US Education Department begins admissions scandal probe

Initial federal letter asks eight US universities for details on implicated staff and students

March 26, 2019
FBI car

The US Education Department has begun an investigation of the college admissions scandal, asking eight implicated universities for a range of information on their actions in the case.

The department, in a letter to the universities, reportedly requested details on staff and students involved in the case, saying that it seeks to guard against the potential misuse of the federal dollars that they receive.

“The allegations made and evidence cited by the Department of Justice raise questions about whether your institution is fully meeting its obligations” under federal law, the department told the universities, according to Politico.

The investigation is being led by Jeff Appel, the department’s acting chief enforcement officer, who signed the letters sent to the universities on 25 March.

The letters were addressed to the presidents of Georgetown, Stanford, Wake Forest and Yale universities, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Southern California, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of San Diego.

The scandal broke two weeks ago when the FBI announced charges against 50 people for paying, receiving, arranging or participating in bribery to help at least 33 underqualified students gain admission to elite US universities. Wealthy parents accused of paying the bribes include chief executives, hedge fund managers and Hollywood stars.

An initial group of 12 defendants, including six former sports coaches, made their first appearances in federal court in Boston on 25 March, each pleading not guilty to racketeering conspiracy charges. Each faces as much as 20 years in prison.

The first to appear before Judge M. Page Kelley was Gordon Ernst, the former head tennis coach at Georgetown who once taught Michelle Obama. Mr Ernst allegedly took $2.7 million (£2 million) in bribes to help 12 students gain entry to Georgetown by falsely identifying them as tennis recruits. Others accused of taking bribes include people associated with standardised admissions testing.

Along with the Education Department investigation, the start of the court process promises to loosen the flow of information in a case that has raised for US higher education as many questions as answers.

One chief unknown is the mystery of how many more students, families and institutions were not included in the original FBI announcement on 12 March. Federal officials said that one parent paid $6.5 million to help his or her child enter college, but that student does not appear to be among the initial group of 33. More than 750 parents used the services of the Los Angeles area admissions counsellor at the centre of the probe.

The implicated universities were quick to confirm the dismissal of any coaches and staff named in the case, but have been slower to announce dispositions for the students.

USC, with the largest number of implicated applicants, said that it has denied admission to six students for the coming academic year. Yale announced this weekend that it had rescinded the admission of one such student. None of the implicated universities has acknowledged expelling current students, although some of the students have left on their own.

While the US Education Department begins its investigation, state lawmakers in California already are considering policy changes affecting standardised admissions tests, athletic scholarships, and the college admissions consulting industry.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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