On March 12, 2019, in the midst of the highly anticipated college decision season, United States federal prosecutors revealed a massive bribery conspiracy surrounding parents, test proctors and university staff members fraudulently admitting students at some of the country’s most prestigious institutions.
Among the charged schools are Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, University of Texas, University of Southern California and UCLA—all highly sought-after universities by tens of thousands of applicants each year. To dishonestly gain admission for their children, the accused parents (including some household names like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman) paid up to $6,500,000 in one case to Rick Singer, a college counselor allegedly at the center of the scheme.
Singer worked with SAT and ACT proctors and administrators to change answers, take tests for clients and fraudulently obtain special treatment like private testing rooms. He also associated with coaches from the aforementioned schools to guarantee spots for his clients through athletic admission. Such was the case for Olivia and Isabella Giannulli, Lori Loughlin’s daughters, who were recruited to the USC crew team despite neither actually ever participating in the sport. According to the prosecutors, Singer’s operation has been in action since 2011, with many other parents likely involved through the years.
Now, the debate in no way surrounds the morality of Singer or these parents and coaches; rifts appear when trying to ascertain the appropriate consequences that schools should enact. Currently, the students whose parents engaged in fraudulent admissions practices face uncertain futures at their respective universities, with some arguing that they should keep their credits, while others suggest expulsion of the cheating students and revocation of all class credit. The same debate exists surrounding now-graduates involved in the scandal, over whether or not their diplomas should be invalidated.
As harsh as it may seem, the only feasible, fair solution is to strip all college credits accumulated thus far by students fraudulently accepted to these schools. As students, they held spots they never earned. By extension, they never really earned their credits, either.
It may be true that some students were unaware of their parents’ participation in the bribery conspiracy, but this changes nothing for the many deserving students who worked hard and lacked millions of dollars to push their application over the top, denied from their dream school so YouTube star Olivia Jade, Loughlin’s daughter, could “experience game day and partying” and “[not] really care about school,” in her own words.
For each student and graduate who benefited from this scheme, there is another student who deserved admission to their dream school, worked hard for their test scores, perhaps was passed up for, say, crew recruitment and felt the sting of rejection undeservedly. As students either going through the college application process now or approaching it soon, this situation should especially bother high school students.
No matter their public statements, without harsh, swift consequences for all students involved, Yale, Stanford and the rest of the schools send the message that money and status win over merit. In recent years, universities around the country have made a renewed effort toward “holistic review” of applicants and diversity in their admissions process. Ineffective punishment in a scandal like this—allowing students to retain credits or remain enrolled—would make these efforts obsolete. This bribery ring, which is most likely common in the world of the wealthy, favors the most privileged applicants and disregards academic or community merit, promising that true, fair diversity will never be achieved in America’s universities as long as fraud pervades college applications.
Of course, retroactive punishment does very little to stop another scam like this in the future. For that, more action must be taken. Namely, administrators need to make changes in the test taking process and in sport recruitment admissions. Whether it be stricter, more careful identification for test takers or more thorough vetting for test proctors, modifications for the SAT and ACT system seem necessary—a proctor changing or providing answers should never be a possibility. Additionally, the solution for fraudulent sports-related admissions seems simple: investigation and oversight. Admissions departments should obviously make sure that perspective athletic recruits participate in the sport in question, but they should also check after their admission that they are indeed part of the team for which they were admitted.
The solutions are commonsense and could restore confidence in cutthroat American college admissions while discouraging fraudulent activity in the years to come. To ensure fairness, diversity and meritocracy in admissions for the universities involved, it will take more than an apologetic statement. It will take swift punishment and concrete change.