Federal charges brought this week alleging that parents of underperforming students bribed or cheated to get their kids into universities across the nation have raised questions about how easy it might be to game the admissions process at any college.
Only one school in North Carolina — Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem — is explicitly implicated in the indictment. Wake Forest volleyball coach Bill Ferguson is alleged to have accepted money to influence the admission of a student who had been wait-listed at the school.
Here are answers to some common questions about the scandal, as well as how school officials in the Triangle say they try to guard against what the FBI says happened elsewhere.
Q: What does the FBI’s indictment allege?
A: FBI investigators say “Operations Varsity Blues” found that at least 50 people, 33 of them parents, conspired at universities including Wake Forest, Georgetown, Yale, Stanford, the University of Southern California, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of San Diego and the University of Texas at Austin. Parents indicted included business executives and actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. Some parents allegedly paid up to $6.5 million to “guarantee admission” for students.
Investigators found several schemes. In one, students falsely claimed to be athletes, and conspiring coaches recruited them, virtually guaranteeing their admission, though the students never played those sports. In another, students taking the SAT or ACT were either given the correct answers for the test, their responses were corrected after they completed the test or imposters took the test for them, with the imposters’ high scores offered as the students’ own.
Parents paid for people to participate in the schemes on their children’s behalf by making contributions to fake nonprofits. The money was later distributed to co-conspirators.
Q: Why cheat on the SAT or ACT?
A: Most universities don’t publicly state what scores they require on these standardized tests, but acceptable score ranges for different schools are widely available online.
Q: How does it help for a student to be recruited for a sport they don’t even play?
A: Schools say SAT and ACT scores are only a part of what they consider when looking at a student’s application, and that they may accept a student with a less-than-stellar score if the student shows potential for success in other ways, including excelling at sports or in the arts.
Q: How were so many people able to game the system?
A: Investigators say the fraud targeted in this investigation was all facilitated by William “Rick” Singer, owner of a college-prep program based in California that is said to have done legitimate counseling with students on how to successfully apply to colleges. But Singer also was accused of making $25 million for fraudulent schemes to get students into elite colleges, taking on many clients through referrals from people he already had helped.
Singer was charged with racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud and obstruction of justice. According to the FBI, Singer pleaded guilty to all counts on Tuesday and is to be sentenced June 19.
Q: What does the FBI say happened at Wake Forest University?
A: Investigators say that in 2017, Wake women’s volleyball coach Bill Ferguson took a $100,000 payment for claiming a student was a recruit for his team. The student had been wait-listed at the school, and was later admitted.
Q: What happened to the coach at Wake Forest, and to the student whose application was involved?
A: Wake Forest University President Nathan Hatch issued a statement Tuesday that said Ferguson had been placed on administrative leave. On Wednesday, Hatch said the student involved is currently enrolled and administrators do not believe she was aware of the alleged payment connected to her application.
Q. Are any other North Carolina colleges or universities mentioned?
A: Duke University is, but just in passing, in the affidavit that supports the criminal complaint. “Cooperating Witness 1,” identified as Singer, is talking with Marcia Abbott, the wife of Gregory Abbott, who is chairman of International Dispensing Corp. in New York. She asks for help in boosting her daughter’s SAT subject score in English literature, and claims, “She’s convinced that she bombed the lit because she was too tired. … And [Duke University] told us they didn’t want anything below a 750.” It’s unclear whether the daughter ever applied to Duke.
Q: How are universities here reacting to news of the scandal?
A: Officials at Duke and UNC have said that those schools do not have specific ACT or SAT scores that applicants must achieve for admission, and that test scores are only one consideration.
Duke’s dean of undergraduate admissions, Christoph Guttentag, said in a phone interview that details of the FBI’s investigation show the corruption was not systemic, but involved individual co-conspirators.
Students who apply at Duke, he said, all go through the same process whether they are athletes, artists or aspiring English majors: They all fill out the same application forms, and those are read twice and then reviewed by the admissions office.
“If someone has an exceptional talent or accomplishment in any number of areas, that’s something we take into account,” he said. “But they still have to go through the same process.”
Guttentag later added in an email: “Everyone has to meet the same standard: bringing to Duke qualities that will contribute significantly and meaningfully to the university community.”
UNC Chapel Hill’s media relations office released a statement Wednesday that said, “All candidates for undergraduate admission are evaluated comprehensively by the admissions office. The primary criterion for admission is the student’s capacity to succeed academically at the University. Beyond this criterion, there is no formula for admission and no fixed standard that every student must meet. Rather, the admissions office evaluates individual candidates rigorously, holistically, and comprehensively.”
At UNC, the school said, the faculty Committee on Special Talent is charged with advising the admissions office on the applications of students recruited for athletics, music and dramatic arts.
Q: Do schools follow up to see if students who were recruited for athletics or the arts participate in those sports or fields?
A: Duke’s Guttentag said, “We don’t routinely check every student and every activity,” but officials do check sports rosters regularly and compare them to lists of students who were recruited and admitted.
UNC did not answer questions beyond the statement.