Understanding the College Admissions Cheating Scandal Lawsuits

Dani Alexis Ryskamp, J.D.

Written by
— Updated on June 25, 2020

Understanding the College Admissions Cheating Scandal Lawsuits

College Admissions Cheating Scandal Lawsuits

In March 2019, federal prosecutors charged fifty people with participation in schemes to get their children admitted to top colleges and universities using fraud, bribery, and falsehoods. The group of people charged included well-known actors, CEOs, and fashion designers, as well as other wealthy individuals.

Now, members of the same group charged with criminal behavior in the scandal are also facing civil lawsuits. Two class action lawsuits allege that both these parents and the colleges they engaged with denied others a fair chance to be accepted at or attend elite colleges and universities.

The Allegations

One of the class action lawsuits was filed by the parent of a student who was not admitted to several of the colleges involved in the scandal, despite the student’s 4.2 high school GPA. The suit alleges that the misbehavior of the charged parents resulted in students who had worked to earn a spot at these schools being denied the opportunity to attend.

The other, filed by two Stanford University students, alleges that the colleges’ participation resulted in qualified students being denied the opportunity to attend these elite schools. The Stanford students also claim that Stanford’s participation in the scheme has devalued their own Stanford educations.

The class action lawsuits claim that over one million people have been affected by the scandal, due to the number of colleges involved.

What Happened?

At the heart of the scandal is the claim that wealthy parents throughout the United States sought the help of Newport Beach businessman William Singer to get their children into the best colleges. Singer owns Edge College & Career Network and the Key Worldwide Foundation, and he allegedly claimed he could help students get into elite, highly-competitive colleges even if the student’s own record did not merit admission.

The case also alleges that by routing payments through the Key Worldwide Foundation, Singer was able to disguise the scheme. Parents who paid Key Worldwide were able to write off those payments as tax-deductible donations to charity as well, despite the fact that the money was used not for charitable purposes but to bribe college administrators and other parties.

Fraud in College Admissions

The college admissions bribery scandal is unique in its breadth – not only in the number of people and colleges involved, but also in the diversity of tactics used to carry it out.

College admissions fraud has made headlines in other ways, however, including the fraud case against Corinthian Colleges, Inc. in the late 2000s. There, Corinthian was accused of using various deceptive tactics to acquire more federal funding, such as falsifying financial aid applications and manipulating student enrollment numbers, grades and job placement data.

Currently, students who attended Corinthian’s schools are receiving assistance from the federal Department of Education, which has set aside money to assist in loan forgiveness. These students are also protected by a preliminary injunction issued in May 2018 in Manriquez v. DeVos, which prevents the Department of Education from collecting on direct loans held by certain borrowers.

In the Corinthian cases, the primary target of civil litigation was Corinthian itself. In the recent class action lawsuits, however, both the colleges and the parents involved in the alleged scheme find themselves facing lawsuits.

What to Expect from Expert Witnesses

Because the class action lawsuits arising from the college admissions bribery scandal are the first of their kind, it is difficult to extrapolate from earlier cases in order to determine which expert witnesses will likely be called upon in the cases.

One potential source of contention is likely to be the methods used to determine whether and to what extent the students represented by the class actions were harmed by the behavior of the parents who bribed colleges and the colleges that accepted bribes. Questions about methodology appear in Manriquez v. DeVos, as well as in college admission cases like Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin and Gratz v. Bollinger. Although these class actions do not involve questions of race, as Fisher and Gratz did, they do involve complex questions of fitness for admission to a particular institution – questions that experts may well be asked to illuminate.

The type of expert witnesses called upon will likely depend on the specific questions of methodology that are raised. In both class action cases, however, experts with experience in college admissions decision-making and the operations of college administrations, including athletic departments, may be asked to clarify key points about the bribery scheme and its effect on student admissions and recruitment.

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