Column: In admissions scandal, the students should be expelled

Tommy Trojan, USC's campus symbol, has seen better times.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Speaking as someone who suffered through the rigors and travails of the college admissions process — for myself and my two children — I don’t have any difficulty finding the answer to the burning question of what should happen to the kids who got into college via fraud.

They should all be expelled.

I’m talking, of course, about the admissions scandal unveiled last week by federal prosecutors. They charged more than 30 parents, 11 athletic officials and coaches at USC and other universities and several other individuals, including the alleged ringleader, William “Rick” Singer. The fraud and conspiracy indictment filed by the federal government alleges that they connived to get the parents’ kids into those universities by faking students’ athletic credentials or submitting fraudulent scores on college entrance exams, or both.

She’s smart, she’s going to figure this out....She already thinks I’m up to, like, no good.

— Parent Michelle Janavs, fretting that her daughter might know she’s cheating

A few defenses of the students have surfaced in public, mostly centered on the idea that they didn’t know that their parents had committed bribery and fraud on their behalf, and therefore they’re innocent of wrongdoing themselves. In general, they’re being painted as victims of their parents’ vanity. Vanity Fair counsels the families to hire crisis management public relations counselors to leak “tidbits that could create sympathy for the affected students” to the press, which only shows that Vanity Fair knows its target readership.

It’s true that the degree of innocence and complicity in this affair may differ from student to student. So to be precise: Expulsion should be the first step taken by the universities that got gulled, but it need not be the final step. More on that in a moment. Still, they should be held responsible for their parents’ actions.


The parents, coaches and ringleaders of the admissions scam face felony charges and possible prison sentences. Some of the parents also face wrecked professional careers. The entrance exam organizations have been shown to be lax in policing the conditions under which the tests are taken. The universities are deeply embarrassed and under pressure to get their admissions procedures fixed, pronto.

That leaves the students. The universities that admitted them, and already have awarded degrees to a few, have been exceedingly vague about what how they’ll treat the students, retreating behind the rubric that steps will be taken on a “case-by-case basis.” They’ve refused to discuss individual students by name, citing federal privacy law.

Interestingly, no one has yet claimed as a defense for the students that the alleged cheating didn’t actually happen; the defense is all about whether they knew that it happened.

That’s weak on two grounds. One is that the students presumably attested to the integrity of the information they provided in their applications. The Common Application used by most major universities in the U.S. requires them to sign a statement reading, “I certify that all the information my own work, factually true, and honestly presented.” For some of the students in question, that will be three strikes right there. The Common App states that the institution has the right to revoke the degree of any graduates who falsified their applications.

What part of “my own work, factually true, and honestly presented” on the Common App do you not understand? Green highlight added.
(The Common App)

As for students’ protestations of innocence, the evidence made public by federal prosecutors last week suggests that many, if not most, knew full well that they were the beneficiaries of illicit or illegal behavior.

In the transcripts of wiretapped phone calls introduced in court, some appear to be willing participants in the scheme. In only a couple of cases did parents explicitly ask Singer to take steps to keep the truth from their offspring.

The exam score fraud required the kids to obtain dispensation from the testing firms to sit for their SATs or ACTs over two days instead of one, so they could take the tests at locations and under conditions controlled by Singer.

The testing services generally require documentation of some sort of disability, such as validation by a doctor or therapist before granting this permission. In one case cited by the government, Singer advised a parent to tell his daughter “to be stupid” when she met with a psychologist evaluating her disability claim.

According to the information the government placed on the record, some students watched as proctors hired by Singer changing their test answers, or received correct answers from the proctors during the exam. According to one transcript, a proctor who fed answers to two of his students at a single session for the ACT exam instructed them to answer different questions incorrectly, so similarities between their tests wouldn’t raise suspicions at ACT.

Afterwards, this proctor told prosecutors, he “gloated” with one of the students and her mother “about the fact that they had cheated and gotten away with it.”

One student allegedly knew a third person had taken an SAT subject test for her. Another was allegedly told by Singer that a ringer had retaken an online art history class to erase the F that the student had earned on her own.

The athletics credentials fraud involved claiming participation or excellence in sports the students didn’t play, or at which they didn’t reach competitive standards.

According to the indictment, one student allegedly rewrote an application essay to incorporate a fabricated claim of tennis achievements; another submitted an essay drafted by Singer attesting to prominence on the soccer field. Another participated in a photo session wearing water polo equipment that had been purchased from Amazon a few weeks earlier. (He didn’t play water polo.)

The government asserts that many of the students received acceptance letters from USC, Georgetown, or other schools citing their athletic qualifications, which they surely knew they did not have. One received a directive from her faculty counselor at USC to change her course schedule, since one of the classes would conflict with her soccer team’s traveling plans; she also received an email directly from the school’s new women’s soccer coach, who wasn’t in on the fraud, asking who she was since he had never seen her name before. She allegedly evaded both issues by claiming that an injury would keep her off the soccer team.

In short, it’s scarcely plausible that most of the students whose parents have been indicted in Singer’s schemes were entirely unaware that their applications were being gamed. Michelle Janavs, a parent who was serving on the board of the Sage Hill preparatory school in Newport Coast, even told Singer (according to the government transcripts) that her younger daughter might question the special arrangements being made for her exams.

“She’s smart, she’s going to figure this out,” Janavs told Singer. “She already thinks I’m up to, like, no good.”

So how should the universities deal with students whose parents suborned the admissions process?

The principle that one is innocent until proven guilty undoubtedly will be raised in some cases. But its relevance is questionable. Typically the rule applies in criminal cases. None of the students has been charged with a crime (yet), and the university proceedings are likely to be administrative. What’s at stake is not the students’ liberty, or even a legal right, but the privilege of being offered a place at a selective university.

It’s also proper to observe that the universities have an important interest to protect — the integrity of their admission processes. That integrity already has been compromised by preferences offered to athletes and children of VIPs, alumni and big donors. The debate over whether those preferences are legitimate has been energized by the new scandal, but plainly the bribing of university officials and coaches is on a different level.

Then there are the interests of the students who were disadvantaged by the cheating of others — such as kids with legitimate qualifications whose spaces were taken by cheaters.

That means the universities’ first step should be declaring those suspected of any connection to Singer’s scheme, even if unwittingly, to be presumptively ineligible to continue in school.

The students deserve due process, to be sure. In other words, they should have the opportunity to show either that the evidence that they cheated is unfounded, or should be disregarded for some reason.

But the burden of proof should be on them, which can only happen if the default decision is expulsion. What’s disappointing about the statements of some universities that the students’ fates will be decided case-by-case is that it implies that the universities have assumed the burden of proof for themselves.

It’s not unusual for the ultimate sanction in a disciplinary system to be the most severe. The Medical Board of California, for example, sometimes will revoke the licenses of physicians deemed negligent, but suspend the revocation for a probationary period of months or years. These doctors can continue to practice, perhaps under stringent supervision, until they can show they’ve straightened out.

Something like that would be appropriate here. The students should be permitted to make the case that they’ve contributed significantly to the university community, say by making grades or excelling at some extracurricular service. The principle that anyone can make a mistake and those who do should have the opportunity to make amends, is as important as the presumption of innocence.

But the standards for requalification should be explicit, public — and rigorous. The only thing worse than having accepted students from affluent families under false pretenses is to give the students an easy way to make up for it.

The admissions scandal has underscored all the ways that economic and social inequities are perpetuated in America, with access to higher education among the leading pathways.

The children of the affluent always have reaped the advantages of their parents’ wealth — private tutors, participation in expensive sports, training at university-oriented prep schools, and acceptances in return for endowments — as though it was proper to pass them down from generation to generation by right.

This is the wrong time to decide that the children should be held harmless for their parents’ criminal behavior. If the government charges are correct, the parents shouldn’t escape the consequences of fraud and bribery, and neither should the children they claimed they were helping.