Multiple students sue schools in admissions scam, including UT reject

Austin
Texas tennis coach Michael Center is accused of accepting nearly $100,000 to help a student get into school
Michael Center leaves court after posting bond on March 12. (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — More students have been added to a lawsuit against the parties involved in an admissions scheme that allowed children of rich parents to attend elite schools by means of bribery and cheating. The University of Texas at Austin is one of the entities named in the lawsuit. 

Stanford University students Erica Olsen and Kalea Woods filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. According to her attorney Thursday afternoon, Olsen will be dropping out of the suit. However, others have been added to it, including Keri Fidelak, Lauren Fidelak, Tyler Bendis, Julia Bendis, James Johnson and Nicholas James Johnson.

 Olsen had been rejected in 2017 by Yale University and Woods had been rejected by USC. Nicholas James Johnson had applied to both UT Austin and Stanford and was rejected.

Johnson had a SAT score of 1500 out of 1600 and a 4.65 GPA. The lawsuit lists him as a Varsity hockey player and “a star of the school math team.” He and his father paid between $50-$100 for each application.

The defendants named in the suit include admitted ringleader William “Rick'” Singer, his company Key Worldwide Foundation, the College and Career Network LLC. and the universities outed by the FBI investigation. 

Background 

FBI investigators busted a college admissions scam in which Rick Singer was paid more than $25 million by 33 rich parents to bribe NCAA Division-1 coaches to get students admitted to elite universities through the athletic track or to help the students cheat on college entrance exams like the SAT or ACT to help them get into elite schools. 

The schools that were busted in the investigation include UT Austin, Stanford, Yale, Georgetown, Wake Forest, University of  Southern California, UCLA and the University of San Diego. 

Four Texans were among the 50 people charged in the scam including UT Tennis Coach Michael Center who was fired Wednesday after he was charged. 

FIRED: UT tennis coach fired after indictment in connection with admissions scam

The plaintiffs claim that any person who applied for admission to one of the schools between 2012 and 2018, paid an application fee and was rejected would be considered Members of the Class and would be eligible for monetary compensation and punitive damages if the lawsuit was won. They are seeking class-action status, which must be approved by a judge.

If that happens, this lawsuit would thus encompass thousands of people across the country. At UT alone, in the 2017-18 school year, more than 50,000 people applied for admission to the school and only 19,482 students were admitted. 

The lawsuit claims the universities were not truthful on their websites and during the admissions process. 

In the case of UT, the lawsuit claims the school misrepresented its transparency about admissions. The following statement was found in a document outlining the University of Texas system’s admissions best practices

“The suspicion of a double standard that favors well-connected students is not new, particularly for more selective institutions. Ensuring that fair and transparent admissions process exists across the U.T. System is necessary to maintain public trust. Recruitment and admissions policies that are disclosed to the public are consistent with stated university goals garners public trust that student admissions are centered on merit.” 

In response to the lawsuit, UT spokesperson JB Bird issued this statement to KXAN: 

“Like many students and families across the country, we are also outraged that parents, outside actors and university employees may have committed fraud surrounding admissions at universities. The University of Texas has a thorough, holistic admissions process. The actions alleged by federal prosecutors against one UT employee were not in line with that policy and may have been criminal. They do not reflect our admissions process.”

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The lawsuit asks that compensation be paid to the Class Members by Singer, his company and the Universities for recoupment of application fees, punitive damages “in an amount sufficient to punish the Defendants and deter future conduct” and restitution. 

In an email statement today from Zimmerman Reed LLP, the law firm representing these clients, the attorneys clarified why these students are suing. 

“The students who filed the complaint didn’t receive what they paid for—to participate in an application process free of fraud,” the statement read. “According to the complaint, these schools represented that their admission process would be based on the applicants’ merits, considering their character and performance. Instead, the students allege that what they got was a process tainted by bribes and school officials who failed to assure an honest application process.”

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While UT, Yale, Georgetown and Wake Forest don’t geographically fall within the jurisdiction of the court, the lawsuit claims students from California attend or apply to attend those schools, and so they belong in the lawsuit filed in Northern California. 

UT Austin admissions 

Admissions at the University of Texas at Austin have grown more competitive over the years. 

In 2017 the university again increased its admission standards. Automatic admission for students is now only available to the students graduating in the top six percent of their high school class. The Top 10% rule, which was passed more than two decades ago, originally required all public universities in the state to admit all Texans who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class. UT Austin has adjusted their automatic admittance percentage since then as the numbers of applicants increase.

In 2013, internal and external investigations were conducted to evaluate the admissions process at UT Austin. Kroll Associates and the UT System produced reports on the matter. In response to these reports, the UT System Board of Regents passed new admissions policies for all of its institutions in 2015. 

These changes were designed to ensure fairness, transparency, and that no unqualified applicant would be admitted. 

The new policy explains that university presidents have on rare occasions, the authority to admit a qualified student who might not otherwise be admitted through the normal process. These decisions should also avoid conflicts of interest and be reported to the UT System Chancellor at the end of the admissions cycle. “In no case shall such an admissions decision displace another student who would otherwise be admitted,” this section of the policy states. 

James Seo, the director of academic affairs at Berkeley2 Academy in Austin, explained that the admissions standards can be different for students who are athletics recruits. 

He explained that many athletic recruits, some at UT, have come to Berkeley2 for help getting their test scores up. 

“They do allow coaches a lot of leeway in terms of recruiting those athletes and allowing them to get in with a minimum ACT score and a minimum GPA,” Seo said of UT and other NCAA Division 1 schools. 

“We’ve known students with strong athletic talents were recruitable and have an advantage over students who don’t’ have those talents,” Seo said. 

He wonders whether in the future if schools may add another step in allowing coaches to get an athlete admission at a school. Seo said at many schools, an application is usually looked over by two or three admissions officers, he thinks athletics applications should have similar checks and balances. 

“It’s not a perfect system, but it is a system that we have,” he said. “But it can be improved to give a fairer system to everyone.”

He explained that a student’s GPA and SAT scores don’t always determine whether they make it into UT. 

He said news like the admissions scandal gives him even more reason to talk with students about their options. He tries to assure students that even if they don’t get into the school they had initially hoped for, they can find another school that offers a good fit. 

“When this type of news breaks the people who it hurts most are the students,” Seo said. “We always encourage our students to keep working hard and improve not just their academics but also their personal lives.”

Vicki Ross, president of CollegeStrategy, a college counseling firm based in Austin, attended UT back in the 1970s. Now she works as a college counselor helping students who are applying to UT.

“It’s extremely competitive,” she said. 

She notes she has seen a change in UT’s admission trends since the Top 10% rule went into effect.

“In the last 15 years, I feel that UT has really stepped up their game in doing that holistic review, I see a lot of students that are not auto-admits get into The University of Texas,” she explained, adding that in her experience UT has placed more value at looking at what a student will bring to campus outside of their GPA and scores. 

Ross is skeptical that this lawsuit by rejected students will be successful, she fears the claims the students are making will be hard to substantiate.

“The thing you have to think about is, you can be a perfect student, 4.0, take all of the advanced AP classes that there are, have perfect scores, and still not get into many of these schools. It would be difficult to figure out how that’s affected people who haven’t been accepted to some of these schools.”

She also noted this admissions scheme has highlighted the growing anxiety for parents and students about getting a admitted to a school. But Ross thinks it’s important to remember that just because a student is rejected from a school as a freshman applicant doesn’t mean they’ve lost their shot to attend a school like UT Austin. 

“You can be a great applicant as a transfer and I see it all the time.”

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