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Applicants should come clean about cheating allegations, colleges say

Students accused in CdM High School cheating scandal should be upfront with universities they apply to, admission officials say.

February 10, 2014|By Larry Gordon and Jason Song

The recent expulsions of 11 students from an Orange County high school because of a cheating scandal appeared to be a forceful stand against academic dishonesty. But that discipline also has focused attention on the murkier questions about whether, and how, colleges should be informed about applicants' histories of misbehavior.

College admissions officials say the expelled students and others in similar situations should come clean quickly to schools they've applied to, and they should be prepared for the consequences, including the possibility of having acceptance letters revoked. Colleges are more likely to consider leniency if students confess upfront and promise better behavior rather than try to evade detection, they say.

The students' self-reporting is important because high schools are increasingly reluctant to inform colleges about disciplinary issues and expulsions, experts say. Some high schools are under parental pressure, even with lawsuits, to keep those matters confidential. Colleges, meanwhile, want the truth about potential freshmen and will pursue hints of trouble, such as mid-year transfers to new high schools.

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It is a murky area governed more by professional courtesy than any legal rules, experts say.

"This would be a time for a student to explain himself or herself," said Philip A. Ballinger, the University of Washington's director of undergraduate admissions. In deciding how to handle a confession about dishonesty or other infractions, colleges and universities want "an assurance or reasonable confidence that this is not a habitual action by the student, that it was a singular action."

In cases involving allegations of systematic computer hacking, he said, applicants face a high hurdle since the dishonesty strikes "at the heart of the academic task, at the essence of education."

The 11 students, including juniors and seniors, at Corona del Mar High School were reportedly part of a scheme in which the Newport-Mesa school district's computer system was hacked to change grades and access exams. Officials say a tutor who the students worked with developed the plan.

One Newport-Mesa Unified School District administrator involved in handling the case has resigned in protest over the expulsions, saying that not all the 11 students were equally culpable and that the problem may be more far-reaching.

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