‘Varsity Blues’ bribes case: Yale football coach pleads guilty

Policymakers shy away from regulatory reform as court cases progress

March 29, 2019
Yale University bus

A former Yale University women’s football coach pleaded guilty in the US university admissions scandal, as a leading congressional authority squashed any budding expectations of regulatory consequences for US higher education.

The football coach, Rudolph Meredith, was charged with agreeing to help two students gain admission to Yale – for total payments of $850,000 (£653,000) – by falsely claiming they would play for the team.

Mr Meredith admitted two wire fraud charges on 28 March, joining Stanford University’s ousted head sailing coach, John Vandemoer, as the first two university staff to accept legal responsibility in the case.

Also on 28 March, in Washington, Donna Shalala, a Democrat from Florida and a former university president, largely dashed any lingering hopes that Congress might craft a policy response to the scandal.

After organising an expert panel on Capitol Hill to examine the implications of the scandal, Professor Shalala opened the event by recalling her sentiments while president of the University of Miami that she always feared regulatory responses to crises.

“I do not assume there's a place here for federal legislation – just that we all need to be educated,” she said.

In the immediate aftermath of the scandal, Professor Shalala had been one of few voices on Capitol Hill calling for swift action. “Higher education receives substantial resources from the federal government,” she said in a press statement. “Therefore, we in Congress have a responsibility to examine at the very least the admissions process, structure and culture.”

The FBI had revealed the scandal the previous day, announcing that 50 people were charged with paying, receiving, arranging or participating in bribery aimed at securing admissions to leading universities over the past eight years. At least 33 students, knowingly or not, had been helped to falsify sporting and academic credentials.

Beyond Mr Meredith and Mr Vandemoer, the only other person to plead guilty so far is William Singer, an admissions adviser in the Los Angeles area who was alleged to have organised the network of bribes and then helped the FBI catch others after his role was discovered.

The case has fuelled weeks of public hand-wringing, in which the scandal has been painted as clear evidence of the wealth-based advantages known to accrue to wealthier students in academia.

The higher education establishment has fought back against any talk of a governmental policy response, saying that the cases surrounding Mr Singer are very limited and that none of the institutions knew that the bribery was occurring.

Despite lawmakers sharing in the emotional condemnations of higher education, few in Congress have suggested any appetite for action. The policy experts convened by Professor Shalala largely agreed that the universities rather than lawmakers should be expected to find solutions.

One, Anthony Carnevale, a research professor of public policy at Georgetown University, offered data backing the suggestions of some reformers that universities should drastically scale back their admissions industries by holding lotteries among all students meeting a certain level of academic ability.

Professor Carnevale pointed out that any student scoring in the top half of the major standardised admissions tests has a 70 per cent or greater chance of graduating from any of the nation’s top 200 colleges. For most of them, however, “you’ll never get in”, he said.

Yet, he said, it is almost impossible to craft an entrance system that wealthy families cannot manipulate and overcome. For that reason, Professor Carnevale said, policymakers should forget about interfering with university admissions, and keep working on providing applicants with maximum information on the comparative costs and performances of institutions and their programmes.

“People are tricky,” he said, “and it’s not easy to get them when they do things wrong.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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