American Higher Education Rattled By Admissions Scandal

*The Breakdown is The North Star’s daily analysis of an essential news story designed to provide historical context, go beyond the popular headlines, and offer a glimpse of where this story may be going next.

Key facts: The revelation of an elaborate bribery scheme designed to facilitate college entrance for wealthy students belies meritocracy as a cornerstone of educational access in the American higher educational system. The Justice Department unveiled this scheme in a 204-page indictment against more than 50 people, including 33 wealthy families. Much of the information was obtained from William Rick Singer and his educational coaching company, the Edge College & Career Network (also known as The Key), Time reported. Singer is accused of receiving approximately $25 million to help bribe college officials and administrators, and assist wealthy students with college placement between 2011 and February 2019. Singer allegedly wore a wire to expose the scam as part of a cooperation deal with authorities. He has pleaded guilty to racketeering, obstruction of justice, and criminal conspiracy.

Among those accused in the indictment are exam proctors, education coaches, ACT and SAT administrators, CEOs, football coaches, and prominent actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. The defendants are accused of multiple illegal activities, including the use of disability accommodations at testing sites, paying third parties to take academic tests, photoshopping portraits of student involvement in varsity sports to facilitate access to athletic scholarships, paying shadow charities, and outright bribery in the form of checks to university entities to ensure admission.

Students were fraudulently admitted to Yale, Stanford, UCLA, Georgetown, University of Southern California, and Wake Forest, among other institutions, though those colleges are not named in the suit. The scheme is believed to have benefited more than 750 families.

Historical Facts: American education has long been viewed as a meritocracy. Elite schools pride themselves on high application rates and extremely selective admissions. Traditionally, three groups of students have received consideration in the college admission process: legacies, athletes, and first-generation students. While there has been much debate about how affirmative action and diversity supposedly lower overall standards and distort meritocracy, nothing could be further from the truth given the nature and extent of this scandal. It seems guaranteed access to the spoils of higher education has been the perpetual expectation of the rich and powerful.

Beneath the Surface: Instead of merit, it seems money talks louder than anything else in college admissions and American higher education. Wealthy parents sought and obtained access to elite schools. The highly organized and pervasive nature of this scam makes it a coordinated effort, and federal officials are treating this case under the RICO statutes — organized conspiracy laws commonly used against drug cartels and the mafia.

Next Steps: This case renews old and opens new conversations about the role of money in higher education, racial disparities in educational outcomes, nepotism and favoritism in college admissions, and the role of affirmative action and diversity in education. This scandal has rocked the American educational establishment by not only challenging the notion of meritocracy, but exposing the raw power of wealth in manipulating educational outcomes.

Moreover, it highlights the sharp disparities between the poor and working classes and the privileged regarding access to educational services and opportunities. This is best demonstrated by several cases brought against Black parents who used relatives’ addresses to allow their children to attend school in a better district. This inequity is also illustrated by the recent case of an African American student who was penalized by the Educational Testing Service after her SAT scores improved following a retest. It further proves that affirmative action and diversity policies are not adversely impacting the ability of white students to access admissions to the nation’s best colleges.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. He is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.