Operation “Varsity Blues”

Posted by on Mar 19, 2019 in Current Events

You’ve probably been told your whole life what you need to do to get into a good college someday: study hard, get good grades, and give back to your community. At the same time, however, a recent court case has revealed that wealthy and celebrity families have been taking a shortcut through this process by bribing and cheating to get their children admitted to prestigious U.S. universities. Here, btw takes a closer look.

Students at desks taking test

College students falsifying test results and data for admission advantage was big news this past week. Credit: Shutterstock/AimPix

What Happened?

On March 12, federal prosecutors charged 33 wealthy and some celebrity parents with a federal racketeering scheme: downright cheating to get their kids accepted into college. The case is the largest of its kind in history to be prosecuted by the Justice Department. Accusations range from making huge “charitable donations” to universities, to photo-shopping a photo of their child’s head onto the body of a high school athlete, to paying stand-ins $10,000 to take the SATs in place of their child, to bribing university sports coaches to falsely claim their child as a recruit. Others worked with psychologists to gain false disability reports to give their children extra time or other accommodations when taking their standardized tests. Ten coaches have also been charged for accepting bribes.

The scheme was spearheaded by William Rick Singer of Newport Beach, California, who acted as an intermediary between the parents and the universities: the parents paid Singer’s nonprofit organization, Key Worldwide Foundation, and then Singer used their money to commit the bribery and fraud. Singer pleaded guilty to four felony counts of money laundering, fraud, and obstruction of justice, and could face up to 65 years in prison.

Not Such a Level Playing Field

These parents represent an extreme example of the measures people will go to when it comes to their children’s education. But it’s not just celebrity parents whose children have an unfair advantage when applying to college. For example, at some prestigious schools, you have a better chance of getting in if you’re a “legacy,” meaning that you had a parent or grandparent attend the school. (A recent Harvard study found that legacies are five times more likely to be accepted than non-legacies.)

Others may accept students with sub-par grades but exceptional athletic ability. And in general, it always helps to be rich: low-income students make up only three percent of the student body at the most prestigious universities. In addition, there are the underlying, institutional advantages that some groups have over others. For example, school districts that serve predominantly white students receive billions more in funding every year than districts that serve mostly predominantly students of color. This gives white students a huge advantage over students of color in terms of preparing to apply for college.

Is this legal? Yes and no. All universities are tax-exempt and supported by taxpayer dollars through federal aid. Public universities also receive state funding. Because of this, they are supposed to be equally available to the public. But universities can get around this requirement because they admit students based on merit, which leaves some “wiggle room” in terms of who is accepted and who isn’t.

The FBI is still in the process of investigating the case of the celebrity parents, which has been nicknamed “Operation Varsity Blues.” In the meantime, the old advice for getting into college is still the best: Study hard.

Dig Deeper Using Internet resources, figure out how much it would cost for you to take the SAT. In what ways does this give wealthy students an advantage over low-income ones?