were admitted fraudulently than represented by the 33 parents the parents indicted yesterday.
Notice also that there’s a “back door” – “institutional advancement,” where for enough of a direct donation, parents expect to be able to buy admission for their child. There’s no guarantee that will work, whereas CW -1 claims he can guarantee a result by using his side door. Plus that back door route costs much more money – ten times as much as the service he provides. So parents pursued his approach either because they wanted such a “guarantee” – or didn’t want to or couldn’t afford to make sufficiently large donations for “institutional advancement.” Which, I should emphasize, is perfectly legal. Large donors do make such donations – and, surprise, surprise, their children are admitted. Prosecutors are not investigating or indicting any of those donors here.
Test fraud.This took various forms. Singer owned two testing centres – which administer the ACT and SAT. Parents arranged for their children to take the necessary exam at one of these centres. In some cases, a ringer took the exam in place of the applicant. In others, the applicant was provided with answers, or the exams were “corrected” before being submitted for official scoring and recording. And in yet others, the candidate was certified as suffering from some form of disability and provided with extra time to take the test.
Fabricated credentials.Prosecutors documented examples of complete fabrication of athletic credentials.
Following a certification by Yale head soccer coach Meredith that the applicant was a soccer recruit – Yale admitted a woman student who didn’t, in fact, play soccer, yet alone excel at the sport. For this to occur, $1.2 million changed hands – $400,000 of which went to Yale coach Meredith.
Another student who had never rowed secured a place via the University of Southern California’s rowing squad. Faces of applicants were photoshopped onto real athletes, to be used to support the applicant’s application, including the “rower”.
Bogus Signatures.Prosecutors submitted a copy of a handwriting sample provided by a candidate, as well as a request for a signature sample, so that the ringer who was taking the test could attempt to conform handwriting and signature to that of the candidate when he had previously himself taken the test the range was retaking on behalf of the actual applicant (Affidavit, p. 21).
Arbitrary, Obscure Admissions System Favors the Children of Those Who’ve Already Made It: Feature, Not Bug
Leave it to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to zero in on a key issue:
I guess college admissions isn’t that different from elections, where lots of money can buy your spot too.
Also an enviro where those who make it despite the odds are suspected to not have “earned” it, not truly belong, or assumed to not be able to perform at the same level. https://t.co/YyD72C7uh1
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) 13 March 2019
Whether or not the defendants do time or not is not really to the point. No doubt some will, and certainly should, do at least some time – if the government manages to prove its allegations in court, or secure pleas.
These prosecutions put the rich on notice that anything does not go as far as college admissions are concerned.
But what’s being addressed here is only the most extreme end of the spectrum. And I quote Michael Kinsley yet again: “the scandal isn’t what’s illegal, the scandal is what’s legal.”
The American system of college admissions is already heavily weighted toward the affluent. They can afford to pay for private education or to live in areas with good schools. They can foot the bills for expensive test preparation services, extra tuition for their children, fees for college admissions consulting, not to mention the time and costs to pursue extracurricular activities seriously, or to participate in summer and other enrichment programs.
Another big advantage wealthy university alumni/ae enjoy is the preferences many universities grant to legacy applicants – aka their children. About 42 percent of private institutions, and 6 percent of public institutions do, according to a recent NPR report, Legacy Admissions Offer An Advantage — And Not Just At Schools Like Harvard. Large donors get even more preference, or at least they do at Harvard, as the Harvard Crimson reported in October about a lawsuit by Asian-American applicants against Harvard (see In Admissions, Harvard Favors Those Who Fund It, Internal Emails Show).
Normal academic standards are relaxed for gifted athletes, as prosecutors make clear in the indictment. This interjects a non-academic factor into admissions decisions, and also, indirectly, benefits the rich, at least for some of the most prestigious private universities. These institutions field teams in sports such as lacrosse, rowing, sailing, and squash – sports either played at private prep schools, or that one needs lots of money to pursue. This is yet another subtle advantage that those who can afford to attend schools that offer such sports – and thus embellish their resumes with their participation – enjoy.
In addition to test scores and record, more than 700 institutions require students to submit a standard college application – the Universal Common Application (UCA), adopted in 2007, for at least some of their admissions process. The application includes a meaningless 500 word essay and some 250 word additional essays. Mastering such a weird form demonstrates virtually nothing about a student’s ability. But these are easy for college admissions officers to evaluate. They provide an advantage to those who can be coached into producing a better essay (or who can buy a decent example outright). And they are highly subjective – thus allowing opportunities for bias to creep in, and an admissions officer to skew a decision in favor of applicants who can, for example, pay full freight, while allegedly deciding on the basis of merit.
(In their lack of fitness for purpose, these essays remind me a bit of the multiple choice part of many bar exams. Applicants are tested on multi-state law, even though this fictitious construct – the legal rule on a particular subject in a majority of US states – may not be the law in the jurisdiction in which an applicant sits the bar. All acing the multi-state proved was that a candidate could learn arcane rules, in a short time, and regurgitate them under exam conditions. That may be a skill, but doesn’t demonstrate a candidate has basic competence to practice law. But grading multiple choice exams can be done by machine, and produces “objective” – but meaningless- results).
I’m curious what the institutions involved will do next. As I mentioned above, prosecutors have as yet implicated no admissions officers. It is possible they had no idea they were being scammed, although in some instances, it might be that they’re merely “shocked, shocked” to see what has occurred under their watch.
In the days before accountability disappeared in American life, I would like to believe that those responsible for admissions at particular universities implicated in this investigation would have resigned – thus taking responsibility for the corruption that compromised the integrity of their institutions, regardless of whether they were directly responsible for committing the fraud.
What about the students who were admitted as a result of these scams?
Will degrees be revoked? Unlikely.
Students tossed out? That might be possible, perhaps for some violation of a university’s honor code or for submitting a fraudulent application. I point out, however, that hard as it is to believe, at least some of the fraud may have occurred without an applicant being aware of it.
Now, it would be difficult to argue that one wasn’t aware one was posing as a soccer player, or deny he had submitted a handwriting sample… perhaps that wouldn’t fly.
But the affidavit makes clear that at least in some instances where a student’s test scores were “improved” after the candidate had taken the entrance exam, that applicant may not have known what his or her parents were doing on his or her behalf.
Also, as one wise observer commented to me, it’s perhaps unfair to make a a teenaged applicant take the fall for the mistakes of the parents. Even if aware of their parents’ efforts, they were not controlling the situation.
I think the prosecutors have it right here, in going after the parents only.
As to the students, I’m not sure what I’d do. Perhaps I’m a bit of a softie. Readers: what do you think?
What Is To Be Done?
The times they are a changin’, in ways affecting so many areas.
Discussions of issues – Medicare for All, free college, the Green New Deal – regarded as fringe or downright quixotic. are now front and center in American political debate. Why shouldn’t the morass of college admissions – especially how the current system perpetuates and legitimizes inequality – be discussed?
So I’d like to close by widening the discussion to consider some possible reforms, perhaps providing a basis for some enterprising Congresscritter to convene hearings on these issues.
The investigations seem to have touched a nerve – embarrassment even – that the vaunted US prestige education sector has fallen to follow a standard more often associated with corrupt developing countries.
(I’ll point out that such corruption at India’s flagship institutions – Calcutta’s Presidency College, Delhi’s St. Stephens, the various Indian Institutes of Technology, and the Indian Institutes of Management – is “unthinkable.” Or even “impossible.”)
This issue, mind you, has nothing to do with academic freedom. Although the masters of the current education industrial complex can be expected to try and throw up some such chaff if serious discussion is launched.
A Modest Reform Agenda
Here’s a first pass at issues that might be probed and possible solutions that should be discussed to reduce the importance of wealth or other advantages of parents in the university prospects for their offspring. I encourage the commentariat to suggest others.
Reduce legacy admissions. First and foremost would be reducing the importance of legacy admissions. This one change would make securing a place at many elite universities much less unequal.
Currently, five of the world’s top universities – Caltech, Cambridge, MIT, Oxford, the University of California, Berkeley – don’t provide legacy preferences, according to NPR.
Take coaches out of the selection process. I don’t think a coach’s input or the composition of athletic teams should factor into admissions decisions – period. Maybe that comes from attending MIT, which, when I was there, had no football team, only a football club, and where the homecoming queen was typically the winner of the Ugliest Man on Campus (UMOC) contest- now the ugliest manifestation on campus- an honor for which students compete, in outrageous costumes, to raise funds for charity.
In high school, I was considered more of a nerd than a jock. Yet I appreciate how hard some student athletes work – and that some of the qualities one develops when playing sports – diligence, teamwork, leadership – might contribute to future academic success. Two sisters led their team to a national field hockey championship a generation ago – and one was an All-American. One of their daughters just graduated from Georgetown where she captained their field hockey team.
And so I wouldn’t object to giving some credit for athletic participation or outstanding achievement in an application. But an admissions officer shouldn’t outsource any element of an admissions decision to the athletic department.
I also wouldn’t place undue emphasis on athletic participation alone. Playing tuba in the marching band or violin in the all-state orchestra also demonstrates self-discipline and achievement, and should also be considered.
Increase faculty involvement in admissions, reduce the role of administrators.I believe Oxford and Cambridge colleges still require applicants to interview with college tutors before offering them a place. Now, the cost of attending multiple such interviews would be prohibitive, so I don’t know how such a principle might work in the US. Also, in the UK, students are selected for a specific spot to read a certain subject, which is not the case in the US, where admissions is more general, and students aren’t restricted to a particular course of study.
But moving to a system whereby faculty were forced to take a greater role in undergraduate admissions would be desirable.
Fewer applications. Another Oxbridge point: a candidate can apply to Oxford or Cambridge, but not both. This reduces the total number of applications overworked academics at either institution must consider, as well as forces students to focus on where they want to go and why.
The US system imposes no real limitations on how many applications a candidate can submit. Reducing the number of overall applications might free the admissions offices to develop procedures that allow better vetting of candidates. One way this could be done might be to de-emphasize the common application – thus requiring a candidate to prepare a unique application for each school.
The UCA was intended to ease the burden on students in applying to colleges. The reality is that it has created a bit of a monster, as it’s made it much easier to submit multiple college applications. To be sure, a student still must pay an application fee – and that certainly serves as some check on indiscriminate applications. Nonetheless, an applicant can now apply to additional institutions merely by checking off extra boxes on the common application.
If colleges returned to requiring unique applications, students themselves might cut back on their applications. This result would reduce the number of applications that any institution would receive and vet, and could free up resources for the institution in turn to create a more detailed admissions process.
None of these marginal changes would create the education system that I believe we desperately need, one that reduces rather than exacerbates inequality. But the system wouldn’t need to be perfect to be much much better than it is.
Yet Another Benefit of Adopting Free College: Reducing the Importance of Money in the Admissions Process
Although most of the most prestigious institutions follow a need-blind admissions policy, not all institutions do so. This obviously makes it easier for richer but less academically gifted students to secure university places.
We could go much farther than the free college plans currently proposed – which is limited to public institutions only. The broader such a benefit was defined, the more the influence of parental money in admissions decisions would be reduced.
What’s the alternative? The current status quo imposes considerable distortions, as discussed in this New York magazine piece, I Was a College Admissions Officer. This Is What I Saw.
Reducing opportunities for such shenanigans would be a goal worth pursuing.
The Bottom Line
The latest indictments reveal a system where the rich can buy their way to a place. And that’s due to how extreme inequality has become. The difference between being well placed and not so well placed has much bigger consequences than before.
Some of these people are so rich that it makes not an iota of economic difference to the future economic comfort of their progeny whether or not they earn a degree or even attend university at all. But whether it matters to them or not, who wins and who loses under the current system should certainly matter to the rest of us.
We’re long overdue for a serious national discussion of the how the US university admissions system freezes the status quo and fosters inequality.
It should be added to the roster of issues to be considered now.indictment_0