Wilmington-based college admissions company reacts to federal indictment of wealthy parents cheating

Published: Mar. 14, 2019 at 10:04 AM EDT
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WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - A Wilmington-based college admissions preparedness company is sharing its perspective after federal prosecutors accused 50 people in an admissions scheme involving millions of dollars, bribery at selective universities, and cheating on standardized tests.

On Tuesday, a federal indictment was announced after a criminal investigation of Operation Varsity Blues, in which parents allegedly paid a college admissions business to cheat on the SAT and ACT and bribe college coaches to lie so students would be admitted.

Athletic coaches from Yale, Wake Forest, Stanford, the University of Southern California, and Georgetown are among those accused.

In southeastern North Carolina, the founder of Prep U4 Success, a college admissions preparedness company not connected to Tuesday’s indictment, is voicing his frustration and advising families to be cautious before opening their wallets.

“What kind of message does this send to the students who are trying to do the right thing?” said John Russo, CEO and founder of Prep U4 Success. “Here you can have privilege that can circumvent, buy their way into college. Then you have students trying to do the right thing possibly being eliminated if there was only a number of seats that were in play for that student. That’s what angers me.”

Russo’s company offers free and paid services to help parents and students navigate the process of applying to college, including information about financial aid, GPA, standardized tests, essays and more. It costs $385 to attend the three-hour workshop, which includes an 80-page workbook, according to the Prep U4 Success website.

“There are ways of doing it without deceit,” said Russo. “I hope that students aren’t discouraged. The ones that are really doing the right thing, working really hard, they shouldn’t be discouraged or feel that they need to be sneaky or find angles.”

In the competitive college admissions process shrouded in mystery, Russo said it's a reality that companies following the law can help families access necessary knowledge.

“I don’t want parents to worry about reaching out to consultants or college prep companies, because there are so many legitimate companies out there,” said Russo. “It would be disappointing for parents to hold back information knowing what they don’t know. Parents need to know what they don’t know.”

In the business of applying to college, Russo advises families to steer clear of any companies that offer to fill out forms and instead search for an informational service. He encourages parents to read testimonials and vet them before utilizing a paid service.

“We want to make sure that there are legitimate companies," Russo said. "We don’t fill out the FAFSA (free application for federal student aid). We don’t fill out applications. We provide the information that parents need to do the process.”

Russo offers advice for families interested in applying to college. He advises parents who go online for information to check when an article is published to ensure it is timely.

“Grades, yes. Essay, very important but there are other factors," he said. "There are so many other elements that the committees are looking for to see ‘who is this student?’ They want to know who this student is, and if it matches all across the board, there’s an advantage. They don’t have to worry (about) ‘my test score was low’ because there are other factors that would get them into college.

“It’s more than grades, essays and test score. It’s social media. It’s, what’s their passion? Does social media match their application? Does their internship match their passion, or are they presidents of 12 clubs? They’re too far spread out for committees to evaluate.”

While school guidance counselors can offer information to parents, Russo argues the ratio of students to counselor can create issues.

“What’s unfair about that situation is in some cases there are 300 students to one counselor,” Russo said.

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