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When academic cheating is a crime: The college admissions scandal

When the college admissions scandal recently broke, involving some of the most prominent figures in entertainment and business in the country today, people experienced a range of emotions: shock, dismay, disgust and surprise. Many people didn't realize that paying someone to take your child's college entrance exams or bribing your way onto a college sports team to gain admission was a federal crime.

A total of 33 parents and a number of college and university coaches were charged with engaging in a well-established scheme to game the admission process in favor of students whose parents could afford to pay the right price.

The wealthy have long used their money to give their kids an edge when it comes to getting into great schools, but those have traditionally been legal. For example, parents may pay for expensive admission test prep classes, private tutors and the like. Wealthier children are more likely to play expensive sports that can help them gain admission to top schools. Legacies can give a kid preferential admission, so just being the child of someone who has already attended that school can help.

The parents in this case, however, took things too far. They paid people to take their children's admission exams for them. They bribed coaches to draft non-athletic kids as athletes using fake resumes. They paid a businessman "fixer" for his services -- and he's already pled guilty to racketeering, money laundering, conspiracy and obstruction of justice, among other charges. Many of the parents and coaches involved will also likely face jail time.

Essentially, these actions are illegal because it violates the right of honest services and involves a conspiracy to defraud the schools involved. Paying bribes and turning in fictional test scores to the schools puts the parents on the wrong side of the law -- and taking the bribes makes the coaches' actions criminal.

Why do people who have legitimate means to accomplish their goals (in this case, a better future for their children) turn to something illegal when they might accomplish the same thing legally through other means? Usually, at the root of any white collar crime is the belief that nobody is really being harmed by their actions. It's hard to visualize the schools as "victims."

If you've made a mistake that's put you on the wrong side of the law, get experienced legal advice right away.

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