When the actress Lori Loughlin goes before a federal judge on Friday to be sentenced for her role in the college admissions scandal, it will bring a close to what has been, for her, an agonizing 17 months: Charged with conspiring to pass her daughters off as rowers so that they could be admitted to the University of Southern California, Ms. Loughlin was ridiculed as the embodiment of Hollywood entitlement. Acting jobs dried up. She and her husband were forced to resign from their exclusive country club. And in recent weeks, they sold their extensive Bel Air estate for nearly $10 million less than its $28 million asking price, downsizing to a $9.5 million “farmhouse” in the San Fernando Valley.
Beyond the consequences for Ms. Loughlin and three dozen other well-heeled parents charged in the sprawling case, the admissions scandal of 2019 has propelled changes at colleges and universities. Some have drawn new lines between fund-raising and admissions or athletic recruitment. Others have put in place safeguards to ensure that students admitted as athletes are, in fact, athletes. More broadly, the case stirred conversations around the many advantages wealthy students enjoy in the college admissions process, including the help of high-priced tutors and coaches, opportunities to excel in sports that open college doors, and even the option of large donations that can buy access.
For all of those changes, however, the nation’s largest college admissions case, which federal law enforcement authorities called Operation Varsity Blues, did not spur as sweeping an overhaul to the admissions system as some had expected.
“In some ways, the bad news about the Varsity Blues scandal was that it was so extreme, it enabled people to think it was ‘them’ — and not us,” said Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer on education at Harvard, who leads a national effort to reform college admissions as part of the Making Caring Common Project.
More than 50 people were charged in the case, which involved cheating on admissions tests and bribes to college coaches to falsely designate students as athletic recruits. More than 40 people have pleaded guilty or agreed to plead guilty, including William Singer, the college admissions consultant who worked with almost all of the families in the case.
Ms. Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, pleaded guilty to conspiring with Mr. Singer to pay $500,000 for their two daughters to be admitted to the University of Southern California as crew recruits, though neither girl took part in the sport. If the judge accepts Ms. Loughlin’s plea on Friday afternoon, she will be sentenced to two months in prison as part of an agreement with prosecutors. The couple was to appear at their sentencing hearings via videoconferencing because of concerns about Covid-19.
No school was more deeply embroiled in the scandal than U.S.C., where a former top athletics official was among those indicted. This week, the school acknowledged for the first time that the athletic department had passed off wealthy or connected applicants as recruits more frequently than was revealed by the Justice Department’s case. In January, The Los Angeles Times reported that U.S.C. had fired three senior athletics officials who had not been charged in the scheme.
In a statement on Thursday, the university said that it had discovered that, dating back to 2012, roughly a dozen students a year had been admitted as recruited athletes but ultimately did not play on a team. While some did not play for legitimate reasons, the school said, others were clients of Mr. Singer, who were falsely presented as athletic recruits in exchange for donations to the athletic department or bribes. Still others, not tied to Mr. Singer, were also falsely presented as athletes, “due to the past giving and/or potential future generosity of their families, or personal connections with employees in our athletics department,” the university said.
The university said that the admissions department was unaware of the fraud, which was perpetrated by “a small number of athletics department employees,” all of whom “have been disciplined and/or are no longer employed by the university.”
Since the case was announced in March 2019, U.S.C. has made changes to its admissions process for athletes, including requiring each head coach to certify in writing that a student is being recruited for their athletic ability, and mandating that an Office of Athletic Compliance confirm that each admitted student ultimately joins a team. The university said that a task force led by Charles Zukoski, the new provost, and Mike Bohn, the new director of athletics, was examining whether to make further reforms to the admissions process.
Other schools, including Harvard, have put in place new, or newly official, policies around fund-raising. Harvard was not involved in the admissions case but has come under scrutiny for issues involving donations. This year the university codified its policies on gifts; under the new rules, it will not solicit gifts from any donor known to have a family member applying for admission to Harvard.
The University of Virginia now asks students being recruited for athletic teams to sign a pledge that they will actually join the team. It also prohibits its athletic department from soliciting or accepting gifts from families of student-athletes while they are being recruited.
The scandal may also have contributed to growing criticism of standardized tests in college admissions. But it ultimately took a more disruptive force — the coronavirus pandemic — to cause what appears likely to be a sea change in the use of those tests.
With many students unable to take the SAT or ACT because of cancellations, hundreds of schools, including all of the Ivy League, have made submitting SAT or ACT scores optional for the coming admissions cycle. The University of California, which had already been under pressure to stop requiring the tests, voted in May to phase them out permanently. While other schools have described the change as temporary, admissions officers said it was unlikely that schools would revert to their old policies, given evidence that the tests advantage wealthy students.
“There’s not very many examples of colleges and universities moving to test-optional that then move right back,” said Jonathan Burdick, the vice provost for enrollment at Cornell University, adding that he expected to see “a real reset” on the use of standardized tests. Cornell has announced only that it will be test-optional for this year, and has said that it will evaluate its experience before deciding on a permanent policy.
After maintaining her innocence for months, Ms. Loughlin in May pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud. Her husband, Mr. Giannulli, who prosecutors say was more involved in the scheme, has pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud and honest services wire and mail fraud.
If the judge accepts Mr. Giannulli’s plea, he will serve five months in prison.
Lawyers for Ms. Loughlin and Mr. Giannulli did not respond to requests for comment.
While OK! Magazine reported in recent days that the couple’s younger daughter, Olivia Jade Giannulli, was throwing a “going away party” for her parents on Thursday night, complete with cake and farewell speeches from friends and family, it is not clear when Ms. Loughlin and Mr. Giannulli would serve their terms.
The coronavirus has spread widely in the nation’s jails and prisons, and so far more than 1,000 prisoners and correctional officers have died. At least two defendants in the admissions case have been released from prison early in recent months because of conditions they were being held in or because they were at risk for more severe complications from the virus. Ms. Loughlin and Mr. Giannulli would most likely have the option to defer serving their prison terms if they wanted to.