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U.S. colleges step up admissions spot checks after scandal

FILE — University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The university has been at the center of the Varsity Blues admissions scandal, which has prompted other colleges to step up their verification of applicants' claims. (Rozette Rago/The New York Times)
November 21, 2019 09:34 am

Bloomberg News (TNS)

NEW YORK — U.S. colleges are stepping up scrutiny of student applications, as universities deal with the fallout from a scandal that saw parents pay bribes and rig test scores to win places for their children.

As the admission season begins, Yale University, Bowdoin College and Pomona College are among those conducting spot checks or verifying some information on applications to find signs of cheating or embellishment, according to school officials.

American higher education was sent reeling by the so-called Varsity Blues case, which saw millions of dollars change hands as part of a network geared to cheat the college entry process. Some parents received sentences ranging from probation to six months in prison. Coaches, including those from Yale and Stanford, have pleaded guilty.

Admissions officers say that while they want to spot evidence of such wrongdoing in the future, they also want to quash more mundane embellishments.

“There always has been the pressure to push it a little bit further,” said Whitney Soule, dean of admissions at Bowdoin, a liberal arts school in Maine. “We want to relieve that pressure.”

Bowdoin’s application website now states that the school may verify information provided on applications or supplemental materials, and that inaccurate or fabricated information may lead to offers being withdrawn.

Others institutions may follow suit, said Larry Momo, former head of undergraduate admissions at Columbia University.

Yale initiated changes to athletic recruiting and the broader admissions process to strengthen its ability to detect and prevent fraud, according to an August letter from the university’s president.

“Beyond athletics, we will be implementing measures to reduce the risk of fraud in all applications,” Peter Salovey said in the letter. The school will verify some extracurricular accomplishments and awards, and audit a number of applicants’ applications at the end of each admissions cycle, he said.

Pomona College, a liberal arts school near Los Angeles, is also making a change around athletics.

This year, coaches are being asked to provide third-party backing of an athlete’s talent, such as a web link to rankings or local newspaper story, Seth Allen, dean of admissions and financial aid, said by phone. Separately, the school’s admissions officers may conduct additional research on one out of every 40 to 50 applicants when they include unfamiliar activities, he said.

Even before the scandal, students believed many of their peers cheated to win a place, according to a survey of 212 students by Kaplan Test Prep carried out between February and June. Twenty-five percent of respondents said they knew or suspected individuals who had overblown their achievements to boost chances of getting in.

Bowdoin’s Soule, who has worked in admissions since 1991, said the changes this year are meant to reinforce that students should be honest, even with seemingly small details.

If an applicant is a co-captain of a team, the student shouldn’t feel pressure to say he or she is the single leader, for example.

“Don’t be afraid to show us that you are sharing the responsibility,” Soule said.