Lessons from the U.S. College Admissions Scandal: Why Universities Need to Embrace Anticorruption Measures

In 2019, a college admissions corruption scandal made headlines in the United States and around the world. Richard Singer, who masterminded the scheme, promised wealthy parents that he could get their children coveted places at Stanford, Yale, USC, and other selective colleges through what he called the “side door.” Rather than donate $45 or $50 million to gain an edge in admissions, parents would pay Singer and his foundation to bribe college coaches to recruit the students as college athletes—even though many of the students had never competed in the sport for which they were allegedly being recruited. U.S. federal prosecutors, in the so-called “Varsity Blues” investigation, uncovered this scheme and indicted more than fifty people (parents, coaches, and others). Many of the defendants pled guilty. This past October, in the first Varsity Blues case to go to trial, a jury found hedge fund magnate John Wilson and former casino executive Gamal Abdelaziz guilty of conspiracy, wire fraud, and mail fraud. More trials are likely coming, and more convictions are likely.

Beyond the sensational headlines—which often focused on the wealthy parents, several of whom are celebrities—what broader lessons can we draw from the scandal? When it first broke, many commentators attacked the broader culture of entitlement and privilege in which wealthy parents secure unfair—but in most cases entirely legal—advantages for their children through legacy preferences and favoritism toward big donors. Other commentators drew attention to the hypercompetitive, win-at-all-cost culture fostered by the U.S. college admissions system. Critics pointed to a culture that leads not only to criminal bribery of the sort revealed in the Varsity Blues investigation, but also to less visible forms of dishonesty like college admissions “consultants” who draft essays for pay and students who cheat on college admissions tests, sometimes with the support or complicity of adults.

Those critiques of the U.S. college admissions culture are apt, but there’s another important lesson that emerges from the scandal, one that has received less attention: The scandal highlighted the extent to which universities have failed to address seemingly obvious corruption risks, and failed to implement effective controls for identifying applicants who were bribing their way onto campus. Compared to other large institutions, universities are behind when it comes to establishing effective anticorruption controls.

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