A major U.S. college admissions scam, described by officials as the largest of its kind prosecuted by the Justice Department, has fueled widespread concerns over fairness in the system and led to swift action across affected universities and institutions.
The $25 million nationwide scam, revealed by federal agents on Tuesday, involved wealthy parents cheating via college entrance exams or bribing university administrators or coaches to help place their children in highly regarded schools.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which regulates athletes of more than 1,000 North American institutes and conferences, said it will launch a probe into the scheme. The implicated coaches are alleged to have helped recruit students under the guise of athletes, regardless of their sporting ability.
"The charges brought forth ... are troubling and should be a concern for all of higher education," the association said in a statement.
"We are looking into these allegations to determine the extent to which NCAA rules may have been violated."
A day after federal agents charged 50 people involved in the scheme, the University of Southern California announced that all affected applicants would be denied admission to the school.
Students currently enrolled in the school who may be connected to the fraud will also be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, university spokesman Gary Polakovic said on Wednesday.
Several other universities mentioned in the investigation, including Stanford, the University of Texas, Wake Forest and UCLA, have either fired or placed on leave the indicted coaches at their schools.
The case implicates powerful movers and shakers across the country, including Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, as well as prominent business leaders, university coaches and administrators at elite colleges.
The impact of the fraud also rippled through the business sector. Manuel Henriquez, a parent caught up in the scam, "voluntarily stepped aside" Wednesday as the CEO and chairman of Hercules Capital, according to a press release from the business development company.
The alleged orchestrator of the fraud is 58-year-old William "Rick" Singer from Newport Beach, California, who operates Edge College &Career Network LLC (The Key), a for-profit college counseling and preparation business.
Singer is charged with using The Key and Key Worldwide Foundation, a nonprofit that he established as a purported charity, to allegedly help clients cheat on standardized exams and bribe coaches.
Steven Mercer, who operates Mercer Educational Consulting, headquartered in Santa Monica, California, told China Daily that the scheme is "outrageous".
"We are educators at heart ... and the fact that there was such an extreme abuse of the laws and the values that we all hold, is really disappointing," he said.
However, he does not believe the college admission scam to be a widespread issue in the U.S..
"I know that as an independent educational consultant, that abides by the highest ethical standards, and I'm not the only one, there are a lot of us that do so. We don't support people that are trying to cheat in any way, even if it's legal cheating," he said.
Bari Norman, the co-founder and president of Expert Admissions, an educational consulting firm based in New York, said that scandals involving athletic recruitment have occurred in some U.S. universities before, but it is a little surprising to see it happening at famed institutions like Yale or Stanford.
Arun Ponnusamy, chief academic officer at Collegewise, a U.S. counseling organization with global operations, said part of the reason that these wealthy parents want to get their children into prestige colleges is that they want to uphold their social status.
"A lot of it is about prestige and reputation; it has nothing to do with education," he said.
Authorities said it is unclear whether more charges will be filed or whether more people are involved. It is also unclear whether any of the students will face charges.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in a statement issued on Wednesday called the scheme "disgraceful" and said her department is "looking closely" at the issue, according to The Associated Press.