Operation Varsity Blues: Is This Different than Donating a Building?

Operation Varsity Blues, nicknamed by the FBI, has garnered national attention since the indictment was released on March 12th. The college admissions scandal has sent shockwaves nationwide and sparked a deeper debate about how classism impacts elite college admissions. There are numerous security measures in place for standardized assessments to prevent cheating on exams, but this elite college fraud scandal goes way beyond inflated scores.

First, let’s uncover the facts; then, let’s dig into the question that most people have been asking – hasn’t this been happening for years? Why is it newsworthy now?

Who was involved?

50 people were charged in the scandal, including the ringleader William Singer, exam administrators, college athletic directors, and 33 parents. As you may expect, many of the ultra-wealthy parents are Hollywood celebrities and actors. The charges cover a broad spectrum of bribery, racketeering, fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice, mail fraud, and more.

Where did this happen?

The operation was masked as a charity called Key Worldwide Foundation, which is the purported non-profit arm of a college preparatory company in California. Money for the scheme was funneled in as a charity tax write-off and used primarily for bribes. Mr. Singer guaranteed parents acceptance to elite schools across the country, including USC, Georgetown, UCLA, Yale, Stanford, and others.

What did they do?

In an interview with prosecutors, the scandal organizer explained that he, “created a side door that guaranteed families to get in.” Mr. Singer inflated scores for SAT/ACT critical reading, writing, and math exams, though supposedly many students didn’t know that they were cheating. They falsified scores in three ways: 1) someone else would take the test in place of the student, 2) the proctor would tell students the right answers during the exam, or 3) student answers would be corrected prior to submission.

Additionally, college athletic directors and coaches were bribed to promote students who had falsified athletic statistics. In some cases, the students had never even played the sport, so they haphazardly photoshopped their faces into team pictures. Other cheating methods included falsifying medical documentation to fake learning disabilities.

What is the process from application to acceptance?

Technology plays a large role in the initial vetting process, but elite colleges still rely heavily on a more traditional admissions committee for final selection. The computer-generated lists are programmed to weed out students with quantitative academic shortcomings, namely indicated by GPA and SAT or ACT test scores. Once the narrow list of applicants reaches the committee table, prospective students are presented with a short discussion for review, then they are either approved, flagged for review, or denied. Every person holds personal biases, but the goal of the admissions board is to remain as impartial as possible while building a well-balanced freshman class.

How does wealth influence elite college admissions?

Wealth and family connections have long influenced college admission practices, particularly at elite schools. The scandal leader Mr. Singer described his guaranteed method as the ‘side door,’ but acknowledged that there were still two more ways to get inside: 1) go through the front door by earning your acceptance letter, 2) go through the back door by paying for institutional priority and capitalizing on family connections with board members.

It’s not uncommon for wealthy families and benefactors to make seven or eight-figure donations to a school, and there’s a term for it – development admissions. In exchange for donations that fund campus development, like building libraries, students have spots reserved for them. Similarly, legacy spots are automatically reserved or prioritized for students whose family members attended the university. According to a 2018 report by NPR, Harvard claimed that 14% of the undergraduate population was legacy students, but an analysis by Students for Fair Admissions found that the true number was nearly 34%.

Why is this scandal really any different?

This particular case of elite college fraud made headlines because of the large-scale impact; a large group of wealthy families was blatantly and desperately trying to cheat the system. Classist priority clearly already exists, but this type of fraud was a first. Never before, has a single criminal attempted to blast a ‘side door’ into the admissions process and quickly shove dozens of unqualified students inside.