IT IS downright naive to think wealth and privilege don’t factor into many critical aspects of American life. Among them: who gets to go to what college. But the scope and sheer shamelessness of an elaborate scheme in which some of the country’s richest people allegedly paid bribes to get their children into top U.S. universities is truly mind-boggling. It should prompt some soul-searching — by students, parents and educational institutions — about the priorities that should guide college admissions.
Federal prosecutors on Tuesday charged dozens of people, including Hollywood celebrities, prominent business leaders and college coaches, in what they called the largest university admissions scandal ever. According to prosecutors, parents made payments, in some cases more than $1 million, to get their children into elite colleges. Among the universities named: Georgetown University, Yale University, Stanford University, the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles. The payments were purported to be charitable contributions, but prosecutors alleged they actually were bribes to fix scores on standardized tests and induce athletic coaches to recommend students for admission based on phony athletic credentials. The colleges themselves were not implicated.
William Singer, the Palo Alto, Calif., college adviser who pleaded guilty to federal charges for masterminding the scheme and reportedly collected $25 million between 2011 and 2018, told parents he could facilitate their children’s admission to certain universities through what he called the “side door.” The front door, he said in one phone conversation with a parent that was recorded by authorities, “means you get in on your own. The back door is through institutional advancement [or making a large contribution to the university] . . . but there’s no guarantee. . . . My families want a guarantee.”
The FBI accidentally discovered the scam while working on an unrelated undercover case and rightly launched a vigorous investigation, with more than 200 agents working nationwide. As U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew E. Lelling said, there are real victims in this case and they are “the hard-working students” who were unfairly displaced by students with “families who simply bought their way in.”
No doubt these parents are outliers in the lengths they were willing to go — and the laws they allegedly were prepared to break — to advantage their children. But the scandal raises broader questions. Should the fiercely guarded secrecy that surrounds college admissions be opened to more transparency? What will it take for schools to better police college athletics so there are fewer chances for abuse? Has societal and parental obsession with getting into “a good school” so warped the process that often the interests of students aren’t being served? And what can colleges do to level the playing field for admission when key aspects of the system are tilted to those who already have more benefits?
Federal officials said the investigation is ongoing and that others could be charged. Let’s hope colleges and universities do their own assessment of whether the students who really deserve admission are the ones being selected.