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How a bombshell bribery scandal illuminates the ‘corruption’ of college admissions

Scandal has ensnared some of the nation’s top colleges, as prosecutors allege that wealthy parents conspired to help their kids cheat on college admissions tests and funnel bribes to college athletic coaches to secure admission into elite schools. William Brangham talks to Jeffrey Selingo, who covers higher education, about the stunning charges federal prosecutors brought on Tuesday.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    High school students and their parents know all too well just how intense the competition for college admissions can be. But today's announcement from federal prosecutors was still a shocker.

    They arrested and charged 50 people across the U.S. for participating in a bribery and cheating scam to get students into elite schools. The case was called Operation Varsity Blues.

    As William Brangham tells us for our weekly education segment, Making the Grade, the scheme allegedly included wealthy parents, among them well-known actresses, college coaches, and a dishonest college admissions counseling program.

  • William Brangham:

    The scheme revolved in large part around a college prep business, often referred to as the Key.

    The government said the company's founder, William Singer, helped students cheat on standardized tests, and paid roughly $25 million in bribes to college athletic coaches so that kids could enter college with fake athletic credentials. In some instances, the students didn't even play the sport. To mask the fraud, some students faces were actually Photoshopped onto another athlete's body.

    Two well-known actresses, Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, allegedly paid into the scheme for their children. Among the schools targeted were Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, and UCLA.

    And here's how Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney in Massachusetts, characterized this case:

  • Andrew Lelling:

    This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth, combined with fraud.

    Every year, hundreds of thousands of hardworking, talented students strive for admission to elite schools. As every parent knows, these students work harder and harder every year, in a system that appears to grow more and more competitive every year. And that system is a zero-sum game. For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.

  • William Brangham:

    For more on this, I'm joined by Jeffrey Selingo. He's been covering higher ed in America for 20 years, including for "The Chronicle of Higher Education," as well as in three of his own books on the topic.

    Welcome back.

  • Jeffrey Selingo:

    It's great to be here.

  • William Brangham:

    So, this is a jaw-dropping bribery scandal. I just sort of am gobsmacked by the complexity of this.

    It seems that the bribery falls into two categories here, cheating on athletics and that role in admissions, and cheating on standardized tests.

    Can you explain how cheating on the testing worked?

  • Jeffrey Selingo:

    So, what they did was essentially get doctor's notes to allow these students to take the test by themselves with proctors that were paid off.

    And those proctors either had somebody else take the test for these students, or they corrected the exam, so that the students would get higher scores. Those scores were then reported to the universities, who, of course, didn't really know who actually took the test.

  • William Brangham:

    And then — so, obviously, a higher test score helps you get into schools no matter what.

    But the second part of this is that — the bribing of athletic coaches and the creating of these sort of phony athletic resumes. Can you explain a little bit?

  • Jeffrey Selingo:

    I mean, this was the most amazing one to me, because many of these students didn't even play the sports they were purported to play and that they recruited for.

    And every year, these coaches — and these are at high-level institutions, in some cases at Division I institutions — they're recruiting athletes starting in their sophomore and junior year. So for these students to not have to play these sports, and then to get in under that pretense of those sports, I think, was absolutely shocking and amazing to me.

    And these athletes are given tips in admissions, right? They — all these colleges have to fill teams, right? They need a starting pitcher on the — on the baseball team. They need rowers on the crew team, right? So they need to fill these spots. And so, every year, athletes are given advantages in admissions. And, clearly, these students were as well.

  • William Brangham:

    How significant is that advantage?

  • Jeffrey Selingo:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, for people who are not familiar with this, the role — if you really are a star athlete, can you get into a school that would really traditionally be out of your league?

  • Jeffrey Selingo:

    Yes, you can.

    I mean, in many of these schools, they are basically the — the athletic director or the coaches come to the admissions team and say, these are the students we really want.

    Now, will they accept the bottom of the bottom in terms of academics? Some schools will not. Other schools will and just basically say, we will give them kind of academic support while they — while they're here.

    But, basically, every other part of their application could be pretty minimal, but as long as they have athletics on it, it really does help.

  • William Brangham:

    One of the details that you touched on here, I just find it so striking. This is the example in Yale.

    And this was a young woman in Southern California who didn't play soccer. This — the guy William Singer helped set up a phony athletic profile, sort of pretending that she played on a very competitive team in Southern California.

    They then bribe the Yale soccer coach, $400,000, to recruit this student, even though the coach knew that the student had never even put her foot on a ball.

  • Jeffrey Selingo:

    No, and it's amazing. I can't even imagine what these other athletes on the team thought of this.

    But, more so, there was probably an athlete or two that were in the recruiting system for Yale that didn't get in because this student or these students got in. And that's not only true at Yale, but at these other institutions.

    The U.S. attorney talked about it as a zero-sum game. I mean, in admissions, to be honest with you, I think that many more students are not admitted who are qualified, because the admissions rate at some of these places is like 8 to 10 percent.

    But, in athletics, you're really competing against one or two other people. And so, in those cases, I think they probably took a spot of somebody.

  • William Brangham:

    At its core, really, this is about wealthy parents who are trying to buy in some ways even more influence for their wealthy children, right?

  • Jeffrey Selingo:

    I mean, what's amazing to me is that, in some cases, it wouldn't really matter where these kids went to college, right? They have both the means, the financial means, but also the connections to live a great life because of their parents, no matter where they go.

    So it's kind of shocking that they really wanted that piece of paper from an elite college — an elite college, because, in many cases, it wouldn't matter where they went.

    And what was interesting to me about the — about the ACT and the SAT is that, at many elite colleges, including…

  • William Brangham:

    These are the standardized tests.

  • Jeffrey Selingo:

    The standardized tests.

    At many elite colleges, including the University of Chicago last year, they're diminishing the use of these, right? University of Chicago went what's called test-optional last year, where students don't have to submit test scores.

    And at many colleges that I followed over the years, they kind of use the standardized test kind of as a check-in. They're more interested in high school curriculum and high school grades and other parts of the application.

    So the fact that they spent so much money on standardized tests, thinking that would get them into college, in many ways, they were mistaken.

  • William Brangham:

    The criminality aside — and we can't emphasize how much that this is breaking the law with the bribes that were paid — doesn't this strike you that this is also an indictment of the cutthroat nature of college applications?

  • Jeffrey Selingo:

    Yes. Yes.

    I mean, we're seeing this more, that the seats are scarce at these — at the selective colleges and universities. There are more people every year trying to get into them. They represent about a third of applications every year, even though they only represent about 18 percent of students, the most elite colleges.

    So the competition to get into them is great. And yet we know from research that, in many ways, it doesn't matter where you go to college. It matters how you go to college, and being really engaged in your studies and extracurricular activities, getting internships and other types of activities matter more.

    But yet we want to get into these colleges because we know the seats are scarce. We're worried about the future of the economy and the future of our children. We want to make sure that they get — have all the same privileges that we had.

    And so every year, more and more people are trying to get into these colleges. And we see this in their application totals, right? Everyone's up like 8, 10 percent every year. And they're getting tens of thousands of applications and admitting in many cases fewer than 10 percent, in some cases fewer than 5 percent of applicants.

  • William Brangham:

    And, as we see, people are turning to devious means to try to get in.

  • Jeffrey Selingo:

    Exactly.

  • William Brangham:

    Jeffrey Selingo, thank you very much.

  • Jeffrey Selingo:

    It was great to be with you.

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