PD Editorial: Colleges must fix scandal-plagued admissions

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Is anyone surprised that people pulled strings so their kids can attend elite universities?

Probably not. Nevertheless, the story laid out this week by federal prosecutors in Boston, if proven in court, is a stunning example of corruption and deceit.

To get their kids into Yale, USC and other top public and private schools, parents paid as much as $6.5 million, and some of them wrote the bribes off on their taxes as charitable contributions. Some parents claimed their children had learning disabilities to get special treatment on exams. Test centers facilitated all manner of cheating. And college sports coaches took under-the-table payments to vouch for fictional athletic skills.

A cooperating witness described the scheme as “the home run of home runs.”

For millions of kids trying to get into school based on their actual skills and achievements, it’s got to be the disillusionment of disillusionments.

Altogether, 50 people in six states were charged, including Hollywood celebrities, a Silicon Valley hedge fund CEO, a Napa Valley vintner and sports coaches at Stanford, UCLA, Georgetown and elsewhere.

The lead defendant, William Singer of Newport Beach, who owns Edge College & Career Network and heads a “charity” called the Key Worldwide Foundation, already pleaded guilty to a menu of charges that sounds like a mob prosecution: racketeering, money laundering, conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

The scam was discovered by the FBI, not administrators at the targeted schools.

The universities apparently never noticed “student athletes” who never join a team, nor did they ask questions when applicants’ exam scores shot up on a second try.

College admissions never were a meritocracy. Universities, especially selective institutions, routinely give extra consideration to the children of donors and alumni. Preference is given to athletes and promising artists, and many schools value diversity in their student body. UC drew fire for increasing admissions of foreign students, who pay higher tuition than California residents.

But, as U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said at a news conference Tuesday in Boston, “We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter. We’re talking about deception and fraud.”

In this case, investigators say, money was paid to entrance-exam administrators to allow ringers to sit in, or so that answers could be changed before SAT and ACT tests were submitted. Sports coaches at schools including Wake Forest and the University of Texas took bribes to falsely identify applicants as tennis players, soccer players, water polo players and rowers, according to the indictments.

Whatever anyone thinks about preferential treatment for connected college applicants, the distinction between donations and fraud is clear.

“For every student admitted through fraud,” Lelling said, “an honest and genuinely talented student was rejected.”

That’s true, and anyone convicted of participating in the scam deserves to be punished.

The universities involved are portraying themselves as victims of a scam. Maybe, but many poor and middle-income families already believed the admission process was rigged against them. Now they see that it can be gamed, too. It’s up to the universities to fix that.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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