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14 People Who Pleaded Guilty Face Prison Time In College Admissions Case


So the actress Felicity Huffman, most famous for her role on "Desperate Housewives," is among a group of 13 wealthy parents who have agreed to plead guilty to charges of fraud in the college admissions scandal. Prosecutors are pushing for prison time for what court filings call a nationwide conspiracy that involve cheating on college entrance exams and also falsifying athletic achievements to get students into elite universities. Now those parents and the athletic coach who aided their supposed fraud could potentially face jail time. NPR's Elissa Nadworny covers education. She joins us this morning. Hi, Elissa.


GREENE: So what exactly does this mean for these parents who are pleading guilty here?

NADWORNY: Right. So more than a dozen parents and one college coach have agreed to plead guilty. They were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud in connection with the scheme. So according to prosecutors, those charges can carry a punishment of up to 20 years.


NADWORNY: But if parents cooperate with prosecutors, they're likely to get a much lighter sentence. Felicity Huffman's plea agreement, prosecutors recommended a prison sentence of, quote, "the low end of the sentencing range." In other cases, they recommend 12 to 18 months behind bars.

GREENE: OK. But she could still be serving, like, a year in prison, potentially. I mean, is she saying anything about this yet?

NADWORNY: So she released a statement with an apology, saying she was, quote, "ashamed," and has, quote, "deep regret" over what she's done. She also says her daughter knew nothing about her actions, and she apologized to students who, quote, "work hard every day to get into college."

GREENE: So prosecutors talked about - I mean, they've charged 50 people here. I mean, this is $25 million scam, they said. What about everyone else?

NADWORNY: Yeah. So we're still kind of waiting to see. You know, there are some folks who appear to be fighting the charges, like Lori Loughlin, the actress best known for "Full House." It's pretty amazing to kind of see the attention that this story has captured. So I mean, I've just been kind of rapt as an education reporter.

GREENE: I'm sure.

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

GREENE: I mean, do you think it's deserved, that kind of attention? Like, does this feel like something momentous that could really - I mean, it's definitely brought up a big conversation about class and about the idea of college, which in our country, we want to believe is, like, a fair process. Right?

NADWORNY: Yeah. Exactly. It's interesting because, you know, these schools, these highly selective schools, they just serve about 1 percent of all college students. So it's been really interesting to see kind of how this is such a small group of students, but it's really captured our kind of frustration with wealth and privilege and what that means in terms of college access.

GREENE: As we started reporting on this, I mean, everyone in higher education seemed to say, like, yeah, it's a problem - we all knew that it was a problem for so long, and nothing has really changed the system, changed the culture. Could this be the moment? Or is there a feeling in the field of education that, I mean, it's just so entrenched that it's going to be very hard to change the system?

NADWORNY: Well, I have seen a lot of conversations about kind of how do we get low-income students to kind of get into college? It's certainly renewed a conversation around legacy admissions, which is the system that gives extra points to students whose parents or siblings already attended a specific school. And there's also a renewed interest in schools that don't require the college entrance exams like the ACT or the SAT, though the College Board, the company behind the SAT, says using an outside assessment actually makes it harder to pull off fraud.

But even this idea of college as nonprofit status, like, should they have this if they're not really an open-access organization or serving the greater public? So these are kind of the things that I'm keeping an eye on, and we'll see what happens.

GREENE: All right. Quite a story to follow. NPR education reporter Elissa Nadworny. Thanks so much.

NADWORNY: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.