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A Trojan horse: USC was the most frequent target in alleged admissions scheme

A tour group at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The school is the current or former employer of six of the 50 alleged perpetrators of a bribery scheme, including a water polo coach, a senior athletics official and a professor seeking to help his daughter. (Reed Saxon/AP)

LOS ANGELES — To Kwaku Rogers, son of Ghanaian immigrants, the University of Southern California offers a ticket to get ahead in life. The 19-year-old sophomore prizes the network of Trojan alumni and the abundant academic and social opportunities available to students like him, who are among the first in their families to go to college.

“I like to say USC is like a rocket,” said Rogers, of Norcross, Ga. “It’s upward social mobility.”

But that vision — shared by many here who see a private university with a striking commitment to access for the disadvantaged — has been eclipsed in the past week by another narrative that thrust USC into the center of a stunning college admissions scandal.

Far too often, students and faculty lament, access is still all about money.

Authorities charged more than 50 people, like actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, March 12 with being part of a long-running college admittance scam. (Video: Allie Caren, Justin Scuiletti/The Washington Post)

That is their conclusion from a federal investigation that uncovered an alleged scheme to get children of celebrities and other wealthy parents into prominent universities via cheating and bribery. Prosecutors say checks from 33 parents funded fakery on SAT and ACT admissions tests and sophisticated ruses to designate applicants with minimal or no intercollegiate sports potential as recruited athletes. That label would boost their chances of admission.

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The most frequent target in the alleged admissions fraud scam: USC, the current or former employer of six of the 50 alleged perpetrators, including a renowned water polo coach, a senior athletics official and even a professor seeking to help his college-bound daughter.

The admissions investigation hit USC at a moment of vulnerability. Last summer, its president, C.L. “Max” Nikias, was forced out amid an uproar over the handling of controversies, including allegations of abuse by a USC gynecologist and the resignations of two medical school deans amid questions about alleged misconduct. School trustees are nearing the end of a search to replace Nikias.

The chair of USC’s board, Rick Caruso, said in an interview Tuesday that the school will do whatever it takes to find out what happened in the scandal and prevent a repeat.

“It’s unthinkable what these parents did,” Caruso said, and unthinkable what the administrator and coaches were alleged to have done.

Frederick J. Ryan Jr., publisher and chief executive of The Washington Post, is also a member of the board. He declined to comment.

USC interim president Wanda M. Austin pledged aggressive action to uphold the integrity of admissions after prosecutors announced charges March 12 in Boston. USC has denied admission to the upcoming freshman class for applicants with ties to the alleged scam, launched a review of current students and graduates who may be linked, fired two employees and placed another on leave as a step toward termination. Austin said USC also would consider revoking degrees of those who fraudulently secured admission.

“Rebuilding trust is something you do over a period of time,” Austin told The Post in a telephone interview. “Some of the sanctions we’ve already taken should signal that we’re taking this very seriously.”

Over the past several years, federal investigators alleged, the scam facilitated admission to USC for more than two dozen students as recruited athletes, even though many had fabricated credentials in water polo, soccer and track and field.

FBI accuses wealthy parents in college-entrance bribery scheme

Austin acknowledged the breadth of USC’s exposure to the scandal poses many questions. Chief among them: Why weren’t alarms raised internally years ago about the phenomenon of purported student-athletes who failed to join or play for the teams that recruited them?

“One of the things we want to understand is how the process was falsified and what steps individuals were taking to cover up their actions,” Austin said. Given what is now known, she said, it is a challenge “to look back at the facts and say, ‘Why didn’t you recognize something as a yellow flashing light?’ ”

Many on the faculty are upset. “We have made far too many errors in judgment over the last two years — and this is par for the course,” said William G. Tierney, a professor and scholar of higher education.

USC is not the only school facing questions. Others with current and former athletic coaches charged in the scam include Georgetown, Yale, Stanford and Wake Forest universities, as well as the University of Texas at Austin and the University of California at Los Angeles.

On Monday, the University of California at Berkeley confirmed that it has opened an investigation into a former student whose father, Canadian businessman David Sidoo, is accused of participating in the scam. Prosecutors say Sidoo paid $100,000 for his son to obtain fake SAT scores that he submitted in 2014 for admission to Berkeley. Sidoo has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.

Other accused parents are scheduled to appear in federal court next week in Boston.

A lawyer familiar with the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss potential strategies, said that parents could argue they were duped by an unscrupulous admissions consultant: William “Rick” Singer, the alleged mastermind of the scam. Singer, of Newport Beach, Calif., has pleaded guilty to racketeering and other charges and is cooperating with investigators.

“Rick Singer’s a sales guy and a con guy,” the lawyer said, suggesting that parents were unaware their money would be put to illegal use. “They didn’t know what the scheme was. They knew that they were giving money to help their kid get into the school.”

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Over and over, the investigation found, the school that many of the accused parents sought for their children was USC. Court documents allege that one father conspired with Singer to create a fake profile of his son as a football player.

“I’m gonna make him a kicker/punter and they’re gonna walk him through with football, and I’ll get a picture and figure out how to Photoshop and stuff,” Singer told the father, according to court documents.

Several alleged transactions involved Donna Heinel, who was senior associate athletic director at USC. She has been charged with racketeering conspiracy and is scheduled to appear in federal court in Boston next week. USC fired her last week. Telephone and email messages to Heinel were not returned.

From 2014 to 2018, prosecutors say, Singer’s clients paid more than $1.3 million to USC accounts controlled by Heinel. In addition, Heinel allegedly received sham consulting payments from Singer of $20,000 a month starting in July 2018. In exchange for the bribes, prosecutors say, Heinel agreed to help purported athletes get in.

In 2016, for instance, prosecutors quote Singer as saying that Heinel wanted to help an applicant pose as a coxswain for the crew team. That applicant was granted conditional admission in October 2016, and the father allegedly sent Heinel a check that month for $50,000, payable to USC athletics.

The case is a setback in USC’s years-long effort to shake the stereotype that it is a playground for the rich.

Just west of the Harbor Freeway, the campus is dotted with palm trees and tranquil vistas of promenades and quads. On Monday, students returned from spring break with the sun shining and temperatures in the high 70s. The formidable women’s beach volleyball team held practice on a sand court, and several students in suits zipped around on motorized skateboards.

There is, to be sure, plenty of privilege. Campus restaurants serve acai bowls, poke and salmon salads. A nearby shopping center includes a store that peddles fancy gummy bears and skin-care products. The bookstore has a “cupcake ATM” that dispenses gourmet cupcakes instead of cash. Federal data shows that about 40 percent of the university’s 19,000 undergraduates pay full price. That exceeds $70,000 a year for tuition, fees, room and board.

But 21 percent have enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell Grants — a higher share than what is found at many prominent private research universities. USC also has built an unusually wide pipeline of transfer students from community colleges.

One is Miriam Antonio, 22, a junior who grew up in this city’s Koreatown. Her mother is a night-shift janitor, and Antonio is first in her family to go to college.

She said the scandal was a reminder of gaps here between haves and have-nots.

“It is true that wealth can buy your way into a lot of places and that there is an unequal playing field,” Antonio said. “Also, it made me more upset to know that students whose parents participated in this took a spot from a student that actually deserved it.”

USC has climbed steadily in prestige over the past two decades. In 1996, it ranked 44th on the U.S. News & World Report list of top national universities. By 2011, it had cracked the top 25. This year it ranks 22nd, tied with Georgetown and UC-Berkeley, and just ahead of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Virginia.

USC is also a fundraising engine, enabling it to recruit star faculty.

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“It was a school for rich kids and over the past few years it turned into a powerhouse,” said Jacob Soll, a USC professor of philosophy, history and accounting. “It’s hard to imagine the positive impact this has had on L.A., California and the country.”

Federal data shows that applications to USC for freshman admission have doubled since 2001, to more than 56,000 in 2017. During that time, it became much harder to win a coveted seat at the school: Just 16 percent of applicants were accepted in 2017, compared with 34 percent in 2001.

With competition intensifying, admission consultants say pressure has risen in certain social circles to find paths into what is seen as a top-notch university with a full menu of fraternities and sororities and high-level NCAA athletics.

“You have to able to go to the cocktail party with the right Birkin bag and to be able to say . . . ‘My kid goes to USC,’ ” said Arun Ponnusamy, chief academic officer for the counseling company Collegewise. That kind of thinking is a backdrop to the scandal.

Rogers, the sophomore from Georgia, who is treasurer of the First-Generation College Student Union, called the scandal disappointing but saw a potential upside.

“Even though it’s bad press, I feel like there’s a benefit to it, too,” Rogers said. “I feel like more people are going to apply knowing that someone paid $500,000 to get their son or daughter into the school.”

Svrluga and Anderson reported from Washington. Alice Crites and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

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