Education

Couple gets prison time for rigging daughter's test scores to get into Duke

Posted October 9, 2019 2:45 p.m. EDT
Updated October 9, 2019 6:59 p.m. EDT

— A Duke University alumna and her husband must each spend a month in federal prison for rigging their daughter's SAT and ACT scores to improve her chances of getting into Duke.

Marcia and Gregory Abbott were sentenced Tuesday in Boston as part of the Operation Varsity Blues investigation that has snagged more than a dozen executives, actors and other high-powered parents who allegedly schemed to get their children into elite colleges through inflated test scores or bogus athletic resumes.

The Abbotts paid $50,000 to have a test proctor correct their daughter's ACT exam answers in 2018 and another $75,000 to boost her SAT subject tests in math and literature, authorities said. They kept the scheme hidden from their daughter.

They pleaded guilty in May to fraud and conspiracy.

"My husband and I were both motivated by good intentions ... but this does not excuse our actions," Marcia Abbott, who received an English degree from Duke in 1981, told the judge before she was sentenced, according to NBC Boston.

In a Sept. 27 letter to the court, Gregory Abbott said that his actions were "wrong and stupid" and that he feels "genuine remorse."

"I share the same sensibilities as most people and, strange as it may sound, identify with the public outrage over my own actions," he wrote. "I accept full shame and responsibility."

Duke senior Mikaela Johnson said she wasn't surprised by the admissions scandal.

"Whether or not you're paying for a building to go up or you're paying to be on a rowing team at a school or have your SAT scores fixed, I think there’s always been different ways for people to buy their ways into elite institutions," Johnson said. "It’s kind of been a reality, and it’s great that now people are expressing outrage."

"It’s disappointing to hear. We take a lot of pride in like claiming that it’s a meritocracy, but it’s not really," Duke freshman Tessa Delgo agreed. "I think a lot of people are trying to change that system, but, in reality, money is power."

Jacob Hageman, a high school student from California, was touring Duke on Wednesday and plans to apply for admission.

"It feels kind of unfair that some people are working so hard to do it the right way, and then there’s other people that can just pay their way into these schools that are so highly regarded," Hageman said.

Duke officials said the Abbotts' daughter isn't a student at the university, but it's unclear if she was admitted or even applied for admission.

"To some degree, the admissions process is dependent on trust among all parties – schools, teachers, colleges, counselors, students and testing agencies. We always keep our eyes open for things that don’t add up, but unfortunately, there’s no perfect way to detect or eliminate fraud," administrators said in a statement.

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag told the Duke Chronicle that administrators reviewed admissions decisions for recruited athletes from the last five years in the wake of the scandal and found no anomalies. He said he doesn't foresee any changes in Duke's admissions protocols.

Prosecutors had pushed for sentences of eight months in prison and $40,000 fines for the Abbotts, while the defense argued for probation.

The judge ordered the couple's prison sentences to be staggered to maximize the time at least one of them could be at home with their three children. Gregory Abbott was ordered to report to federal prison Nov. 20, while Marcia Abbott won't have to turn herself in until Jan. 3.

In addition to prison time, they must each perform 250 hours of community service, pay $45,000 in fines and spend a year on probation.

Gregory Abbott, who lives in New York, was chairman and chief executive of International Dispensing Corp., a food packaging company, until he took a leave of absence in March. Marcia Abbott, who lives in the couple's home in Aspen, Colo., is a former magazine editor and writer.

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