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'It's Stunning It Ran As Long As It Did': Former UNF President Discusses College Admissions Scandal

U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling answered questions after announcing indictments in a sweeping college admissions bribery scandal during a news conference in Boston, Tuesday, March 12, 2019.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling answered questions after announcing indictments in a sweeping college admissions bribery scandal during a news conference in Boston, Tuesday, March 12, 2019.

After dozens were charged in a wide-ranging college admissions cheating and bribery scandal last week, the former President of the University of North Florida said Friday on The Florida Roundup that he wasn’t entirely surprised by some of the tactics used in the scam  but was “stunned” by the scope and that it went on as long as it did.

The scheme involved university administrators designating under-qualified students as athletes so they could get into schools through a “side door,” as well as fixing SAT and ACT scores.

“The wide number that came in through that side door just stuns me,” said John Delaney, former Jacksonville Mayor and President Emeritus of the University of North Florida. “It’s stunning it ran as long as it did.”Listen to a discussion about the massive college admissions scam on The Florida Roundup, March 15, 2019.

The scandal has brought into focus the pressure and stress that now accompanies the process of getting into college in the United States.

Since 2011, William "Rick" Singer of Newport Beach, California, the scheme's alleged ringleader, operated a sham non-profit called The Key Worldwide Foundation and received more than $25 million in bribe payments from parents seeking to get their kids into colleges and universities, according to federal documents.

Among those facing federal charges is Mark Riddell, a Harvard graduate and administrator at IMG Academy prep school in Bradenton, Florida. In exchange for bribes, Riddell took the tests in place of students or helped them cheat, according to documents. In order to do so, he coordinated with administrators for the SAT and ACT exams.

Riddell has been suspended from IMG Academy and faces conspiracy and wire fraud charges. He was charged Tuesday in federal court in Boston along with nearly 50 other people, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.

The case also implicated Robert Zangrillo, the CEO of Miami-based investment firm Dragon Global, one of the main investors in the Magic City Innovation District project in Little Haiti.

Beyond test taking, Delaney said he was most stunned that the scheme allowed so many students to be admitted to universities after pretending to be athletes.

He called it an “open secret” in college admissions: that “standards for athletes are significantly lower than for the rest of the student body.”

But he said the sheer number of students that got in that way over so many years was “stunning” and said it’s shocking that the admissions did not raise red flags for athletic directors.

“That’s the eye-opener to the public: it’s just right in your face,” Delaney said.

Colleen Wright, the Miami Herald’s education reporter, said on The Florida Roundup that the news of the scheme is “discouraging to high school seniors who work hard” to get into college.

“So much goes into college admissions there's your GPA, your standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, resumes,” she said. “It’s frustrating because ... only the best are supposed to get in but we’re seeing there’s a back door, a side door.”

In January, Wright wrote about high school student Kamilah Campbell of Miami Gardens, who was accused of cheating on her SAT after she improved her score by 330 points, from 900 to 1230. Because of the jump, which came after she enrolled in a test prep course, Campbell's scores got flagged by the College Board.

“It shows you there’s sort of a ‘Tale of Two Cities,’” Wright said. “There’s this whole scheme for the rich and famous and then there’s a student who really did try.”

For his part, Delaney offered a word of advice for students navigating the college application process: there is a school for everybody.

Despite the growing pressure to get a four-year college degree from a high caliber institution, “you can get a great education in the U.S. at a lot of schools,” he said.

“After that first job, many people don’t care where you went to school, it’s really gonna be about your performance,” he said. “Find the school that’s the best fit for that individual student and make the best of it.”

Copyright 2019 WLRN 91.3 FM