Lies, Money And Cheating: The Deeper Story Of The College Admissions Scandal

by Elissa Nadworny and Marco A. Treviño

The college admissions process has long been sold as a system of merit: Do well in school, write a killer essay, score well on the SAT, and you’ll get in. Yet the recent nationwide scandal, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, laid bare just how much money, instead of aptitude, often drives admissions at elite colleges. 

In March of 2019, federal prosecutors charged 50 people with participating in a scheme to cheat the college admissions system at select colleges nationwide. The investigation into widespread cheating and corruption included Hollywood celebrities, Division I college coaches and wealthy parents who conspired to cheat the process. At its center was a college counselor named Rick Singer, who made millions by bribing coaches at major universities to admit his clients’ children as athletes for sports they often didn’t play, and by rigging SAT and ACT test scores. 

In the new book Unacceptable: Privilege, Deceit, & the Making of the College Admissions Scandal  journalists Melissa Korn and Jennifer Levitz , who covered Operation Varsity Blues for the Wall Street Journal, give life to the largest college admissions scandal ever prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The interview was edited for brevity.

What did you find most interesting about Operation Varsity Blues?

Melissa Korn: I found the complexity of the scheme to be the most interesting part. This wasn’t just one corrupt guy helping a crooked parent. Each prong of the operation, both testing and bribery/fake athletes, involved multiple players working together, or sometimes being kept separate from one another as best suited the end game. It could have fallen apart in so many ways, at so many different stages.

The [initial criminal] complaint is 204 pages and could be published as a book alone. It’s so detailed that it leaves you with so many interesting questions. It moves beyond a juicy news story because there is something close to home for many people. If you’re a parent or anybody who has a loved one, you want to do what’s best for them. You want to help your loved one succeed. Some people just went a little too far.

As you were reporting, the case was still underway, and you were reporting and writing in real time. What were some of the challenges you faced because of that?

Jennifer Levitz: The biggest challenge was getting people to speak with us. This case was still a criminal case, so a lot of people were reluctant to speak. It can be tough to break into circles where you have people surrounded by teams of lawyers and PR consultants. We had to get very creative in telling these stories and I think the writing was hard, but the reporting was where the real sweat came in.

I also found that the door knocking aspect of it was different. I’ve generally been a reporter driving ’round, knocking on doors and talking to neighbors. Well, it’s really hard to do that when people live in communities where nobody is walking down the street, and everyone’s behind a gate with alarm systems. You just cannot physically run into anybody.

I’m a big believer in getting to people directly. It’s an art to work with people whose job is to protect this person while keeping you at bay. I wasn’t confident that our messages were even getting to people. So, I wanted to get to people directly and at least give them a chance. 

One of the big “gets” in the book is your interview with one of the students involved in the scandal, Matteo Sloane. His father, Devin Sloane, was sentenced to four months in prison for paying to have Matteo admitted to the University of Southern California. How did that interview come to be?

Levitz: I reached Matteo Sloane through Facebook Messenger, saying, “Hey, we would love to talk with you.” A couple months go by. Then he wrote back wanting to tell his side of the story. We went ahead and spoke with him, and he was just so honest. 

Then I remember going the next day to confirm a couple of things with the people representing that family. They were like, “You did what? You talked to him?” Had we gone through them, that wouldn’t have happened.

[In the book] we went beyond the headlines, and our own Wall Street Journalcoverage, to connect the dots between all the players and to tell the stories of the individuals involved. It’s not sympathy for them, but we do make them actual people — flawed, complex people — rather than just names in a tabloid or court document.

As you mentioned earlier, this case brings up issues about meritocracy, equity and access. How has Unacceptable shaped your current work or view on higher ed? 

Korn: So I have been covering general U.S. higher ed for almost six years now. I love the beat, and I have always approached it somewhat cynically. This project made me question what I’m hearing from schools more than I already did. As schools are talking about their devotion to diversity, equity and access, I am saying, “OK, let me see that,” because schools put out these great press releases or talk about their percent of Pell Grant students. But then they were involved with this, or their coaches did this, or they gave preference to these types of students.

This has helped me cement in my mind the need for that cynicism or the “prove it” attitude that I might take right now. I try to describe how the [higher education] system works, where there are fault lines, and where it’s a little bit broken. I also highlight what’s working and who’s improving it and how people are reforming it, if they are.

Levitz: We still have a long way to go before the playing field in college admissions is truly leveled. This scandal wasn’t born in a vacuum. Unacceptable provides context about how the admissions system for selective colleges was already quite broken and extremely unfair. We note that some in the admissions world refer to it as a “blood sport,” and that’s all too apt in some of these fiercely competitive communities. An acceptance letter to a particular school isn’t a prize to be won or a badge showing one kid’s parents are somehow better than another’s. 

Marco A. Treviño is an intern on NPR’s Education Desk.

Saddled With Student Loans, Bestselling Author Worries, ‘I Don’t Want To Die Poor’

by Terry Gross

Michael Arceneaux’s previous book, I Can’t Date Jesus, centered on his experiences growing up black, gay and Catholic in Texas.

Writer Michael Arceneaux has a tongue-in-cheek message for young people right now: “Please don’t be as much of a mess as I was.”

Arceneaux graduated from Howard University with a degree in broadcast journalism in 2007, just as the Great Recession was kicking in. He faced a dwindling media landscape — and more than $100,000 of private student loans.

Arceneaux writes about how student loan debt has affected every aspect of his life in the essay collection, I Don’t Want to Die Poor. His previous memoirI Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé, was a New York Times bestseller that helped put him on the path toward paying off his college loans. Even so, he says he still doesn’t feel financially secure — especially amid the economic downturn that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m still [as] worried about my earning potential as anyone else is right now,” he says. “Everything is so fragile and it’s just really scary. It makes me really sad for other people, who I know don’t have it as fortunate as the both of us talking to each other right now.”

Despite the stress of his college loans, Arceneaux doesn’t regret the risk he took — instead he questions why working-class students are put in the position to assume overwhelming debts for an education.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘Would you go back and do anything differently?’ No! That’s the wrong question,” he says. “The question more people should be asking is: Why [do] so many people in this country have to go through that? Why should I have to take out a six-figure loan just to have the same access as a lot of other people?”

Interview Highlights

On continuing to struggle financially, despite experiencing success in his career

I became a New York Times bestselling author the same week I lost my health insurance. … I do have a foot in both worlds, because I just really know how difficult it is to attain social mobility. And I say this with respect, but I don’t think most people in media and entertainment recognize that even being able to exist within these industries — which are really designed for people who can afford sacrifice — that most people can’t afford those sacrifices. … I think oftentimes what’s missing is the working-class perspective, because while the book is … about chasing a dream, it’s also about real economic anxiety, which I heard is a topic people love to talk about — and yet don’t really hear [about] from people [with] my background’s perspective.

On being worried about both his physical and financial health right now

I just turned 36 on Easter. I’m black. I’m in Harlem. I was actually planning to go to Texas and spend more time there. But it’s not the best place to go either. So it’s not lost on me that of the people [who] are dying, they are basically my [race and class]. So I am worried about my health. In terms of my finances, much of the book … I talk about student loans, but also write about the fact that we can’t always control our fate, as evidenced by the fact that I graduated during the first Great Recession and now, on the heels of me finally feeling like I have some security in my life — which for a lot of people my age was really their first time to feel it — now we’re in the wave of a pandemic. So it’s very scary.

On his mom’s reluctance to co-sign for his student loans 

It wasn’t out of spite. It wasn’t jealousy. It was out of a real, genuine concern for her child, knowing how difficult this country makes it for people like us. … She apologized for that, really not long after it happened, and has supported me along the way. It’s my guilt and my shame that I carry, because to me, my struggles with that debt — which impacts her credit — I don’t want to be another black man letting my mama down. That’s what that is. But even my mom, to her credit, is like, “Boy, stop worrying about that. I’m not worried about that. You’re doing the best you can. You’re gonna pay it off.”

On missing a payment for his student loans and getting relentless calls from collection agencies

They will hound you. Some people are nicer than others. Sometimes I’ve gotten calls as early as 7 or 8 a.m. … They call you whenever. They don’t care. Some people are nice. But the thing is, they’ll call me and say, “You owe such and such and such.” But if I don’t have $3,000 to give you that day, or even $1800, I don’t have it. And then they say, “Maybe I’ll have some options”… But the reality is you don’t really have any options — either pay or your credit is going to go to hell.

The people that are mean sometimes, which is really interesting, they are like, “Well, why don’t you have it?” And then start giving you career advice. And what annoys me about that is like, “OK. With all due respect, you’re working at a call center. So you are speaking down to me based on the presumption that because I can’t pay my bills, I’m broke or poor, and so by virtue, I should be treated less than?”

On how his life might have been different if he had come out as gay sooner

I would have gotten scholarship money, because there were organizations that provided scholarships for [queer] students, particularly those in need, who might have wanted to get away. But I wasn’t ready to face the truth about myself. … I helped one of my friends with her essay that got glowing reviews and won some money. I think if I accepted myself sooner, I’d probably just have an easier life all around. But, you know, you are who you are until you aren’t. Everybody works at their own pace. I would have liked less debt, but it would have been actually not probably the safest way for me all around to come out then. I’m not saying my parents would’ve hurt me, but I just don’t think it would’ve been the best environment for me, scholarship money or not.