Georgetown, Stanford, Yale and other universities raced Wednesday to contain damage from scandalous allegations that athletic coaches took bribes as part of a wide-ranging scheme to let the unqualified children of wealthy families gain entry to prestigious schools.
Outrage mounted among parents and students who said the scheme showed those who play by the rules are losing precious seats at elite universities to unscrupulous families with money and clout.
In response, Georgetown disclosed that it tightened vetting of athletic credentials after the university in late 2017 discovered “irregularities” in the recruiting practices of tennis coach Gordon Ernst. The coach, who left the university last year, was among dozens of people charged with crimes in the college admissions cheating and bribery conspiracy revealed Tuesday by federal prosecutors in Boston.
Authorities said conspirators manufactured test scores and funneled payments to coaches who designated favored applicants as recruits, giving them priority in admissions. Affected schools said they were reviewing records of current students and graduates who may be connected to the scheme — even though law enforcement officials have not charged any students with crimes. The University of Southern California, one of the schools at the epicenter of the scandal, said it would make “informed, appropriate decisions” once its reviews are done.
The scandal exposed glaring weaknesses in a system built on trust, added to festering — and long-standing — doubts about fairness in admissions and renewed debate over the enduring power of wealth to influence who gets into the most prestigious universities. At many prominent schools, the rich far outnumber the poor.
Liana Keesing, 18, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Va., said she and college-bound classmates were irate. Keesing plans to attend Stanford in the fall and join the fencing team. She said the corruption detailed in court documents, including doctored photographs of purported student-athletes sent in admission portfolios, was an insult to the hard work of honest students everywhere, including real student-athletes like herself.
“This is a level of egregiousness that is absurd,” Keesing said. “It is disappointing to find out that it happens to such a crazy extent.”
College admissions has come under scrutiny in the past year, especially through a federal lawsuit accusing Harvard of bias against Asian Americans. That suit, which went to trial in the fall, marks the latest chapter in a decades-old debate over affirmative action. The Harvard case illuminated a wealth of data about not only the role of race in admission decisions but also the extra edge given to recruited athletes and children of alumni.
On Wednesday, students of color said they felt vindicated. Often, students said, they are forced to deal with classmates’ suspicions that their skin color, not their academic achievements, got them into college. But the scandal offered a strong suggestion that the ones who had unjustly earned slots were wealthy, mostly white and academically unqualified.
A tweet made the rounds in the community of first-generation and low-income students at Princeton University: “wow, it turns out money was the real Affirmative Action all along!”
The Trump administration joined in the condemnation. “Every student deserves to be considered on their individual merits when applying to college and it’s disgraceful to see anyone breaking the law to give their children an advantage over others,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said. “The department is looking closely at this issue and working to determine if any of our regulations have been violated.”
Also on Wednesday, “Full House” actress Lori Loughlin — one of the parents charged with paying bribes to help get children into college — appeared in court in Los Angeles. A judge ruled she could be released after posting $1 million bond. In Austin, the University of Texas said it fired tennis coach Michael Center, who was charged in the case.
Douglas L. Wilson Sr., 49, a government worker and father of 10 who lives in Southeast Washington, said he and his wife never went to college. Seven of their children are in college or received degrees. The youngest three have not yet graduated from high school. He said his children have studied hard, earned scholarships, borrowed money to pay tuition — and never taken shortcuts. Bribing a coach or paying for a fake SAT or ACT score would have been inconceivable to him, he said.
“It’s sad, but I’m not shocked,” Wilson said. “I don’t know why anyone is shocked. This is the way the world works.”
Across the admissions world, there was consensus that the scandal posed a huge challenge because it shattered confidence of students and families.
“Trust is critically important,” said Jenny Rickard, president and chief executive of the Common Application, an online admissions portal for more than 800 colleges that draws more than 1 million applicants a year. “Schools want to be trusting of the students, the counseling communities, the teachers and others who help students apply. And the students and others need to be able to trust the institution that they’re going to be considered fairly and equitably.”
William “Rick” Singer, of Newport Beach, Calif., the mastermind of the cheating and bribery scheme who has pleaded guilty to racketeering and other charges, was able to identify and exploit what he called a “side door” into colleges that reject far more applicants than they admit. That door was guarded by allegedly corruptible coaches who wield heavy influence over admission slots. Among those charged in the case: a former women’s volleyball coach at Wake Forest University, a former women’s soccer coach at Yale, a former men’s soccer coach at the University of California at Los Angeles and a former water polo coach at USC. Many parents were also charged.
“To some extent, the system got hacked,” said Jim Jump, a former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling who writes on the ethics of college admissions for Inside Higher Education. “The people involved found a vulnerability. That vulnerability is the way athletic admissions is done.”
Essentially, admissions officers take coaches at their word when a recruit is recommended. Georgetown shifted course in November. The university now requires head coaches to provide a written description of a recruited athlete — something like an athletic résumé or other documentation of accomplishments — before the admission office releases a letter telling students they’re admitted or likely to be.
Georgetown also said it plans to audit sports programs regularly to determine which athletic recruits don’t participate on teams after enrolling. Stanford said it fired a sailing coach, John Vandemoer, who accepted financial contributions to recommend two candidates. One of the two was denied admission, Stanford said, and the other never completed an application.
Another long-noted vulnerability is the security of admissions testing. The scandal showed some parents were willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to help their children cheat on the ACT or SAT. Under Singer’s scheme, students would obtain a learning disability diagnosis and special accommodations for testing. Then a stand-in or proctor at a site Singer “controlled” through bribes would manipulate the test to get the right result.
Authorities named Mark Riddell, a college-entrance exam counselor, as Singer’s cheating accomplice and charged him in the case. Riddell on Wednesday apologized through a lawyer and said he was taking “full responsibility” for his actions.
The College Board, which owns the SAT, said charges against Singer and others sent “a clear message that those who facilitate cheating on the SAT — regardless of their income or status — will be held accountable.” The ACT also commended law enforcement.
But affluent families routinely secure an edge in testing without breaking the law. They pay thousands of dollars not to cheat but to hire tutors for test preparation, one of many ways wealth tilts admissions. Another edge: the special consideration given children of alumni and donors.
“Ultimately, I think the goal of a racially and socioeconomically diverse student body is essential to the mission of higher education,” said John B. King Jr., education secretary in the Obama administration. “So, one has to ask: what goal is served by legacy preferences or donor preferences?”
Jim McCorkell, founder of the nonprofit College Possible in St. Paul, Minn., which helps disadvantaged students, is hoping for new scrutiny of such questions. “This scandal really strikes at the core of the American promise — that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead,” McCorkell said. Too often, he said, the privileged few are “cutting in front of the line and taking their spot.”
Debbie Truong and Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.