- On Tuesday, March 12, 2019, as part of an operation dubbed "Varsity Blues," the Federal government indicted William Singer, a college admissions consultant based out of Newport Beach, California, and 33 other people, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, for crimes that included bribery and racketeering for purpose of fraudulently getting children into college.
- Several college athletic coaches were implicated in the scam and were instrumental in falsifying students' applications so that they could be earmarked as college athletes, even if they had no background in the sport and did not plan to join the team in college.
- Many critics are asking how this scam was allowed to go on for so long-and why college admissions officers did not notice the malpractice earlier.
When Sara Harberson was an admissions dean at the University of Pennsylvania, she oversaw all of the recruited athletes. Harberson often began having conversations with coaches about potential recruits months before anyone was picked for the limited number of slots available for athletes, giving them feedback about whether the students also had the academic chops for admission. By the time a high school jock got a letter announcing that an admissions committee was likely to admit them, Harberson said the kid had been pretty thoroughly vetted.
If the student wasn’t actually a hotshot athlete, there’d be plenty of chances to catch it. A recruited athlete at a Division I school would likely be well-known in their community, and that’d be reflected by coverage in local newspapers, or lauded for their athletic skill in letters of recommendations by teachers and counselors, Harberson said.
If someone like Olivia Jade, the YouTube star and daughter of actress Lori Loughlin, claimed to be a talented coxswain, an admissions officer could have questioned how they were able to be so active on social media while practicing 30 or more hours a week, or noticed that Olivia’s week-in-her-life and morning routine videos make no mention of crew.
The information, in other words, is not hard to track down-it's just that nobody bothered. “Admissions officers could do that if they had the time and were curious, but they usually are just trying to get through 100 applications a day between 9-to-5,” Harberson said. “So there has not been a verification process in place.”
The nationwide college admissions scandal that exploded last week raised questions about how so many applicants were able to fool officials at elite institutions like Georgetown, Stanford, and the University of Southern California. Federal prosecutors detailed in lengthy charging documents how students with little to no background in sports like crew, pole-vaulting, and tennis were admitted as recruited athletes after their parents bribed coaches and others to help fabricate profiles depicting them as all-stars.
An admissions consultant named William Singer allegedly orchestrated it all. Some of the schools implicated, including Yale and the University of Texas at Austin, already announced increased scrutiny of how recruited athletes are admitted. But the details in some of the cases make Harberson wonder how the scheme wasn’t busted earlier, considering what was in plain sight-and what could’ve been disproven with a quick Google search.
Prosecutors laid out several examples. The daughter of Manuel Henriquez, a venture capital executive, claimed in materials to Georgetown that she had a top 50 ranking nationally with the US Tennis Association, but didn’t play competitive tennis at all, according to prosecutors. “At her best, she appears to have ranked 207th in Northern California in the under-12 girls division, with an overall win/loss record of 2-8,” the complaint stated.
The daughter of venture capitalist Robert Zangrillo allegedly claimed in an essay she submitted to transfer into USC that she spent an average of 44 hours a week rowing, even though she never mentioned crew in her application a year earlier. Both girls got in after coaches agreed to designate them as recruits in exchange for payment, according to the indictment.
“As much influence as these coaches may have had,” said Harberson, who’s now a college planning counselor, “it is up to the admissions office staff to review everything. Could it be that they’re reading these applications so incredibly fast nowadays that they’re missing this stuff?”
“I think they have a fact-checking problem; that should be the hashtag,” Harberson added.
Admissions readers at elite universities typically spend fewer than eight minutes reviewing applications. That may not sound like much but it's usually sufficient, several former admissions counselors told Town & Country, because readers know what to look for, and now look at the application materials in small teams. But Harberson noted she often spent more than 30 minutes when she started reading applications at Penn in the late 90s.
The need for efficiency is partly a function of the huge increase in applicants that many colleges have seen. Twice as many high school seniors apply to seven or more colleges than they did a decade ago. The University of California-Los Angeles, where a soccer coach is accused of taking bribes to help two wealthy students get into school, became the first campus to receive over 100,000 freshman applications in 2016. And as applications go up, admissions rates go down, allowing schools like USC and Georgetown to brag about becoming more selective.
But despite that huge influx in applicants, few colleges shifted their admissions practices. “None of them did what they needed to do to safeguard their admissions process,” said Peter Van Buskirk, ex-admissions dean of Franklin & Marshall College.
But how did athletics become the weak point that could be exploited so effectively by scammers? Most major universities with athletics programs designate a number of slots for coaches to pick who they want to recruit to join their team and help fast-track their way to admission. It’s a way for coaches to make sure they get the talent they want before another college grabs them, and gives students a path into the university if their GPA or test scores are bit lower than other applicants.
“Admissions officers are not coaches,” said McGreggor Crowley, former director of selection at MIT, who’s now a counselor at IvyWise, an elite admissions counseling service. “They rely on experts, which were these coaches, to say, ‘Yeah, this kid is a great pole-vaulter.’”
Until now, there wasn’t a reason to question a coach. “When a coach puts his or her name with a candidate, there’s an awful lot of pride and ego on the line,” said Van Buskirk, who now hosts college planning workshops as CEO of Best College Fit.
But if there is no scholarship attached to the recruiting effort, then the student typically isn’t required to actually join team once they arrive on campus. Which means that if a coach can be persuaded to help an applicant falsify their athletic credentials-or at least look the other way-then there isn’t going to be anyone complaining to the university that someone exploited athletics to get into the college.
It’s possible that the scam could work with another talent, such as dance, music, or art, had someone in those fields on campus been bribed. But several admissions officers noted a dance or theater recruit would’ve had to go through an audition, while an artist would’ve had to show a portfolio. For sports though, it’s common to instead use a profile that lists accomplishments and let the coach translate for the admissions office. So while a photo on a rowing machine apparently was enough proof to sneak Olivia Jade into USC as an athlete, she couldn’t have repeated that with a picture of her and an easel.
“You’re trusting the adults in the room who are vouching for these students that they’re authentic and they’re not lying,” said Liz Culliton, former associate director of admissions at Penn and counselor at InGenius Prep. “Now you feel like you can’t trust anyone.”
Some colleges are putting into place processes that will make these kind of scams much harder in the future. Yale’s president vowed that they will monitor whether recruited athletes actually play in college-“a recruited athlete [who] fails to make a team will receive close scrutiny.” For its part, Georgetown said it already started doing audits to determine whether any recruited students never end up on a team’s roster.
But former admissions officers worry that the culture that fueled the scam isn’t going away anytime soon. Those families who worked with William Singer to get their children into school based on fraudulent applications were almost universally wealthy. Jim Jump, past-president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, believes that having a child enrolled at a place like Georgetown or USC has become a “status symbol” for the family; “It’s more about the parents’ status need than it is about the kid.”
“We should be teaching students to try to look for what’s the right fit, rather than a top school,” a former Stanford admissions official vented to Town & Country. “I feel like that’s one of the biggest problems."
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