Wealth plays a big part in post-scandal college admissions

Celebrities cried in court. Coaches lost their jobs. Elite universities saw their reputations tarnished. And almost four years later, the mastermind is the Varsity Blues scheme was sentenced to more than three years in prison this month.

But there’s little belief that the college bribery scandal has led to any significant changes in the admissions landscape. Some schools have adjusted the rules to prevent the most blatant kinds of wrongdoing, but the outsized roles of wealth, class and race — which have been exposed with shocking clarity — are as big as ever.

College admissions officers say the case is an anomaly. Corrupt athletics officials have abused holes in the system, they argue, but no college admissions officers have been charged. But critics say the case revealed deeper, more troubling imbalances.

“Privilege is really baked into the system in a lot of ways,” said Julie Park, who majors in college admissions and racial justice at the University of Maryland. “At the end of the day, the 1% is disproportionately represented at every private university.”

The scheme itself was outrageous, with wealthy parents paying to have their children admitted to select universities as bogus athletes. It drew attention to the benefits these families already had, including tutors and private counselors. It was also highlighted other ways money can influence admissions decisionswith benefits for relatives of donors and alumni.

In court, some of the accused parents argued their alleged bribes were no different from donations that colleges routinely accept from relatives of prospective students. Records revealed by the University of Southern California showed lists detailing the scores of “VIP” applicants, with notes such as “potential donor” or “1 million pledge.”

Among the parents who were sent to jail for participating in the program was the “Full House” actor Lori Loughlin, her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulliand “Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman.

When authorities first announced indictments in 2019, colleges across the United States needed to review their own admissions systems, particularly where there was overlap with athletics programs. Schools added more levels of testing to recruitment, with a keen eye on lesser-known sports that the program targeted, such as water polo and rowing.

When asked what has changed since then, the universities at the center of the program point to a series of policies that were passed within months of the arrests.

An internal review at USC found that an average of 12 students per year were recruited into sports they ended up not playing. Some, but not all, were tied to the bribery system. The university accused “one or a small number” of athletic officials of violating school policies and hid it from the admissions office.

USC officials said they had begun screening athletic recruits at multiple levels of government, including through a track and field compliance bureau, which also began verifying that recruits actually end up competing.

Yale University made similar changes after a women’s soccer coach accepted $860,000 in bribes to gain student admissions into the program. Yale’s athletic director began screening all proposed recruits, the school announced in 2019, and recruits who don’t end up on teams will now face “close scrutiny.”

But in the overall picture of admissions at Yale, “very little has changed,” said Logan Roberts, a senior at the Ivy League School who came from a low-income family in upstate New York. The school denounced the scandal but ignored deeper issues that give affluent students an admissions advantage.

On campus, he said, students of modest means still far outnumbered those attending private schools with access to expensive tutors. Roberts and others have urged the university to abandon policies that promote prosperity, including preferences for alumni’s children, but so far Yale has resisted change.

“When money and morality collide, money generally wins,” said Roberts, 22.

Angel Pérez was the head of admissions at Trinity College in Connecticut when the scandal broke. His school wasn’t implicated, but within minutes his phone was buzzing with texts from colleagues. Could it happen here, they wondered? Trinity reviewed its policies and concluded that they were sound.

Ultimately, it did little to transform the industry, said Pérez, who now heads NACAC, a national association of college admissions officers.

“The majority of institutions found that they had a really good process and that there was no unethical behavior,” he said. “This was a case of some bad actors posing as college counselors.”

Still, he said, the bribery case — along with the country’s racial reckoning and separate affirmative action lawsuits — has sparked debate about the fairness of legacy preferences and entrance exams.

“I think it just woke up the American public,” he said.

After January 4th condemnation of plan mastermind Rick Singer, authorities said their work had led to reform. The FBI said the colleges were wondering how to detect wrongdoing.

US Attorney Rachael Rollins of Massachusetts said it unveiled a “separate college admissions process for the rich, powerful and sophisticated,” but she also said it had resulted in “meaningful changes.” She suggested this may have helped more colleges make the SAT and ACT optional, a trend that began before the fall, however has gained momentum during the pandemic.

However, others argue that the scheme was just a symptom of an illness.

America’s obsession with elite schools, combined with opaque admissions systems, has led to despair among families seeking the best for their children, said Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, a nonprofit organization that represents private consultants who help with the admissions process.

Colleges are helping to fuel the frenzy, he said, by boasting about their ever-declining acceptance rates while giving benefits to the well-connected.

“Colleges have created a system designed to reject more and more children,” he said. “It became less and less clear who was accepted and who was rejected, and I think that caused this generation of parents to say, ‘I will do whatever it takes to accommodate my child.'”

Closing bribery loopholes, he added, does little to make licensing fairer.

Ultimately, wealth and privilege play the same role in admission as they did before the fall, said Park of the University of Maryland. So far she sees little real change, she said, for example only a small number of schools have agreed to drop old preferences.

“Things have the potential to change,” she said. “But are only chairs moved on the Titanic? I do not know.”

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https://www.local10.com/news/national/2023/01/15/wealth-looms-big-as-ever-in-post-scandal-college-admissions/ Wealth plays a big part in post-scandal college admissions

Sarah Y. Kim

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