Apodaca: Admissions scandal brought college inequities to light

William "Rick" Singer.
In this March 12, 2019 file photo, William “Rick” Singer departs federal court in Boston after he pleaded guilty to charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. He has since been sentenced to 3½ years in prison.
(Steven Senne / AP)

The start to 2023 brought news that the infamous orchestrator of the Operation Varsity Blues college admissions scheme has been sentenced to 3½ years in prison.

In what prosecutors called the largest college admissions fraud ever uncovered, William “Rick” Singer used his position as a private college consultant to bribe and cheat his clients’ offspring into spots at elite universities. He had previously pleaded guilty to the scam and helped the government obtain evidence that led to charges against a total of 53 defendants.

The former Newport Beach resident — wouldn’t it be great if, for once, Newport Beach didn’t receive nationwide attention for its links to scandal? — was also ordered to pay $10 million in restitution to the federal government.

So that’s it, right? Justice has been served, wrongs have been righted, and we can now rest assured that going forward the college admissions process will be fair and completely above board.

Uh, no. Not even close.

One of the saddest aspects of this case, which has invariably been labeled as “shocking” since the scheme was revealed nearly four years ago, is that it actually wasn’t shocking at all. Extreme, yes. But unsurprising to anyone familiar with college admissions and the lengths some parents will go to get their already-privileged kids into brand-name universities.

A contributor to the Pilot believes that community colleges offer a route to a better future, especially as we learn to live with the pandemic.

And certainly not surprising to anyone who long ago realized that the colleges themselves are willing and eager participants in a skewed system that trades on their aggressively cultivated, prestigious reputations for one reason only: money. The children of big-ticket donors, celebrities, politicians and other well-connected individuals have always had a big, fat leg up when it comes to admissions.

It’s a tawdry arrangement, greedy though not illegal. Yet I doubt it astonished exactly no one to learn that someone with inside knowledge of the college admissions game — that would be Singer — saw a squishy ethical line and a too-easily manipulated structure and decided to run headlong into criminality.

Also not startling: that some rich, overzealous parents giddily schemed and rationalized right along with him as he bribed coaches and admissions personnel, paid off test proctors and even arranged for fake photos of kids pretending to train for sports positions they probably couldn’t spell. Seriously, does actor Lori Loughlin’s daughter even know how to pronounce “coxswain”?

Another part of the plan that was so devious and brazenly rotten that I almost have to applaud it was Singer’s sham nonprofit foundation used to pay bribes and give his clients the additional benefit of writing their bribe money off from their taxes as charitable donations. Let’s hear it for philanthropy!

Now that the investigation is reaching its denouement, we might expect business as usual in college admissions. Move along folks, nothing more to see here.

Sure, many universities have made halfhearted moves toward making admissions more equitable. Some no longer require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores, as those tests have been shown to favor more affluent students. There’s been a little noise about curbing legacy admissions.

What we really need, though, is a top-to-bottom overhaul of our entire system of education. The huge, underlying problem is that our schools, from primary grades through higher ed, are riddled with inequality.

Huge funding gaps exist between schools in affluent areas and their poorer counterparts. Too many kids go to school hungry, are taught by inadequately trained teachers and have limited to no access to technology or even many basic supplies. Peeling paint, cracked flooring, broken toilets and lack of air-conditioning are all too common.

The lingering effects of the pandemic have added an extra layer of anxiety to the season, writes Daily Pilot columnist Patrice Apodaca.

Counselors, librarians and nurses are luxuries that some schools can’t afford. Those admissions representatives that turn out for college day at some high school campuses? They don’t even bother to visit certain areas.

Since the pandemic, the wealth gap has worsened as many students with fewer resources fell even further behind their more affluent peers. I hardly thought it possible but the selfishness displayed by Singer and his accomplices appears even more grotesque as the gulf between the haves and have-nots grows wider still.

Singer has reportedly long since given up his Newport Beach digs and now lives in a Florida trailer park. He says he’s really sorry and wants to be a better person. Maybe after prison he could make good on his words and start a free tutoring service for inner-city kids. Just a thought.

As for the rest of us, the beginning of a new year is traditionally a time of personal reflection and goal-setting. But our nation as a whole also needs to set meaningful goals, and fixing educational inequality should top the list. Granted, it would be a moon shot unlike any other. Many might say it’s impossible, that the problem is too big, too deeply entrenched, and we lack the will to make real change happen.

But I refuse to give up on a dream that one day every child in this country will have access to a quality education — not a bought-and-paid-for pedigree that some wealthy folks apparently believe their children are entitled to but a realistic chance for every student to learn and grow and strive for fulfilling lives.

If we learn anything from the Operation Varsity Blues saga, let it be that college admissions shouldn’t be a game in which some players get extra points before they even start. Equal opportunity for everyone. That’s how we all win.

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