Scandals grab headlines, and they create good fodder for conversations and social media discussions. However, there are important lessons to be learned for both families and colleges from the college admissions bribery scandal, and we all need to pay attention.
On March 12, 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that 50 people had been arrested throughout the country and charged with federal crimes in connection with cheating on the ACT and SAT college entrance exams and in connection with the college admission of students who were misrepresented to be athletic recruits. The prosecutions are being pursued against college coaches, parents, exam administrators, and others.
The mastermind of the operation, William “Rick” Singer, has agreed to plead guilty to racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. He operated a college counseling business, and he is accused of working with parents, athletic coaches, a university athletics administrator, and others to bribe and take other fraudulent actions in order to obtain the admission of students into colleges, including highly selective colleges such as Yale University, Georgetown University, Stanford University, the University of Southern California, and Wake Forest University.
There has been a lot of attention paid to Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, both of whom were charged with committing crimes to help their children get admitted to selective colleges. Huffman was charged in connection with bribes related to cheating on college entrance exams, and Loughlin was charged in connection with bribes related to athletic recruiting.
Many wealthy families have the means to assist their children in the college application process by paying for ACT/SAT preparation courses and private college advisors who provide advice on college application essays and recommend colleges. There is nothing wrong (or illegal) with those things. There is, however, something very wrong with using deception, misrepresentations, and bribery payments to secure high exam scores and admissions into colleges. Families of college-bound children would be well served to focus on their child as an individual, as opposed to a vehicle being used to arrive at a destination. If you need to lie, cheat, or steal to get your child admitted to college, then you have crossed the line.
For their part, colleges have a responsibility to foster a culture of compliance within the athletic department, the admissions department, and throughout the campus. The message must come from the top that misconduct will not be tolerated. But it takes more than tough talk. Colleges need policies and procedures in connection with athletic recruiting and admissions, and the athletic and admissions departments need training on those policies and procedures to ensure a sufficient level of understanding. Even more, colleges need to hold themselves accountable by periodically testing their compliance processes and by taking remedial actions, including termination when necessary, against offending coaches, admissions personnel, and administrators.
Families and colleges are use to teaching lessons, but this scandal is an opportunity for them to learn their lesson.
Jonathan A. Vogel, a former deputy general counsel with the U.S. Department of Education and a former federal prosecutor, is the managing member of Vogel Law Firm PLLC, an education law firm focused on legal issues that arise in K-12, higher education, and student loans.