Understanding the “Varsity Blues” Academic Integrity Scandal

What the heck is going on with academic admissions?

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On March 12, just two days after the International Center for Academic Integrity closed their annual conference, the Department of Justice announced what it is calling “Operation Varsity Blues”.

The Department of Justice says the operation is the “largest college admissions scam ever” and has resulted in some 50 people getting charged in a scandal that involves at least eight schools.

To that end, the story was practically custom-built to generate very splashy headlines. It’s a story involving millions of dollars in alleged bribes, some of the nation’s top schools, including Yale and Stanford, and at least two major celebrities including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, who were among the 50 charged.

So what actually happened in this scandal and how were students able to bribe their way into major colleges and universities. The answer is both amazingly complex and surprisingly simple at the same time.

In short, while it was an elaborate scheme, it wasn’t extremely difficult. However, the impacts it will have on education as a whole will be both significant and long-lasting.

How the Scam Worked

The scam centers around a man named William Singer who ran a business called Edge College & Career Network, sometimes referred to as The Key. The Key’s stated goal was to help high school students prepare for their college applications so that they could get into the school that they wanted.

However, the Key went above and beyond helping students prep for their SATs or polishing their application essays. Instead, for very large sums of money, The Key would provide guarantees that a student would be able to get in.

If that seems impossible, it’s because it is. To make good on those promises, Singer would employ a wide variety of tactics with varying degrees of illegality.

For some students, this appeared as cheating on the SAT or ACT tests. This included bribing proctors, which worked at two institutions, to give the student more time under the pretense they had learning disabilities, correcting the answers after they were submitted and/or even having someone else take the test for them.

However, sometimes Singer would take a more direct approach. One common strategy was to approach coaches at universities and bribe them to take in his client, even though the student never played the sport involved. This included the women’s water polo coach at University of Southern California and Stanford University’s sailing coach among others.

To achieve this, Singer would often go to great lengths including photoshopping the student’s face onto images of other athletes to make the claims more believable to others at the college.

For his efforts, parents are alleged to have paid Singer some $25 million between 2011 and 2019. Much of that money was funneled into a charity associated with The Key as a means to avoid paying taxes on the money.

What is unclear at this time is what those beyond the fifty already charged knew. The parents have claimed that their children were unaware of what they had done. However, in many cases it seems unlikely that they weren’t aware that something was amiss.

Similarly, schools are claiming that their admissions offices were equally unaware and that the scandal starts and stops with the coaches involved.

While the story is still somewhat evolving, it does seem that the primary actors in this scam were Singer, the parents, the proctors and the coaches. If the students and universities were aware, they likely weren’t decision makers.

However, it’s important to remember that the story is still unfolding and that it is very possible we could learn even more in the days and weeks to come. Unfortunately though, what we’ve learned already is probably enough to do significant damage to the reputation of not just the schools involved, but the entire U.S. higher education system.

The Damage is Done

Singer, who is cooperating with investigators, referred to operation as “a side door” into a university.

According to Singer, every university had three doors for admission.

  1. The Front Door: The main way students get in, by applying to the university and (supposedly) getting in under their own merits.
  2. The Back Door: Where students or their families make large donations in hopes of gaining admission but are not guaranteed success.
  3. The Side Door: Singer’s network of cheating and bribery.

However, faith in the meritocracy of college admissions is already under scrutiny for its impersonal nature and how it can stigmatize and disadvantage many students. This includes ongoing controversies about how college admissions are balanced on race, class and other socioeconomic lines.

Harvard University, which itself pioneered the use of the SAT in the 1920s to create an objective admissions standard, found itself the subject of a lawsuit that accused it of discriminating against asian students in 2017. We are still waiting for a judge’s ruling in that case with final arguments having been held just last month.

The truth is that confidence in the fairness of college admissions are at an all-time low and, whether or not Singer is right about the “Back Door” approach, there is widespread belief that wealthy students have an extreme advantage when it comes not just to paying for college, but to gaining admission.

This story only furthers that sense of unfairness and further erodes trust in the admissions process. Even if we assume the scheme only involves the 50 people that have been charged, it’s still a mammoth operation with a huge budget.

The frightening part is that many believe it is not the only one. In an article for WBUR, college admissions officers expressed little surprise at the scheme and noted that the combination of extreme competitiveness and lack of meritocracy made the industry ripe for this kind of scam.

As such, it’s likely not the only such operation out there and there are probably other shoes waiting to drop.

That reality, as much as the story itself, will do great harm to what little faith there is in the admissions process.

Bottom Line

Mathematically, the number of students involved is likely fairly low. A few dozen students whose parents bribed them into universities represent a small amount of the estimated 20 million students enrolling for college this year. Even when we look just at the universities directly involved, they are only a tiny fraction of a percent of the student enrollment.

However, as a symbol, they are much more damaging. At a time where faith in admissions process is already this eroded, this story is a hurricane of mistrust slamming onto academia’s shores.

While there is no simple answer to the tough questions surrounding university admissions, this story certainly isn’t doing anything to help improve the situation or restore faith.

The best we can hope for is that those involved in this scandal, including Singer himself, are punished appropriately and that it dissuades others from participating in similar schemes.

But, even if that’s the case, it’s still likely that this story will be a stain on college admissions for many years to come.

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