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Countdown to college: The 'Varsity Blues' scandal two years later

Lee Shulman Bierer, Tribune News Service on

Published in Education News

On March 17, Netflix released "Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal," a documentary about the bribery scandal from 2019.

It’s a powerful film that shows the ugly underbelly of what happened to the college admissions process. It features reporters, independent educational consultants and the sailing coach from Stanford, who pleaded guilty. Since William “Rick ” Singer, the kingpin coordinator of the bribery scandal, agreed to plead guilty and share information with law enforcement officials, the documentary uses the original taped conversations between Singer and his clients.

The 2019 college admissions scandal involved a criminal conspiracy to influence undergraduate admissions decisions at several prestigious American universities. The scandal led to more than 50 high-profile arrests, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. The conspiracy was arranged by Singer, who claimed to be an educational consultant and used millions of dollars from the wealthy parents of college applicants to fraudulently inflate entrance exam test scores and bribe college coaches and administrators.

The Independent Educational Consultants Association, of which I’m a member, has been the leading voice in putting students first in the college admissions journey and calling for greater transparency in the college application process. According to the IECA, while the Varsity Blues scandal exposed the efforts of wealthy, privileged parents to ensure their children’s admission into top colleges, it brought to light broader problems in the college application process:

* Access to college advising in high school is unequal across the country, and particularly strained in urban and rural public high schools, where the average student-to-counselor ratio is 455:1 (and more than 700:1 in some areas). This leaves school counselors overburdened and students under-resourced.

* Colleges have become increasingly opaque in their admission criteria.

* College acceptance rates continue to decline, partly due to the increase in applications, leading to heightened anxiety levels among students and parents.

* Sophisticated modeling means computers play an outsized role in college admissions, minimizing the personal stories of students and admissions counselors.

What have we learned over the last two years?

* There is an unjustified need that many families feel to attend a “name-brand” college.


* There continues to be an unhealthy over-involvement of parents in the process.

* There is a lack of clarity about how admissions offices decide who gets in, who gets wait-listed and who gets rejected.

What changes have been implemented?

This scandal has led to reforms in some admissions offices, including some colleges that now require more information and a closer scrutiny of athletic recruits. There have also been reforms in athletic recruitment to guarantee that a student admitted as an athlete deserves that designation.

What additional changes are needed?

The focus must shift from thinking “it’s all about getting into the most exclusive school that will take me” to “finding the college that best fits my learning, social financial and community needs.”

Colleges need to assure that multiple individuals are needed to sign-off on a special-circumstance admission.

Colleges need to better explain how their admission process works and the type of students would be most successful at their school.

Students and parents must look at best fit rather than biggest name. It’s about getting OUT successfully, not about getting in.

©2021 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.



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