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The College Admissions Cheating Scandal: What do we know?

March 18, 2019 :: Alex Collazo

The college admissions world was rocked Tuesday when the Justice Department revealed the largest college admissions prosecution in U.S. history, filing charges against 50 people in a sophisticated cheating scandal.

The case has all the elements of a good media circus: familiar celebrities in handcuffs, lots of money flying around, and attempts to subvert something nearly everyone has a stake in—college admissions. Here are the key points:

Who was involved?

At the center of the case is William “Rick” Singer, a 59-year-old ex-athletic coach who founded Edge College & Career Network and its associated charity, The Key Foundation. Singer was both the ringleader and, since September 2018, a cooperating government witness. He pled guilty Tuesday to obstruction of justice and three conspiracy counts: money laundering, racketeering, and conspiracy to defraud the United States.

The 49 other defendants are Singer’s alleged co-conspirators and customers. These include the wealthy parents who paid bribes, the Edge employees who facilitated them, and the test proctors and athletic coaches who received them. Besides Singer, no one has pled guilty. The defendants face prison time depending on the amount of money involved—parents who paid $500,000 could get 30 to 37 months, for example. No student has been accused of wrongdoing, and many appear to have been completely unaware that their admission may have been illegally obtained.

How did the conspiracy work?

The operation was sophisticated and took advantage of an apparent weak point in the college admissions system: athletics recruitment. Common at major U.S. schools, athletics recruitment is a separate admissions channel whereby coaches identify promising high school athletes and recommend them to admissions committees. This process makes up a very small part of the overall admissions pie—at major (Division I) schools only 4% of the student body is involved in athletics, and only a fraction of those student-athletes were recruited. In exchange for their athletic talents, recruits often receive leniency for mediocre academic performance and big scholarships directly from athletics departments. This is not the first time college athletic recruitment has come under federal scrutiny, but usually these scandals involve elite college teams funneling money to extremely talented athletes in order to convince them to attend their school. Singer, an ex-coach himself, apparently recognized that this sort of bribery could also work in reverse.

His process involved creating a false athletic background for students who stood no chance of getting in on their academic merits. Singer would then bribe coaches and athletics administrators at the students’ target schools, who would recommend the “student-athlete” to the admissions committee. The conspiracy avoided headline college sports like football and basketball, focusing on more obscure sports including water polo, sailing, volleyball and tennis. Singer’s false athletic resumes sometimes border on the absurd, with faked pictures and detailed descriptions of nonexistent feats of athleticism.

Singer also ran a related operation that allowed students to cheat on SAT and ACT exams. Here he relied on two corrupt test proctors—one in Texas and one in California. Students would claim common learning disabilities and apply for large amounts of extra time. After all the other students left, the proctor would correct their test sheet, sometimes without their knowledge. Singer also occasionally had someone else take the test in the student’s place. This cheating helped students meet the (lower) standards to which athlete recruits are held.

In addition to the fraud and bribery itself, many defendants face charges related to money laundering. This is because Singer used his nonprofit, The Key Foundation, to funnel payments tax free.

How did the conspiracy unravel?

One of the parents was a suspect in an unrelated securities fraud case, and offered to tell investigators about college admissions fraud in a bid to gain leniency. The FBI organized a sting and caught Yale soccer coach Rudolph Meredith soliciting a $450,000 bribe. He then flipped, ultimately leading the FBI to Singer.

What schools were involved?

At present, coaches and athletics administrators at USC, UCLA, Stanford, University of San Diego, the University of Texas at Austin, Yale, Georgetown, and Wake Forest have been implicated. The people involved have all been suspended or fired, and schools are conducting reviews to determine if any currently enrolled students were aware of the conspiracy.

What happens next?

In addition to the criminal cases, multiple civil class action suits have been filed on behalf of rejected applicants, accusing the involved schools of negligence. We can also expect significantly greater scrutiny of athletic recruitment in minor sports, and changes to the way that the SAT and ACT handle students who need extra time. There has not been an admissions scandal of this size in a long time, and college admissions departments will be desperate to avoid a repeat. For these departments, no news is very much good news.

What does this mean for students and parents considering hiring an admissions consultant?

The story has also led to a lot of media attention surrounding legitimate admissions consulting, which Singer’s company also provided. Singer himself claimed that he was offering a “side door” to college, between the “front door” (normal applications accepted on their merits) and the “back door” (massive institutional donations). Honest admissions consultants—the vast majority—only target that “front door,” teaching students how to write better essays and most effectively present their story to the admissions committee. Ethical admissions consulting is simply a specialized form of tutoring. Be wary of anyone offering a secret or alternative path, making guarantees, or promising something “too good to be true.”


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