Steve Cohen is an attorney at Pollock Cohen LLP in New York and a former member of the board...
Joy Blanchard is a professor from Louisiana State University’s College of Human Sciences & Education. Her research focuses on...
J. Craig Williams is admitted to practice law in Iowa, California, Massachusetts, and Washington. Before attending law school, his...
In what can be classified as the nation’s largest-ever college admissions bribery scandal, on March 12, 2019, U.S federal prosecutors out of Boston, Massachusetts charged 50 individuals with allegedly being part of a scheme to influence admissions decisions at colleges and universities across the States.
On Lawyer 2 Lawyer, host Craig Williams is joined by professor Joy Blanchard from Louisiana State University’s College of Human Sciences & Education and Steve Cohen, an attorney at Pollock Cohen LLP, as they spotlight the recent college admissions scandal. We will take a look at the charges against the alleged participants involved in this controversy, the litigation brought by students against colleges, and the impact this scandal will have on colleges, the admissions process, and future students.
Special thanks to our sponsors, Clio.
Lawyer 2 Lawyer – Law News and Legal Topics
The College Admissions Scandal
Steve Cohen: This is the most outrageous scandal and scam I have seen. In the 40-plus years I have been looking at writing about college admission.
Joy Blanchard: This is certainly rocking the higher education community just simply by the breadth and numbers of people involved and the criminal allegations that are at play.
Intro: Welcome to the award-winning podcast Lawyer 2 Lawyer with J. Craig Williams and Robert Ambrogi, bringing you the latest legal news and observations with the leading experts in the legal profession. You are listening to Legal Talk Network.
J. Craig Williams: Welcome to Lawyer 2 Lawyer on the Legal Talk Network. I am Craig Williams coming to you from Southern California. I write a blog called ‘May It Please The Court’ and have two books out titled “How to Get Sued” and “The Sled”. Well, before we introduce today’s topic, we would like to thank our sponsor Clio.
Well, what can be classified as a nation’s largest ever college admissions bribery scandal on March 12, 2019, federal prosecutors out of Boston, Massachusetts charged some 50 individuals with allegedly being part of a scheme to influence admissions decisions at colleges and universities around the United States.
The alleged participants consisted mainly of parents ranging from famous actresses, to some lawyers surprisingly, to heads of corporations, who worked with William Singer who is the CEO of a college admissions prep company and his connections to get their children into top colleges including allegations of falsifying SAT scores lying about athletic skills and more.
Today on Lawyer 2 Lawyer we will spotlight this recent college admissions scandal, will take a look at the charges against the alleged participants, the litigation brought by the students against the colleges and the impact the scandal will have on colleges, admissions and students in the future. To do that we’ve got a great line up of guests today. Here to discuss today’s topic is Prof. Joy Blanchard from Louisiana State University’s College of Human Sciences and Education. Her research focuses on higher education law primarily issues related to intercollegiate athletics, negligence liability and student welfare, as well as faculty life.
Welcome to the show, Joy.
Joy Blanchard: Thank you so much for inviting me today.
J. Craig Williams: And our guest is Steve Cohen, he’s an attorney at Pollock Cohen LLP in New York, former member of the Board of Directors of the United States Naval Institute, also he’s the co-author of “Getting In: College Admissions in the Digital Age”.
Welcome to the show, Steve.
Steve Cohen: Thanks for having me, Craig.
J. Craig Williams: Well, Steve, I think I’ll toss this first kind of background question to you, what’s going on here?
Steve Cohen: This is the most outrageous scandal and scam I have seen. In the 40-plus years I’ve been looking at writing about college admission. Rick Singer’s scam involved two different tracks, one was to pay a 36-year-old Harvard graduate to take the SAT and ACT exams for kids who paid them off. And the second was to bribe top college coaches to pretend that student applicants actually played that sport, in fact they paid to pretend that they played the sport, and so it’s two different thrusts. Right now there are about 35 families that have been implicated and indicted and the rumor is, it may reach as high as 750 people.
J. Craig Williams: Well, Joy, is this really any different than people doing it through the front door? For many years it’s always been that if somebody is wealthy they endow a building and all of a sudden there is a legacy admission for a prospective student?
Joy Blanchard: Right, that’s a great question and a really astute observation. I agree with my co-guest, Steve, that this is certainly rocking the higher education community just simply by the breadth and numbers of people involved, and the criminal allegations that are at play that is something we haven’t seen, but it is true, sadly it shouldn’t be that much of a shock. Two people in the higher education community and even those outside of it because there have been so many other ways that people have been able to gain favor through the admissions process either through special admits or through university advancement and fund-raising, and also just the way that the system is setup, not just internally, but even legally, the amount of deference that courts have always shown to institutional academic freedom. So there is many, many layers to this.
I read something that my co-guest wrote earlier on the topic I agree with him that the system is certainly corrupt but not broken but I think if anything this has exposed, certainly some holes in the fence. The fact that Mr. Singer knew that he could exploit the special admits through athletics shows that there is potential corruption in that system right there.
J. Craig Williams: Steve, how far does this go? Does this reach into the colleges and universities themselves? Do they know this was going on behind the scenes?
Steve Cohen: Well, of course, the colleges that have been implicated claim that they are shocked; shocked define that this is going on, and it’s pretty hard to accept that. Look, was this a few very bad apples? Absolutely. But how many other apples in that barrel have been infected by this rot? And I think that’s going to come out.
What was really shocking to me was the range of really good schools that were implicated in this, from Yale to Stanford, from USC to Georgetown, these were top schools that parents were willing to take the extraordinary unethical risk to bribe people to get their kids in.
Now, Joy said something and I want to go back to this. I used the phrase and it came to me after a lot of thinking about this scandal. The system is corrupt, it’s corrupting, but it’s not broken. What I mean by that is colleges have been admitting kids for lots of reasons through what the President of Georgetown calls his buckets that he has a 140 buckets of interests and special interests that he has to fill with an entering class every year.
And so the system of allowing coaches, for example, to allocate a certain number of slots of potential athletes for their team has been going on for a long time and I am going to predict, it’s not going to change. There may be a little bit more oversight, but it’s not going to change.
And in the other end of the extreme where wealthy families have a long-handed advantage known as development prospects. If you are able and willing to endow a library or a classroom or a lab or professorship, your kid is going to be taking it a lot more seriously as an applicant and if you don’t have that money. So that’s just one of many, many buckets’ special interests that schools all across the country, large and small, look to try to satisfy every single year.
So the system is working exactly as schools, as universities wanted to work. They’ve got to satisfy those niches and the constituencies that push for those niches on every college campus.
J. Craig Williams: Joy, let me put you in the position of a defense attorney for these wealthy parents. What arguments do you have?
Joy Blanchard: Oh wow. Gosh, to be honest, I don’t know if I have any. You know —
Steve Cohen: Take a plea bargain, beg for forgiveness.
J. Craig Williams: Or is the argument that nobody has really been hurt, a good argument. I mean, come on, the universities all have, not thousand spots, we all know that they can go to a 1005, if they want it.
Joy Blanchard: That’s such a good question and as far as the criminal aspects of that I cannot speak to because I’m not a practicing attorney but I think if anything some of these parents may claim that they didn’t realize what they were doing was wrong, because there is such a proliferation of college admission specialist.
Now, the argument that no one was harmed, I would say for me fall short because not only were students participating in an admission system that they thought was legitimate and fair, there are people hurt in this system, those who were barred from entering these universities and actually even the students themselves, the children of those families who are involved, and of course that goes into deeper issues.
But, there are so many people who are to blame and like what Mr. Cohen said about athletics, that’s been going on for a long time. The NCAA can only carry out the regulations that its member institutions enact for them to carry out and they have been debating this for decades.
Back in the 70s, they instituted a minimum GPA, and so, this is something they have struggled with for a long time.
And do I think it will change? I agree with Steve, no, I don’t, because then you would have the institutions that compete very well, but are also elite academic institution, such as North Carolina, Michigan, Stanford, are they going to then enact a policy that says, well, anyone we admit to our university must satisfy the median academic standard? That would hurt them on the playing field, and as we know, when you are successful in football and basketball that can mean millions of dollars from television contracts as well as from private donations.
And so like I said earlier, there are just so many layers to this.
J. Craig Williams: Steve —
Steve Cohen: You asked a great question. I am sorry Craig, go ahead.
J. Craig Williams: No, I was going to just follow-up with Joy’s observation about the NCAA. We have a couple of institutions here that have some jurisdiction in addition to the criminal charges that we are seeing. We have the SAT and that realm of how that punishment is going to occur within that organization. And the athletic coaches that were involved or what’s going to be happen with them from the NCAA.
Steve Cohen: Right, I think that’s a great question and I don’t have a lot of faith in the NCAA. And I want to point to their punting the ball about two years ago after the scandal at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where hundreds of athletes had been taking courses that had basically no requirements. You didn’t have to even show up, and the NCAA said no, we have no jurisdiction over this.
The role of high level sports on colleges is one that is completely unresolved, are they really in college, are they really pre-professional, and a judge on the West Coast just last week said, you know, we really ought to be thinking about compensating student athletes; we don’t have to use the word student, we have to use the word athletes who happen to be on college campuses differently than we currently are.
So I would put the athletic piece aside and go back to the, what does this say about both these individual parents, should they be punished, how should they be punished?
How about the kids, the real question is, are there kids who didn’t know that their parents were doing this? And we saw something come out in the news recently that one of the kids who was admitted as a so-called track star was approached by his new academic advisor at school and said, here, you are terrific at track, you are going to show up for practice. And the kid had no clue what the academic advisor was talking about.
And the parent then turned back to Rick Singer, who had orchestrated this entire scam and he said, don’t worry, and he said don’t worry because he got to a higher athletic person; I think it was the University of Southern California and that person said I will make sure that they back off and don’t question too closely this new student about his so-called athletic prowess, or lack of it.
But you asked the question what would Joy do if she was the defense lawyer, and this is where you just want to cop a plea as quickly as possible. You don’t want to go to trial on this. I mean these are serious, serious allegations of bribery and money laundering and racketeering. I mean these are some serious potential penalties, criminal penalties, not just financial, but possibly jail time, and what’s going to happen, we are going to wait and see.
J. Craig Williams: And who is it that’s going to — beyond the parents, the coaches, can we expect coaches to go to jail?
Steve Cohen: Well, some have already pled guilty, so we don’t know what they have agreed to in their plea bargain, and as part of that plea bargain who are they turning in.
I guess a coach at Yale has agreed, he pled guilty and he has become what we refer as state’s evidence. He is cooperating with the federal investigators who are pursuing this case, so we are going to see how much further it goes. But he was accepting $450,000 for a single student to use one of his slots on his soccer roster; there is real money involved here. This is big time.
Joy Blanchard: I think it is important also to mention, speaking of the coaches’ involvement in criminal issues, is there is also a separate investigation going on in which coaches at certain institutions were also breaking the law by brokering deals with families and representatives from, I believe Adidas and some of the other companies interested in recruiting athletes, such as IMG representation.
So at my own institution, LSU, its basketball coach is currently suspended, because he is one of several NCAA basketball coaches who were part of an FBI investigation in which they were audio recorded brokering bribes and deals. And so, unfortunately, the scandal and this type of exploitation within college sports is not unique and not new to the admissions issue that we are talking about today; it’s been going on for quite a while.
Steve Cohen: I think —
J. Craig Williams: Let me interrupt you for just a second Steve. Before we move on to our next segment, we are going to take a quick break to hear a message from our sponsor. We will be right back.
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J. Craig Williams: And welcome back to Lawyer 2 Lawyer, I am Craig Williams, and we are joined by Professor Joy Blanchard from Louisiana State University’s College of Human Sciences and Education, and Steve Cohen, he is an attorney at Pollock | Cohen LLP.
Steve, right before the break I cut you off.
Steve Cohen: Well, I think Joy really put her finger on something. This particular scandal right now involves 50 people, and if as rumors suggest it could involve as many as 750, it’s still the tip of the iceberg. These are really wealthy parents who did something absolutely unethical and illegal. This is a criminal matter.
What’s going on in college athletics is a much bigger issue, and we have not seen — we have just seen the tip of the iceberg there, and I think that’s where we want to look in the next few months is to what comes out.
J. Craig Williams: How systemic has money or the wealthy’s use of money, how systemic is this problem in our society, not just college admissions, but are we seeing this kind of behavior that money can pay for anything throughout society now?
Steve Cohen: Let’s just stick to college for a second. We know that money can buy lots of things; it can buy a building, it can buy additional tutoring, and coaching of how to write an essay. The wealthy have an advantage and the biggest advantage is not just the money, but knowing how to manipulate the system, and we see that at all levels of the high school and college admission process.
We also see other ways the playing field is not tilted evenly and we see it, and this is very controversial in the lawsuit that’s going on up in Boston right now, with Judge 17:37 of the Asian-American students who have sued Harvard and said, it is not fair that we have to have 400 points higher on our SATs compared to Black and Hispanic students who are applying. The playing field is tilted against us in that regard.
So it’s not just money, the system is tilted in too many ways. It’s like walking along a coral reef, you are going to get caught anywhere you walk.
Joy Blanchard: Steve brings up an excellent point that I also did want to mention, you were asking what can money buy you in the higher education community, and the higher education community has reacted to this in awe and shock, but really, as I mentioned before, it really shouldn’t be as shocked as they are, because there has been a longstanding tradition and practice within higher education for centuries of manipulating who is admitted into universities.
And so back in the 1700s, these elite institutions were only for wealthy White men. It took decades and centuries to admit women. Many public institutions across the US were not admitting women until the late 1900s. Harvard itself changed its policies, when too many, when they felt too many Jewish students were enrolling based on academic merit, and so they instituted other metrics such as personality, national origin, geographic origin.
So I read a quote recently by Malcolm Gladwell in relation to this scandal and he said when academic merit did not bring the “right kind” of students to universities, these universities changed the definition of merit, and that’s exactly what Steve is mentioning in this case currently at Harvard, with the Asian-American students.
And so that goes into a deeper level as well, as I mentioned earlier, we have been talking about the criminal aspects of this case, but we haven’t mentioned the civil lawsuit that was brought by several students denied admission to some of these universities.
So there has been a longstanding deference to institutions regarding who they admit and that’s been a lot of the rationale that courts have used to uphold affirmative action in admissions.
And so I don’t think the system will be overturned based on this scandal, unfortunately, the isolated incidence of several people, but certainly there has been a long-standing tradition that universities have been allowed to select who they would bring to their university whether it be 20:21 money or arbitrary metrics that they institute.
J. Craig Williams: Steve, a lot of this sounds like the old conversations about private golf clubs and clubs in the downtown with the cigars and leather chairs, how is this any different? Can these universities stand there and stay with a straight face anymore that we’re a private institution, and how we admit students is up to us?
Steve Cohen: Oh they do, and they have been getting away with it. The Supreme Court has allowed them a great deal of leeway in doing that. We talk about merit and the question comes what criteria should we use, not are we correct, but what criteria should we use to measure merit and admit students?
And so the two things that come back to mind immediately are, well, grades and some standardized test, either the SAT or the ACT.
Well, it’s really hard to measure grades because the difference in a wealthy school district and an intercity school district in the rigor of the courses offered and the grades given, make it almost impossible. So then schools have gone to the standardized test. And again, the question is, well, if you take an SAT prep course that’s going to give you a leg up and that’s really only available to wealth your families. Well, that’s really not the case now.
In New York City there is a very smart guy named is John Katzman who started The Princeton Review about 30 years ago, now runs a company named Noodle that does in educational technology and he found out that the group that spends the most on test prep are Asian-Americans, and the corollary to that is that Asian-Americans are the poorest group demographically in New York City.
So, the poorest group per capita is spending the most per capita on test prep, what’s important to them. So, lots of people say, well, the SAT really isn’t fair, well, we need other criteria, and it’s a complicated problem, how would you set the criteria for admission to a college? Do you say, yes, we are going to have an orchestra but we’re not going to recruit anybody to play in that orchestra or we’re going to have student newspaper but we are not going to have anybody who is really interested in journalism? That’s tricky.
Joy Blanchard: Yeah, I agree with Steve. It absolutely is tricky and there is so many layers to this, the institutional academic freedom, the ability of universities to field an athletic team and bring in people who have special musical and artistic talents, but going back to your earlier question, Craig, I myself also asked for a moment. Well, many of these are private institutions, should they not be free to select who is admitted to the institution.
So obviously State institutions such as the University of Texas, which was involved in this, they have a legal and public mandate to be equitable and fair in the admissions process but all of these institutions receive funding via the federal government, via grants, but also via federal student financial aid, and so by law they are duty-bound to maintain ethical admissions processes.
J. Craig Williams: What about the SAT, what’s going to happen with that? We have a situation where there was one guy who was hired to fake his test results of students, and obviously, he has turned state’s evidence at this point from what I’ve read, what’s going to happen with the SAT, how do we protect against this kind of thing in the future? Are we going to see Congress getting involved with this?
Joy Blanchard: That’s a great question. It usually takes something like this that has been fueled in the media to bring attention, but quite honestly this is not the first time that there have been cheating scandals on college admissions test. So everything we have been discussing today, the NCAA has fault, the individuals have fault, the institutions have fault, the system has fault, and absolutely one of the players in this will be the college admissions testing services who will just have to beef up their security processes. Back in college I served as a proctor and a student just came in and showed 24:44 signed in.
They are many better ways that we can ensure that a student really is who they say that they are. It might take these testing services to hire more proctors, have more than two people in a room at one time.
So I don’t think that the system should go away. I don’t think it’s defunct. There are hundreds if not thousands of testing centers across the U.S., but absolutely these testing companies will be called on to improve their testing security.
Steve Cohen: I think Joy is absolutely right. I heard something from a college counselor, a private college counselor, who does a lot of work overseas and for the most part the College Board is pretty rigorous in trying to weed out people who cheat. This particular scandal where Rick Singer told families, get your kid a special dispensation to take the test with one extra time, and two, alone, and they went to certain places in California and Texas to take the test with a proctor who had already even paid off to allow the Harvard test taker to come in and do it. It was pretty ingenious; it was despicable, but it was ingenious.
So the college counselor I talked to yesterday said that he has heard that the college board has pulled the testing in two foreign countries in the Middle East because I can’t guarantee that the actual students will be taking the test. So they are aware of potential problems and I think this is just a new scam that they had not expected, they had not seen before, and they will obviously now try to make protection against it. The more important question I think is what do you do about the SAT? And I don’t think for a second that colleges are going to do away with SAT or ACT exams.
One, it is a triage system. They never publish minimum scores that you have to get to be considered for admission but almost every school has one. We used to say that if you don’t have 1400 on the SAT, that’s 700 on the map and 700 on English, you are probably — if you are a middle-class White kid, you are not getting into an Idyllic school. They will never tell you that but it was a triage system because they had so many people applying and this was just one quick way to say, okay, we can say that a kid who has 1400 is better than a kid who has 1650 and they are not going to change that.
J. Craig Williams: Right. Well, thank you. It looks like we have just about reached the end of our program. We would like to invite our guest to share their final thoughts and their contact information for our listeners to reach out to them. So, Joy, let’s turn it over to you first.
Joy Blanchard: Sure, once again thank you for inviting me to participate in today’s conversation and every time I speak with someone about this, I learn even more. So, Steve, I definitely appreciate listening to your perspective.
As I said before, the scandal has so many layers naturally on its surface, it’s a criminal issue, but it really gives light to the imbalance of power in the admissions process.
Definitely testing systems will have to beef up their security, but I think universities need to provide greater checks and balances than what is given to the admissions office, the fact that a few coaches were able to be paid off to utilize their special admits reveals a hole in the system. And also if we get a larger question of is the notion of institutional academic freedom at risk and are we disserving the students when we do special admits, whether they be via bribery or via athletics or via fundraising? And all of those are very valid issues of debate that could go on for hours, and so like I said, I really appreciated the ability to speak with you guys today and I would love to continue that conversation with any of your listeners.
My e-mail address is [email protected] and so if they just Google “Joy Blanchard” on the LSU website, they should be able to find my contact information.
J. Craig Williams: Alright, thank you very much. Steve.
Steve Cohen: Well, Craig, first thanks for inviting me and Joy, thank you, I thought your insights were terrific and it gave me things to think about. Almost a Century ago Justice Brandeis said “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” and I think this scandal has provided for lots of sunlight. Sometimes in areas that people really didn’t want and schools didn’t want sunlight to be showing off what’s going on. So I think the lots of questions and we didn’t even touch on some of the biggest questions, such as, the cost of college and the availability of financial aid, and the burden of student debt. And I think what this scandal is going to do, besides punish, guilty people, who’ve done unethical, bad, illegal things, I think it’s going to raise lots of important questions and this questioning and this debate and some tough decisions are going to be coming out in the future.
I too, I think about this more, I appreciate your insights and any listeners who do hear this and want to continue with our website has a whole bunch of articles I’ve written about this topic, it’s pollockcohen.com, we are a law firm in New York and my contact information is on the website and we look forward to hearing from you, and so Craig, thanks so much for inviting me.
J. Craig Williams: You are welcome and thank you. We would like to thank both of our guests. Joy Blanchard from Louisiana State University and Steve Cohen from Pollock Cohen for being our guest today.
Well, that brings us to the end of our show, if you like what you heard today please rate us in Apple Podcasts. You can also visit us at legaltalknetwork.com or you can leave a comment on today’s show and sign up for our newsletter.
I’m Craig Williams, thanks for listening. Join us next time for another great legal topic.
When you want legal, think Lawyer 2 Lawyer.
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