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College Admissions Scandal: Suing for the loss of ‘fair chance’

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The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes above


In light of the recent college admissions scandal uncovered by Operation Varsity Blues, a group of students and parents have brought a class-actions suit against the universities involved. One parent in particular is bringing a claim for a staggering $500 billion against 45 of the 50 people named in the federal lawsuit, on the basis of denying her son a ‘fair chance’ at getting into the colleges where cheating took place. On the other side of the coin, two Stanford students, Erica Olsen and Kalea Woods, claim that the value of their degree has been diluted by the cheating scandal. The class-action lawsuit asks for a variety of relief, including compensation, punitive damages and restitution. But one must delve deeper to see which claims the court will deem reasonable.


College admissions - a false meritocracy?


The US Justice Department revealed that the $25 million scam allowed wealthy parents to use their money to game the admissions system at the nation’s top universities, including Stanford University, Yale and USC. From fixing SAT scores to bribing college admissions officials, these ‘heinous actions’ have since elicited public outcry across social media, especially since many of the parents involved are famed celebrities.


The Claims


Kay Toy alleges that her son, Joshua Toy, was overlooked in favor of wealthy and influential people who exploited the admissions system. Her main argument is that her son was denied a ‘fair chance’ go to a good college despite his 4.2 GPA and academic achievements, and that opportunity for a fair chance was ‘stolen by the actions of the Defendants’. Evidently, this claim is unlikely to hold much weight given that a mere chance cannot be said to be quantified; there is no definite evidence that her son would have gained admission if not for the cheating, and the amount claimed is unjustified.

In contrast, the class-action suit brought by a collective of students and parents seems to carry more reasonable justification.

The suit claims more than $5 million in damages, arguing that ‘unqualified students found their way into the admissions rolls of highly selective universities, while those students who played by the rules and did not have college-bribing parents were denied admission’. These claimants argue that they did not receive what they paid for — a fair admissions process — and would therefore claim for that amount. According to Olsen, had she known that the ‘system at Yale University was warped and rigged by fraud’, she would not have spent the money to apply to the school.

Although this claim makes logical sense, there are several problems. First, the colleges involved have maintained that it the cheating was the fault of individual admissions staff, not the school’s admission system, therefore arguing that they are not to be held liable as an institution.


Secondly, the damages would likely be limited to compensating applicants for their money spent applying to the colleges (e.g. an application to USC costs $85). Currently, the colleges, have not been accused of anything worse than negligence in overseeing their admissions process. Punitive damages are more likely to produce very large monetary compensations to punish intentional wrong-doers. However, a negligence claim generally does not lead to punitive damages, thus a high sum of compensation may not be imposed on the colleges.

The most interesting claim comes from the two Stanford students, Olsen and Woods. They claim that the value of their Stanford degree has been ‘diluted’ by the cheating scandal. According to a federal prosecutor, ‘prospective employers may now question whether she was admitted to the university on her own merits, versus having parents who were willing to bribe school officials’. If the value of their Stanford degrees is truly diluted, this could lead to real monetary damages.

However, there are strong reasons to counter this claim. First, the claim is based on speculation; there is no concrete evidence of what the admissions scandal will do to the value of a Stanford degree. Surely, one could argue that the scandal could even increase the prestige of the colleges involved because it shows that people are willing to go to great lengths to gain admission? Secondly, even if one assumes that the scandal has devalued degrees from these colleges, the class of claimants would include every student and graduate from these colleges. That outcome would most likely be unworkable.


Conclusion

In a nutshell, the most compelling claim is that of the main class-action lawsuit, which would effectively refund application fees that were paid within the period of the scam. Nonetheless, nothing further as to the colleges’ liability can be speculated until we know the extent to which these colleges were institutionally involved in the scandal.


Su-ann Cheung (Politics)


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