2 Stanford students file first class-action suit in largest college admissions scam

Doug Stanglin

Two Stanford University students are suing the University of Southern California, Yale, the University of California Los Angeles and other institutions in a class-action lawsuit over a massive admissions cheating case involving affluent parents suspected of paying bribes to get their kids into top schools. 

But the chances of the defendants prevailing might be difficult, experts say.

In the federal complaint, Erica Olsen and Kalea Woods say they were denied a fair opportunity to gain admission to their choice of a top college, and that their Stanford degrees were devalued by criminal racketeering charges leveled by federal prosecutors.

Olsen, from Henderson, Nevada, said she had “stellar” standardized test scores and athletic talent, but was rejected by Yale after paying her roughly $85 application fee.

"Had she known that the system at Yale University was warped and rigged by fraud, she would not have spent the money to apply to the school," the lawsuit states. "She also did not receive what she paid for – a fair admissions consideration process."

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Woods, from San Diego, said in the complaint that she was an exceptional student and athlete, but when applying to enter the University of Southern California "was never informed that the process of admission at USC was an unfair, rigged process, in which parents could buy their way into the university through bribery and dishonest schemes."

Woods, like Olsen, said her Stanford degree "is now not worth as much as it was before, because prospective employers may now question whether she was admitted to the university on her own merits, versus having rich parents who were willing to bribe school officials."

Jocelyn Larkin, executive director of the Impact Fund, which frequently joins class-action suits in economic and social justice cases, said it would be "very challenging" to demonstrate that a Stanford degree had measurably lost its prestige because of the scandal. 

Larkin, past co-chair of the American Bar Association Section's Class Actions and Derivative Suits Committee, also said that the loss of the application money due to alleged fraud would be easier to show, but "there is also a question whether people would have applied anyway."

She noted, however, that the suit's discovery process would help show what, if anything, the universities knew about the alleged fraudulent activity and "that's beneficial for the public."

The class action names UCLA, USC, the University of San Diego, Stanford, University of Texas at Austin, Wake Forest University, Georgetown and Yale and seeks certification to include any person who applied to these schools between 2012 and 2018.

It seeks not only a return of admission and applications fees but also unspecified punitive damages "to punish the defendants and deter future. conduct."

Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system, said in a statement that she was "deeply troubled and disappointed" to learn of the charges.

"The allegations associated with USC, if proven true, are a disservice to the hardworking and accomplished students and alumni who have earned their place at the university and continue to make us proud," she said.

She said UC was investigating the charges and would take "swift and appropriate disciplinary actions to address misconduct" that might be uncovered. The university system would also use the opportunity to improve its policies and practices.

The scandal, as laid out in court Tuesday in a federal indictment and a guilty plea by a rogue college consultant, involved bribing coaches, falsifying athletic records and substituting exam takers. 

The consultant, William "Rick" Singer, 58, of Newport Beach, California, pleaded guilty to racketeering, money laundering, tax evasion and obstruction of justice in a federal courtroom in Boston.

The scandal has implicated celebrity actors such as Lori Loughlin of "Full House" and Felicity Huffman of "Desperate Housewives" (and her husband William H. Macy, who is not charged.) Also named: wealthy CEOs, prominent lawyers and accomplished athletic coaches at Division I schools.

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A 204-page affidavit from an FBI agent laid out the scheme involving proctors changing test results, fabricated credentials and even doctored pictures to make non-athletic students appear to be accomplished athletes.  

The result: Dozens of wealthy and well-connected parents got their under-qualified children into elite colleges like Yale, Georgetown and Stanford.

Alexandra Lahav, class-action expert and professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, said she could see a valid argument in the attempt to get back applications fees, "but I can't see it as real injury in not getting in."

According to one report, the scheme involved only 750 students over 15 years who got in through the alleged bribery and cheating scheme, a very small number relative to a decade and a half of student bodies.

In addition, many students are legally allowed in because of legacy reasons — as son or daughter of alumnae — or got special treatment if the family donated to a university project.

Given that reality, Lahav said, the plaintiffs' argument regarding merit works "if you really believe that everyone who goes to these fancy schools go on merit."

A more valid argument, she said, might be made by a talented student seeking an athletic scholarship who didn't get in because, as alleged in the federal indictment, a student without any athletic skills received an athletic scholarship slot because of a bribe. 

Like Larkin, Lahav said the class-action suit, if allowed to proceed, would trigger the discovery process that could open up to scrutiny a university's statistics on admissions based on legacy, donations and other relationships.

"Schools prefer not to release that, and that could be the political benefit of bringing a lawsuit like this," she said.

Contributing: Kevin McCoy

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2 Stanford students file first class-action suit in largest college admissions scam