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March 15, 2019

Is the College Admissions Scandal as bad as it seems? Well Yes & No!

Yes! It is obvious that at least one university was “asleep at the switch,” and that school is my beloved University of Southern California, USC, despite its academic and athletic excellence and prestige, appears to at least occasionally hire men and women who lack of integrity. This fosters a culture of corruption and poor oversight as evident from a series of six or seven massive scandals over the last 13 years. Of the 50-people indicted in the largest college admissions scandal in U.S. history, 32 include parents accused of bribing officials at USC, notoriously known as it pains me to say, the “University of Spoiled Children” or the “University of Social Capital.”


From separate scandals involving football star Reggie Bush, basketball star O.J. Mayo, the dean of the medical school and his successor, student health gynecologist sexual harassment, a basketball coach and now the college admissions scandal involving an athletic department administrator and one legendary coach. Even the popular president of the USC was forced to resign after a vote of no confidence by the faculty since so many scandals occurred under his watch.


The alleged crimes consist of parents and a dishonorable, educational consultant 1) cheating on SAT entrance exams by providing answers, correcting answers after the fact or someone else posing as the student taking the test; and 2) bribing college officials, including coaches and administrators, applying as recruited athletes when they didn’t even play a sport.


In other words, the college consultant, for a fee, guaranteed college admission to an elite university. Now, to understand the dynamics of the scandal, it must be viewed in the proper context. Last year 4 million students graduated from high school in the U.S., and 3.3 million went to a college, 2.2 million went to a four-year college. If you look at one college, UCLA for the fall of 2018, it received over 113,000 applications and admitted just over 15,000 students. Thus, the full impact of this scandal possibly taking the seats of otherwise deserving students is significantly less than 1% of all accepted students, thus a marginal impact at best. Across town at USC, the athletic director says that the tainted administrator that accepted bribes apparently received recruited lists from coaches. She would add an undeserving student to the list, send it to the admissions committee, and once approved, the fraudulent student is accepted unknowingly by the admissions committee who think all the submitted names are legitimate. Subsequently, the undeserving student’s name is removed from the approved recruited athlete list before it gets back to the coach. Thus, the admissions committee and the coach and the university were duped. The key point here is that a deserving student did not lose a spot in the class. Other schemes included coaches that were willing participants in the fraud.

At USC, 64,000 students applied, and only 8000 were admitted. USC stated that the 6 students allegedly part of the scandal this year and applying this cycle will be denied admission. Thus again, the percentage of fraudulent students is less than 1 percent, a fraction.

USC has a program called the Bovard Scholars where 50 low-income students with an average GPA of 4.22 and family income of $25,000 participate in the summer program. USC’s website posts that one in five USC students have parents that did not go to college. Thus 20% of the 8000 accepted, or 1000 students are first generation, a number far greater than the 6 students that hoped to get in this year through the scandal. Thus, USC’s good work of getting 1000 poor, yet exceptional students should not be minimized in the controversy. Now obviously, we must not trivialize the scandal and the lost in trust in the institution USC and in the college admissions process. But, it does add perspective to the situation.


The FBI investigation alleged that William Singer, the master-mind behind the scandal, grossed $25 million. Mr. Singer pleaded guilty. Interestingly, there are payments from parents, individuals and foundations to colleges that some might consider bribery, yet are completely legal. Billionaire and former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, according to the Chronical of Higher Education, contributed $1.8 Billion, $350 million and another $350 million, totaling $2.5 Billion to John Hopkins University. Similarly, the University of Southern California, also according to ‘The Chronicle,’ received two contributions of $200 million, one of $175 million, two $150,000 gifts and three contributions of approximately $115 million each recently. Did these charitable contributions benefit the donor and their descendants? That answer is beyond the scope of this blog. But, just this week, hip-hop icon Dr. Dre celebrated on Instragram his daughter gaining admission to USC. Do a little research and you’ll find that Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine donated $70 million to USC in 2013.


Interestingly, this scandal follows another scandal where several Asian American groups are suing Harvard University, claiming Harvard uses illegal racial quotas in the admissions process. On the opposite side of the continent in California where the University of California 10-campus and 280,000 student system exists, the average percentage of Asian students hovers near 40%, with UC Irvine at 58% Asian, stark contrast to elite colleges that prefer holistic admission over grades and test scores.


It should also be noted that elite colleges have institutional needs that the entering class addresses through their a holistic admissions process, a process that promotes ‘diversity and excellence.’ Elite colleges are not looking, except for perhaps MIT, only valedictorians, straight A students and perfect SAT/ACT scores. The reason is that that valedictorians may not be elite athletes, may not have strong leadership skills and may not have exceptional social skills. In other words, the top students score well on tests. But, according to Gardner, there are 9 types of intelligences (i.e. musical, logical, athletic, interpersonal, etc.) that are not be measured by SAT/ACT scores and GPA. Valedictorians may lack the skill set that optimally advances the student body, the university and society beyond just doing well on tests. Studies and evidence support the premise that ‘exceptional and diverse’ student bodies benefit the students and faculty, the university and society.

Elite colleges not only prioritize academically exceptional students, but those that are:

  • First Generation (first in their family including parents)
  • Underserved (minority and the poor)
  • Pell Grant recipients (low-income)
  • Legacy (parents are alumni)
  • Student Athletes (intercollegiate, club and intramural)
  • Out-of-state (pay full tuition at public schools)
  • International (pay full tuition and without student loans)
  • Gender (school may historically have many males than females, but wants to balance the ratio
  • Developmental (students of parents that are major donors)


The bottom line is that there are not enough spots at elite programs to admit everyone that is qualified. The admissions system is complicated. Is it broken? Can it be improved? Law suits, criminal investigations and college internal reviews need to play out. We live in a democracy and college admissions need to appear fair, need to embody fairness, and need to exhibit integrity on the part of students, parents and the colleges. It must also benefit both individuals and society. If a football quarterback and coach cheat or the referees make a horrendous call that influences the outcome of the Super Bowl Championship football game, the public is rightfully annoyed and frustrated. Furthermore, if college consultants guarantee college admissions at elite colleges through bribery, racketeering, cheating and fraud, and if parents are naïve enough to believe that this is right rather than wrong, the consequences should be swift and severe.

The truth of the matter is that we can do better. Following the path of honesty and integrity is both honorable and respectable. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, “if it is not right, don’t do it. If it is not true, don’t say it.”