Admissions processing accountability after Operation Varsity Blues

September 25, 2019
  • Admissions Operations Review
  • Admissions
  • admissions and recruitment
  • Consulting
The Operation Varsity Blues criminal conspiracy, as nicknamed by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), has overwhelmed higher education admissions offices for the past seven months since it broke in March of 2019.  This scandal has been frustrating for the admissions offices because even though the transgressions were not perpetrated by their offices or staff, it has been labeled an admissions scandal. The conspiracy was primarily conducted by an independent counselor who bribed college officials (athletic coaches) and influenced college entrance exams to inflate scores.  In exchange, wealthy parents paid to try to influence admissions decisions. At least 51 people have agreed to or have already pled guilty. This article will focus on what admissions offices can do with regards to greater accountability in the admission of athletes.
What is significantly important for us all of us in higher education to remember is that this scandal was narrowly focused on less than two dozen, selective institutions.  Even more important is reinforcing to the general public how narrowly this scandal occurred and that overwhelmingly U.S. admissions offices are not negligent. Or as better stated by Nicholas Soodik’s Inside Higher Ed article “Tony Soprano, the Electoral College and Varsity Blues”:
“There’s also real value in broadening the conversation about higher education beyond selective colleges. Just as a few states swung the 2016 election, Operation Varsity Blues illustrates how a very small number of hyper selective colleges dominate our cultural conversation about higher education. Only 4 percent of American undergraduates attend institutions with acceptance rates below 25 percent. When columnist Frank Bruni joked that Stanford University had become too selective to admit anyone at all, he wasn’t far from describing the actual number of undergraduates who attend colleges with single-digit acceptance rates, which is well under 1 percent of all college students. And yet, Stanford and other elite universities hog the headlines and control the discourse about postsecondary education in the United States. Operation Varsity Blues is the latest case in point.”
Best practice: Conducting reviews
That being said, there are admissions operations or processing offices that have been caught up in this scandal, and some who have not been, that are proactively taking measures to ensure across the board accountability for all sports admission decisions, conducting comprehensive admissions processing reviews, and adding in checks and balances that will guard against, prevent, or catch inconsistencies or oversights in admit decisions, particularly with athletic recruits and walk-on athletes.  
One such institution not involved in the scandal was the University of Virginia, which “conducted a review of its admissions policies in the wake of the admissions scandal.”  What the University of Virginia did find was a small number of incidents where the recruitment of a student athlete was motivated by the promise of a gift or donation to the institution.  Based on this discovery the university is putting in place rules to “include a ban on soliciting or accepting gifts from athletes or their family members during the recruitment and application process.”   
Conducting a review of recruitment and communication processes for prospective student athletes in the aftermath of this scandal is a best practice step to ensure that your institution has the necessary checks and balances in place to catch the majority of these types of back door schemes to being admitted.  
Here are three measures to include in your admissions review for prospective student athletes:
1. Require consistent and comprehensive tracking for all sports from the point of first contact and/or communication.
  • This must include all sports and all types or level of athletes: recruited scholarship athlete, recruited non-scholarship athlete, and walk-on athlete. 
  • Include a detailed tracking by sport of the application/admission process:- Application date - Admit term - Admissions review or approval from admissions to move forward (date, decision) - Admit decision and date - Any appeals review date and decision - Sport  - Type/level of potential student athletic recruit or walk-on
  • Tracking after admitted- Pre-training, workout attendance - Practice attendance - Active status within the sport each term - If no longer active, comment or code as to why not with required follow up for any inactive student athletes by compliance office.
  • Consider, if your college or university is not already using one, an automated recruiting, tracking, and communication solution to meet all of the above requirements.  Some solutions available are:

2. Review terminology and build out a language dictionary that has clear definitions that are cross-referenced to NCAA definitions.

  • Agreed upon common nomenclature needs to be developed with and communicated to all stakeholders and reviewed at minimum annually with all athletic staff, admissions personnel, and all athletes.
  • Share this information broadly across campus to ensure all stakeholders are using consistent language.
  • This terminology dictionary should be available online. 
3. The student needs to be accountable in this process.
  • Ensure that the admissions office has communicated with the potential student athlete about admissibility to the institution, and not just communicated from the coaching staff about admission to the institution.
  • Communications to the potential student athlete need to include consequences for falsifying any athletic accomplishments or information on the admissions application.  
The need for accountability
According to Inside Higher Ed, “A recent Wall Street Journal article concluded that Operation Varsity Blues isn’t likely to change admissions practices.”  As admissions professionals we need to be accountable to continually review and improve our processes and be as transparent as possible in communicating with future students.  As this opinion article quoting the Wall Street Journal states, “Last year’s Operation Varsity Blue scandal means that college admissions can’t return to business as usual.  We need to ensure that the admissions process is fair and equitable, that we don’t allow those with money to cut in line and that we don’t reward those who make things up or embellish their credentials.”  
By reviewing and ensuring your process has the necessary checks and balances listed above, you will be able to verify what is reported, act quickly on discrepancies, make the student accountable in this process, and provide the actions for the institution to employ when an incident is revealed.   
For more information on how your institution can ensure its following best practices in the recruitment and admission of student athletes, and other talent-based students, please contact AACRAO Consulting at or 202-355-1056.


by Michele Sandlin, AACRAO Managing Consultant

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