Getting into college is hard enough without worrying that your seat might be taken by someone deemed a “special admit.”
These students, allegedly, have a talent or ability that will bring a university more value than other students. The University of California reserves 2 percent of its seats for special admissions, which are supposed to be reserved for exceptional, nontraditional or disadvantaged students.
However, in reality, these slots have been utilized by most schools for student athletes, who, in many cases, do not have the grades or test scores to qualify for admission.
As we have seen in recent news reports, some of these spots are not even being used for real athletes at all, and instead are being utilized by the wealthy and privileged in cahoots with coaches and college preparatory executives to supply these otherwise unexceptional children with an educational opportunity that they may not otherwise have enjoyed but for their parents’ assistance.
Fifty of these people have been charged in the criminal investigation coined Operation Varsity Blues. Special treatment for the rich and famous is nothing new, most likely because of the compensation and/or notoriety that the universities receive from admitting those allegedly special students, but the current investigation is revealing far more serious conduct than previously suspected.
A scheme devised by William Rick Singer, the founder of a for-profit college counseling and preparation business, involved paying coaches to help nonathletes get into elite schools by falsifying athletic credentials and claiming the students were being recruited to play sports.
In addition, Singer also arranged for third-parties to take college admissions exams, including the SAT and ACT, for students to attain a higher score that would qualify them for admission at a top tier school. Unfortunately, it appears that the practices utilized by Singer are not unique to his particular plot, which had empowered people like him to act as intermediaries between the parents and coaches so as to keep the hands of the parents and coaches “clean.”
The scheme also involved using his connections with Division 1 coaches and administrators to bribe them into admitting the special children with the promise of athletic scholarships in return.
Singer used stock photos and pasted the face of the student who he was aiding onto an athlete in a Photoshop image. The profiles Singer created for each student included made-up athletic honors and staged photos showing the students “in action.”
For the most part, the profiles were for sports such as crew, pole vaulting, water polo and tennis. Singer was compensated approximately $25 million by parents during the eight-year period that the program named The Key was active.
Schools including the University of Southern California, Yale, the University of Texas and Stanford University have all been implicated in the investigation. In one instance, UT’s men’s tennis coach Michael Center allegedly received approximately $90,000 in bribes for designating a Silicon Valley student as a recruited student-athlete, however the student had never ever played tennis. USC allegedly offered a student represented by Singer a full ride as a kicker/punter, even though his school did not have a football team.
Another example involves the daughters of famed actress Lori Loughlin, better known as Aunt Becky on Full House, who were both passed off as crew recruits despite never being involved in the sport. Women’s crew is a sport susceptible to this kind of behavior since rosters can balloon up to 125 athletes at Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision schools to balance out the number of male athletes under Title IX-related gender equity regulations.
Secret bribes to the coaches effectively allowed the students to bypass the entire admissions process. Many college coaches, particularly those within the Power 5 Conferences, have little checks on their authority to admit recruits, allowing for possible unethical conduct.
Most of the implicated schools have distanced themselves from the schemes by firing or putting the involved coaches and administrators on leave. Further, the NCAA has stated that it will be investigating the allegations to determine any NCAA rule violations, but the lack of benefit to the respective programs likely lessens the scope of possible penalties if such violations are found to have taken place.
California lawmakers have already responded, introducing a package of admissions reforms include phasing out the SAT and ACT, banning preferential admissions to applicants related to donors or alumni and checks-and-balance for special admits.
Special admit athletes would also be required to get permission to receive the scholarship offers from three administrative staff members. In addition, lawmakers want to crack down on college admissions consultants like Singer, to give opportunity to less financially fortunate students with better academic records.
Another consideration is how to deal with the students who are currently embroiled in the scandal. If we assume that the implicated students would not otherwise qualify for the admissions that they received, this scheme was not a victimless crime since a number of qualified students missed an opportunity to attend some of the better schools in the country with their places taken by the implicated students.
Based on university student codes of conduct, the implicated students are in violation of their respective academic dishonesty codes that each student is required to follow.
The key determination for the implicated students’ liability will be the level of knowledge that the students had about their parents’ actions. At the very least, each student named in the filings will likely have their academic record closely examined by university officials to determine if their academic and athletic achievements are accurate.
Verification of athletic achievement and a reasonable investigation of a student’s past endeavors makes for a potential solution in the interim, but significant amendments to the recruiting process may prove necessary to eliminate this problem in the future including restricting the relative autonomy of coaches to admit students; a power that athletic departments and their coaches will not relinquish without a fight.