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Fake classes and suspicious subsidies: Tips for investigating your college campus

By Kaitlin Washburn

Craig Flournoy, a journalism professor at the University of Cincinnati, recognizes the courage it takes for a student to do investigative reporting on the college he or she is attending.

“It is a risk…to criticize the hand that signs your paycheck or that hands you your diploma,” Flournoy said.

Marcelo Rochabrun did just that when he went after the most elite eating clubs at Princeton as editor of the Princetonian. The eating clubs, Princeton’s equivalent to sororities and fraternities, are incredibly influential within the university’s community.

Rochabrun started by studying the 990 forms of the university and the organizations affiliated with it. He came across the Princeton Project Foundation, whose mission statement is to provide money for “educational purposes” and to “better” the Princeton campus.

What Rochabrun discovered is that this foundation only existed to hand out various grants to Princeton’s eating clubs. He found that about $20 million had been given to many of the eating clubs for extensive refurbishments made to their meeting places.

During his talk, Flournoy detailed how his students looked into academic spending and athletic subsidies at the University of Cincinnati. They ultimately found that students’ tuition money was being funneled to athletes via a university subsidy without disclosure on tuition bills.

Using the story as an example, he went through the four-step process he requires his students to take when they embark on an investigation.

  1. Figure out what to investigate. Flournoy’s students chose to look at academic spending and that’s when they discovered the athletic subsidy, money that was taken from their tuition without their knowledge.
  2. Figure out what numbers they would need and how they were going to get them. Universities must report athletic spending at the end of the year. (Here is the database that compiles all those numbers: )
  3. Determine the direct effect on the students at the university. In this case, the athletic subsidy that came out of their tuition bills.  
  4. Draw comparisons to other types of spending. They compared how much the school spends on academics for students and how much it spends on athletics.

The third speaker was Dan Kane, a reporter from The Raleigh News and Observer. He discovered that over an 18-year period, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, had enrolled 3,100 students, mainly athletes, in fake classes.

Kane first began his investigation when he came across the transcript of a UNC freshman football player.

The student had scored below an 850 on the SAT and had a 2.2 GPA in high school. Yet he had received a B+ in an advanced, upper-level biology course that he was allowed to take during a summer session before his freshman year.

Using a variety of sources that weren’t under the administration’s thumb, he was able to find that fake classes has been boosting the GPAs of UNC athletes for 18 years.


Kaitlin Washburn is an investigative journalism student at the University of Missouri. She is currently a news intern for Voice of OC.

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