Caught in the largest-ever scandal involving college admissions, universities declared their dismay, saying they’d been victimized by the scam.
But were they responsible for the system that allowed illegal bribes and fraud to flourish, as the feds allege?
The scandal reveals many unpleasant truths about higher education in the United States. Among them: Rich students generally have more resources to game the system, and society adulates elite colleges.
The biggest challenge might be the hesitance of anyone to change the world of higher education.
Researchers who study higher education have offered nuanced critiques of the college system writ large. Lawmakers have decried the individual bad actors. But no one agrees how to sweep up.
Many of the colleges implicated have taken immediate action in suspending or firing coaches who have taken bribes. Most have promised to review their admissions processes.
The University of Southern California has carried out the most decisive actions. Anyone tied to the scheme by the government will be denied entrance to the university, USC said.
No college has offered wide-scale change. None seem to see the need for it.
8 colleges named in charges. Is that all?
The initial numbers seem staggering, but they’re actually relatively small in the world of American higher education.
There are roughly 4,300 colleges in the nation. Only eight were named in the federal investigation into William “Rick” Singer’s scam to get the children of the rich and famous through the doors of elite universities.
Singer and his staff faked tests, photoshopped unathletic students’ faces onto the bodies of actual athletes and took in nearly $25 million in bribes.
Yale’s endowment, which helps the university to cover the cost of professors and student scholarships, is $29.4 billion – 1,000 times larger than the total bribes feds allege.
Federal authorities charged 50 people, but that didn’t include any college admissions officials. That’s a sign, higher education insiders say, that universities aren’t culpable in the scandal.
Still, the scandal is certainly wider. Possibly much wider.
Singer said he helped 800 families with his scam. And the Justice Department said more people are involved in the case than the 33 parents who were initially charged. (Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said Tuesday he wasn’t ready to give a total.)
Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, pointed to the small number of institutions named in the investigation. This type of scam wasn’t commonplace, he said.
“This sort of scam exposed weakness that we are already aware of,” said Hartle. “Despite our effort, we need to do more.”
Americans are obsessed with elite colleges
It’s a feature and a bug that colleges largely can set their own parameters for who gets in and why. This control allows colleges to continue practices that favor students from wealthier families, such as admitting “legacy” students whose parents attended the school. It also allows them to admit students from more diverse backgrounds.
Much of the anxiety around college admissions centers around the number of limited slots at the most selective colleges, higher education experts say.
How to solve that? Relieve Americans’ obsession to get one of them.
It’s not that the system of college admissions is broken, said Paul Seegert, director of admissions for at the University of Washington. He blamed the scam on a few bad actors gaming the system but described a problem in which students are competing over the same, selective pool of elite colleges.
“That creates an enormous pressure for students seeking to get into that very small number of universities,” Seegert said. “Imagine a world where all of the countries valued all colleges and universities equally. There’s enough space for everybody.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who chairs the Senate committee over education, expressed a similar sentiment. In a statement, he described the case as criminal but pinned the blame on Americans’ attitudes toward college.
“Underlying all of this is an unhealthy and unnecessary obsession by some parents to push their children into a select number of colleges even though our country offers many excellent choices,” Alexander said.
Alexander and Seegert pose the question many have asked in the wake of the scandal: Why not just go somewhere else?
For many, attending an elite institution isn’t just about getting an education. If that was the case, they could, in fact, go anywhere.
“I don’t know that colleges can solve the problem,” said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “I think this is an America problem. I think this is a societal problem.”
What colleges could change – and who might push the changes
Colleges could do some things to democratize their admissions.
Universities should be allowed to set whatever admissions standards they see fit, said Todd Rose, a lecturer in Harvard’s graduate school of education. However, they should hold a lottery for who actually gets admitted, out of the people who meet those criteria.
And colleges could take greater pains to make sure their classes better reflect America’s economic and social diversity, said John King, a former secretary for the U.S. Department of Education. That could mean favoring students eligible for federal Pell Grants – traditionally the marker of low-income students – in the admissions process.
Plus, King said, states could choose to funnel more toward institutions that serve underrepresented students. Often, states disproportionally invest in flagship institutions that tend to serve better-prepared students from wealthier backgrounds.
So will Congress regulate colleges in the wake of the scam?
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, said the states have the responsibility to address equity in funding among universities. She hopes Congress will address ways to give disadvantaged students a helping hand through such programs as affirmative action at elite institutions.
“Right now the wealthy can do whatever they choose because they can pay their way,” she said. “Poor people will continue to suffer unless we do something like use affirmative action or race” to balance admissions.
Change could come in the form of lawsuits. On Thursday, two Stanford students filed a class-action lawsuit in connection to the admissions scandal case. And a federal lawsuit concerning affirmative action may shake up the way colleges admit students.
If the case does make it to the Supreme Court and affirmative action is struck down, it will rock college's process for choosing students, said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has studied college admissions. For one, he would expect the use of legacy admissions would no longer be permissible. If race can’t be considered, then neither should where a student’s family went either.
Congress has a lot of room to act, he said. It’s already illegal to discriminate on the basis of race. Congress could pass a similar law: If an institution receives federal funding, then it can’t admit people based on who their family is or where they went to school.
Another method could involve denying a tax deduction for families who donate to colleges in hopes their child will get admitted. Or Congress could decide to tax the endowments of universities that fail to enroll a certain percentage of students from diverse backgrounds.
Of course, that all requires political will. And, Kahlenberg said, this scandal may be that fuel – even if lawmakers and universities aren’t signaling that yet.
No one likes bribery, he said, whether is illegal or more of a genteel variety.
“Ultimately, these anachronistic and unfair practices will fall,” Kahlenberg said. “I can’t say when, but they’re so contrary to the American ideal.
“We founded the nation rebelling against aristocracy. The idea that universities are recreating that old style of aristocracy is kind of antithetical to the whole American ideal.”
Ledyard King and Erin Richards contributed to this report.
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Are universities the victims here? What colleges have to do right now to clean up admissions after largest-ever cheating scandal