Words don’t fade away for those involved in the college admission scandal.
Corrections and clarifications: The former president of the University of Oklahoma is David Boren.
The students implicated in the college admissions scandal are starting to feel the consequences of their parents’ actions. At least two universities have booted students, to calls of “Justice!” from the corners of the Internet — and more may follow suit.
But don’t expect another fix of schadenfreude.
It’s unusual to hear what disciplinary action a college takes toward a student — even students embroiled in high-profile incidents like this one.
Colleges largely can and do discipline students behind closed doors. In fact, they are required to keep such actions under wraps as part of The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). That federal law prevents colleges from releasing information about a student’s academic record, in an effort to protect students’ privacy.
But keeping information private about the college admissions scandal is also one way colleges can avoid talking about it.
What each university has said
We already know a bit about how universities have responded to charges that rich parents got their kids into elite colleges using their money and fraud. But details are scant, and students’ names were withheld.
Yale responded first when its president, Peter Salovey, announced it had rescinded the admission of a student found to have faked his or her academic credential.
The University of Southern California followed, saying it had frozen the accounts of the students tied to the scandal. (That means the affected students can’t register for new classes or get their transcripts.) The university went on to state disciplinary action might include revoked admissions or expulsion.
Most recently, Stanford also quietly released an update: It would revoke the admission of a student tied to the Singer scandal. The university also wiped the college credits that student had earned.
The other five universities named in the scandal have said less about what measures they were taking.
The University of San Diego’s spokeswoman, Pamela Payton, said the university had identified one current student was tied to the scandal, but wouldn’t share more due to “privacy issues.”
It was also unclear what would happen at Georgetown.
“Each student case is being addressed individually, with each student being given the opportunity to be heard before any action is taken,” wrote Matt Wilson, a spokesman for the university.
Wake Forest spokeswoman Cheryl Walker said one of the students mentioned in the indictment was enrolled at the school, but that she wouldn’t be facing punishment.
“The university has no information that would indicate she had knowledge of the alleged fraudulent transaction or that she was admitted on the basis of fraudulent academic or athletic information,” Walker told USA TODAY in an email.
And the University of California-Los Angeles has said it would review its records for two admitted students and said it may take immediate action, “up to and including cancelling their admission.” The University of Texas at Austin didn’t respond immediately to requests for comment.
While the colleges have so far declined to identify the students involved, it’s possible to do so independently, in some cases. The most high-profile student implicated might be social media personality Olivia Jade Giannulli. Feds say her parents, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli and “Full House” actress Lori Loughlin, paid to have her athletic credentials faked in a bid to get her accepted into USC. The university didn’t identify her when it said it had frozen student accounts, but it’s easy to trace the scandal to her.
Federal authorities have not charged any students in the admissions scandal, and in many cases, details in court documents indicate students were unaware of the parents’ actions. Some did pose for staged photos or submit samples of their handwriting for someone else to mimic on a test, the feds say.
What they mean
The language Yale first used, “rescinding admission” may sound wonky, but it may actually be why the public heard about the university’s actions in the first place.
Here’s how universities could interpret the situation: If students lied on their application, they weren’t truly admitted to the school. And if that’s the case, they wouldn’t be covered by FERPA, said Kevin Kruger, president of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, a group for college staffers. That could mean the colleges would be free to disclose their actions without fear of government reprisal, Kruger said.
An expulsion, in contrast, would require a hearing. University actions that come as a result of the hearing would be part of a student’s academic record, which again means the public probably wouldn’t hear about it from the university.
“This is always difficult when there’s public knowledge of something and the institution often can’t comment on the actual actions they took,” Kruger said.
There’s another option, one the general public is even less likely to find out about.
University administrators could simply sit down with a student and advise them it may not be in their best interest to stay at the institution, Kruger said.
In this scenario, the student doesn’t have a mark on an academic record, and the university no longer has a problematic pupil. The school would also not be required to say why the student left. Administrators can confirm the student is no longer enrolled school and leave it at that.
A university could also punish students, but let them stay enrolled. That too would be private.
A student’s sudden departure from a campus often follows a high-profile event. Say students are found to have said something racist. That’s permissible under the First Amendment, but their doing so may make it untenable for them to remain on campus.
In 2018, an online group revealed that two students at Davidson College in North Carolina had been posting racist content. The campus of the selective, private college erupted in protest. A few days later, the college announced the two students were no longer enrolled at the university, though it wasn’t clear if administrators took action or if the students choose to leave of their volition.
Colleges are sometimes crystal clear in their punishments if the incident is high-profile enough, said Frank LoMonte, a communication and journalism professor at the University of Florida.
For example, University of Oklahoma President David Boren in 2015 posted on Twitter his plans to expel two students who lead a racist chant.
Universities can effectively use FERPA as a way to shield information they would rather not divulge, LoMonte said. They can brush FERPA aside when they think there’s public goodwill to be gained in sharing information.
In the case of Oklahoma, “their concern for not letting the outcry go unaddressed overrode their concern about being sanctioned by the federal government,” LoMonte said. “And they knew they wouldn’t be.”
Students’ privacy under FERPA, LoMonte said, should be interpreted in the same way as the expectation of privacy under common law. That is, an individual has it until they do something to thrust themselves into the national spotlight.
Falsifying test scores to gain admittance to selective universities as a part of a nationwide scam that captures public interest would probably meet that bar.
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