Passing Judgment: Sentencing in the College Admission Scandal

MICHAEL TEJADA—The College Admission Scandal 

On March 12, 2019, the United States Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts unsealed criminal indictments that arose from an investigation that was codenamed Operation Varsity Blues. In those indictments, the government charged numerous individuals—parents, university coaches and personnel, administrators of standardized exams, and more—with involvement in a criminal conspiracy to gain high school students admission into several prestigious universities.

The conspiracy that the government alleged was elaborate and multifaceted. But, in general, the scheme worked in two ways: (1) parents would pay money to cheat on their child’s standardized exams, or (2) parents would pay money to fabricate their child’s athletic achievements so that the university would admit the child as an athletic recruit.

According to the government, these actions violated Section 1349 of Title 18 of the United States Code, which prohibits individuals from attempting or conspiring to commit, among other things, mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. In essence, the government argued that the conspiracy involved the sending of fraudulent documents across state lines and deprived universities and other entities of their right to the honest services of their personnel.

While some defendants maintain their innocence, others have entered guilty pleas. And while these plea agreements contain sentencing recommendations, the final sentence is a matter that a judge ultimately decides.


The Federal Sentencing Guidelines provide a uniform set of rules to sentence individuals who violate federal law. While these guidelines are not binding, they provide a framework that is meant to ensure that individuals who commit similar crimes receive similar sentences.

Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the trial judge determines a sentence using two factors: (1) the offense level of the crime committed and (2) the defendant’s criminal history. In these cases, the government and defendants have disagreed about the offense level.

Each crime has a base offense level. However, the Sentencing Guidelines allow for an increase or decrease in the offense level in certain circumstances.

For example, under the Sentencing Guidelines, a defendant who pleads guilty in a timely manner can receive a reduction of two or three base points in his offense level for accepting guilt of wrongdoing. The defendants who have pleaded guilty in these cases have received that deduction.

The government, however, sought an increase in the offense level because the defendants had inflicted “pecuniary harm” on universities and testing services, both of which the government labeled as victims. These harms included the loss of the honest services of university and testing services employees, the costs incurred to perform internal investigations and revise policies, and the possible decrease in revenue resulting from damage to reputation. However, the sentencing judge rejected this argument because the defendants could not foresee these harms or because these harms lack a precise dollar value.

As a result, most defendants find themselves in a category with an offense Level of 7 and a criminal History of I. For these defendants, the Guidelines recommend a term of imprisonment between zero and six months. Attorneys for the government and defense have then argued what the sentence should be within this range.

The government has succeeded in arguing that the length of imprisonment should be commensurate with the extent to which parents involved their children in criminal behavior. In one case, a parent who had a test proctor change her child’s exam answers without her child’s knowledge received a prison sentence of two weeks. In contrast, a parent who had his son pretend to be a high-school tennis star received a prison sentence of four months. And a parent whose child’s application—albeit without the child’s knowledge according to the parent—falsely stated the child was a minority and first-time student received a prison sentence of three weeks.

And while prison sentences constitute one aspect of punishment, guilty individuals also face lengthy periods of probation and hefty fines for their transgressions.

Given courts’ desire to sentence similar defendants to similar terms of imprisonment, the range of prison sentences has likely been set for those who have pleaded guilty. However, individuals who proceed to trial and are convicted can expect their sentences to be higher