Degreed Diligence: Reputational Risk Considerations for Higher Education


For most high school juniors, the college admissions process involves enrolling in an SAT prep course, meeting with their school’s college advisor, and anxiously awaiting the admissions committee’s decision email. As viewers of the recent hit Netflix documentary Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal know, the hurdles of college admissions can be jumped. Hollywood stars Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman demonstrated that securing your child’s acceptance to a prestigious school can be accomplished by employing seasoned fraudsters to bribe admissions officers, tamper with entrance exams, and falsify athletic achievements.

The Operation Varsity Blues scandal revealed a profusion of failures by leading universities, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Northwestern, and Georgetown, to proactively manage their reputational risk. The effects of the institutions’ complicity in the admissions scandal will reverberate for years to come as donors redirect giving and a generation of applicants question the fairness of the admission system. Notably, the due diligence oversights revealed by the FBI’s investigation necessitate commitments by universities to proactively mitigate applicant malfeasance and uphold school reputations.

One component of the Operation Varsity Blues scandal was especially preventable given a modicum of effort by the involved universities—the falsification of athletic achievements. Had admissions officers made minimal efforts to review publicly available high school varsity sports rosters or quickly reach out to the respective athletic departments prior to issuing valuable athletic scholarships, the ruse would have quickly unraveled. Similarly, conducting media screening of applicants would have dispelled the fraudulent claims.

Social media has proven to be a reputational risk minefield for higher education institutions. According to a 2020 Inside Higher Ed article, some admissions officers are conducting rudimentary social media searches of applicants. Interestingly, the article notes this number increased from 2019, indicating a rising interest in social media screening. While an informal manual review of an applicant’s Facebook page may have previously sufficed to provide insight into their extracurricular activities, the sheer volume of posts across multiple platforms created by young adults today requires a technological approach to mitigate a technological problem. 

While overwhelming at first glance, AI social media screening provides an efficient and cost effective solution for admissions offices to reveal notable findings, potentially averting a future reputational risk crisis. A significant advantage in utilizing an experienced investigative firm to conduct social media screening is the confidence of knowing the process is being conducted above-board, with legal and technical expertise being leveraged. This includes restricting research to open source records and knowing what technology is permissible (Vcheck Global’s AI social media reporting) and what technology is off limits (password cracking).

Aside from admissions offices, another university department standing to benefit from risk mitigation strategy is athletics. Many colleges and universities rely heavily on their revenue generating sports programs to fund less popular athletic offerings. Moreover, the game-day revenue generated by popular athletic programs, such as football and basketball, constitutes a significant revenue stream for local businesses, including restaurants, bars, and hotels. Accordingly, conducting thorough due diligence of scholarship athletes is a proven tactic for avoiding future reputational repercussions. Consider the 2020 incident where a high school lacrosse star had a Division 1 admissions offer and athletic scholarship revoked shortly after posting a racially charged social media post. Had the university failed to act prior to enrolling the student and similarly contentious social media post been made, the university would have been the target of national condemnation.

While “Operation Varsity Blues” received significant public attention, a more alarming scandal involving a prominent American university flew under the public radar. Last year, the Department of Justice (DOJ) charged the Chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department with failing to disclose financial support from the Chinese government. The charges, which arose from a federal investigation code named “Lurking Giants,” triggered a wave of concern which rippled throughout the nation’s preeminent research institutions. As universities consider proactive measures to avoid future espionage entanglements, one preventative measure lies in the utilization of discreet source inquiries prior to appointing faculty members to head sensitive departments, such as those in the hard sciences. This method is ideal for uncovering corruption and other risk issues in jurisdictions with opaque public records, such as China.

In addition to espionage threats, institutions of higher education must also be cognizant of being wittingly or unwittingly used to launder money. Just last year, Harvard and Yale were accused of failing to disclose significant donations from foreign donors. This led the Department of Education (DOE) to, in the case of Harvard, question the university’s institutional controls. In keeping with the storied Harvard-Yale rivalry, the DOE requested that Yale provide records of all gifts and contracts from China and Saudi Arabia. Notably, a DOE official warned that donations from China “can compromise academic freedom.”

American universities are advised to take a page from their neighbors to the north who have been grappling with concerns pertaining to corruption and money laundering stemming from the enrollment of “politically-exposed students from corruption-prone jurisdictions like Russia, China, Nigeria.” Schools can limit their exposure to tainted funds through the creation of customized due diligence programs incorporating screening of anti-money laundering, politically exposed persons (PEP), sanctions, watchlists, and adverse media. The use of automated risk screening such as that available through Vcheck RED keeps costs low while allowing for issues of concern to be escalated to a comprehensive analyst driven investigation.

Universities seeking to avoid a starring role in an upcoming Netflix documentary spotlighting bad actors among their staff and students should consider implementing or overhauling their risk mitigation programs. Instead of waiting for a major donor to redirect a gift, a star athlete’s problematic social media history to make headlines, or your school to be complicit in a money laundering scheme, consult with Vcheck Global’s investigative professionals today to proactively protect your school’s reputation.

Seth Harlan is Senior Associate, Market & Regulatory Affairs at Vcheck Intelligence. 

Get in Touch

Get in touch with our team.
We can’t wait to hear from you.