By Lyndsey Reeve
Lyndsey Reeve is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania studying International Relations.
In March 2019, the FBI operation “Varsity Blues” uncovered 35 parents involved in what would become one of the most notorious and publicized college admissions scandals. Parents were accused of bribing sports coaches to grant their students special admission as athletic recruits on the pretense of falsified test scores. Actresses Laurie Lauchlin and Felicity Huffman were two of the accused, paying William Singer to help their children masquerade as athletic recruits and fabricate exam scores.
Just last week, U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton doled out the harshest sentence of the scandal thus far to businessman and father Douglas Hodge. Like many of the accused, Hodge paid for his children’s admission to elite universities based on falsified claims of their status as nationally-ranked athletic recruits. Gorton was sentenced to nine months of prison time, 500 hours of community service, and two years of observation for his crimes . His severe punishment emphasizes the court’s commitment to holding parents accountable for ongoing schemes to gain unfair advantage in the increasingly elitist, cutthroat admissions process.
Why would already well-to-do families risk destroying their livelihoods by enlisting the help of criminals to falsify test records and bribe coaches? What could their children possibly stand to gain from an immoral Georgetown admission over an earned public school spot?
Perhaps this is because undergraduate degrees are becoming increasingly necessary even for entry-level jobs due to job market oversaturation. The Washington Post calls this phenomenon “degree inflation,” wherein “the college degree has become the new high school degree.” For example, a mere 19 percent of current executive assistants and secretaries have college degrees while a staggering 65 percent of job listings for these positions require them .
As demand for undergraduate degrees increases, so does the number of applications, with elite schools having the most fiercely competitive admissions. For many students, admittance into an esteemed university is considered the essential launching point for internship opportunities, graduate school admissions, and desired career placement. In one study, elite schools were defined using the Carnegie and Barron’s profiles rankings. These rankings compile data on admitted students including GPA, acceptance rate, and standardized test scores. “Elite schools” have the highest rankings and are defined as “top private research institutions”. Even among individuals holding elite graduate degrees, degrees from higher ranked undergraduate universities are associated with higher income earnings. In fact, among those with elite graduate school degrees, men who also attended an elite undergraduate institution earn 39 percent more than those who did not. Women from elite undergraduate programs earn 44 percent more than their elite graduate school peers who did not attend so-called “tier 1” private research institutions for their undergraduate degrees .
Clearly, there is incentive to manipulate the undergraduate admissions system.
In October of 2019, the State of California passed a series of laws designed to prevent future corruptions of the admissions process. First, colleges must admit to the state if they use “preferential treatment” in admissions. This preferential treatment is defined as any unequal treatment based on status as an alumni relative or donor. This bill aims to discourage schools from giving preference to students on a non-merit basis by withholding state benefits to offending schools. The second bill requires that in special cases of admission where students do not meet admission criteria, administrators must approve and justify such an exception . These measures are admirable and mark a significant effort on behalf of the state to carefully inspect the admissions process of the schools they are supporting. Other states should model California legislation if they hope to constrain this growing issue.
There is evidence that elite colleges are also taking a more critical look at their admittees, as lower-than-ever admission rates have been reported in the most recent admissions cycle. Harvard’s rate lowered to 4.5 percent and Yale to 5.91 percent. Stanford, perhaps to reduce pressure of admitting shockingly low numbers to improve prestige rankings, will now only notify the federal government of acceptance rates . These decreased rates may reflect a much needed, increasingly rigorous examination of applicants’ qualifications to prevent another such scandal.
Unfortunately, bribery and falsification are not the only threats to fair admittance and education. More worrying still, the U.S. is plagued by for-profit colleges that feed on the aforementioned growing desperation for undergraduate degrees and work experience.
For-profit colleges, like California’s Tri-Valley University, exploit international students and visa loopholes without offering an accredited education. During a January 2011 raid of the college, officials “seized property, threatened to deport students, and in legal filings called Tri-Valley a ‘sham university’ that admitted and collected tuition from foreign students but didn't require them to attend class.” Offering an opportunity to work in the states, these unaccredited universities admit “almost exclusively foreign students” who they exploit for capital thanks to authority from the government to aid students in acquiring visas. While Homeland Security does investigate such exploitation, it has little funding for such measures. To prevent the certification of such institutions, more resources must be devoted to thorough on-site examinations and tightening legislative restrictions on what qualifies as a full university experience for visa approval .
While change has been made to correct the issue of corrupt exploitations of the admissions processes at elite universities, legislation fails to adequately address such exploitations of foreign students by the universities themselves. Oftentimes, these international students are unaware of their involvement in illegal profit schemes. Bills should be pursued to more carefully regulate visa laws and mandate thorough inspections of colleges to ensure they require students to attend class regularly and function as advertised.
Ultimately, so-called “side doors” to college admittance through bribery and false qualifications demand attention . To ensure a just application process, states should follow California’s lead in enacting legislation that requires schools to admit to “preferential treatment” and the justification of admittance exceptions . Furthermore, side doors to exploit status as a university for the purposes of profiting off illegally acquired visas must also be closed to ensure academic fairness. Just as application processes must be carefully analyzed to ensure compliance, so to must the day-to-day operations of for-profit universities be assessed to determine they provide genuine educational opportunities.
The opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
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