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Over the last week, both the academic and celebrity worlds have been roiled by a college admissions scam, involving famous Hollywood actors, tech executives, and college coaches. On March 12, 2019, the US Department of Justice charged 50 individuals, including 33 affluent parents, with bribery, fraud, and false information, to get their kids admitted into some of the nation's most elite universities, including Stanford, Yale, and the University of Southern California (USC).
The mastermind behind this dishonest scheme, nicknamed "Operation Varsity Blues" by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), was William "Rick" Singer, a former high school football coach turned college counselor. According to the FBI, Singer, founder of the Edge College & Career Network, also known as The Key, used two tactics to game the college admissions process.
The first involved cheating on college admission entrance exams, the ACT and SAT. For this to work, the student was first falsely diagnosed with a learning disability, like ADHD. This gave him/her extra time to complete the test and the excuse to go to a special test-taking site, picked by Singer. The college counselor would doctor the results by either finding other people to take the exam on behalf of the student, or by bribing the proctor to correct the answers after the test had been submitted. In the latter case, the students had no idea what was going on. Their submitted answer sheet would be replaced by one completed by the proctor. “The kids thought they really took the test, but the proctor and administrator knew,” Singer said, adding, “I’m absolutely responsible.”
The second, more expensive, strategy involved creating an imaginary sports profile and bribing athletic coaches and administrators to designate the applicants as recruited athletes so they had access to one of the coveted reserved spots. What was ironic is that in most cases, the students had never played the sport in question. Singer would simply “take a picture of the student’s face and put it on someone else.” In one extreme case, an applicant, admitted for football, came from a high school with no football team.
Depending on the service provided, Singer received between $15,000 to an astounding $6.5 million from parents eager to get their children admitted into an elite university. The payments, however, were not made directly to Singer but, instead, "donated" to his charity, The Key Worldwide Foundation. The money was then distributed to the people participating in the scam. "Singer's foundation purported to be a charitable organization, but was actually a front Singer used to launder the money that parents paid him," said Massachusetts US attorney Andrew Lelling. The prosecutors believe that since the clever scam began in 2011, over $25 million have been donated to Singer's so-called charity. The icing on the cake? The parents were able to deduct the "donations" from their taxes!
Singer's deceitful scheme came to light accidentally in the spring of 2018, when federal authorities were investigating Morrie Tobin, a Los Angeles financial executive, for securities fraud. Hoping for some leniency in his sentence, Tobin told them how he had bribed Yale University's women's soccer coach, Rudy Meredith, to get his daughter admitted to the Ivy League school. Following up on the lead, the FBI found Meredith's connection to Singer. Both confessed to their crimes and agreed to cooperate with the FBI. The agents tapped Singer's phone in June 2018 and recorded conversations between him and prospective clients to gather the evidence needed to arrest the parents involved. While only 33 have been indicted thus far, the federal prosecutors are expected to name many more as the investigation continues.
Though none of the students involved in the scandal have been charged, on March 15, 2019, USC rescinded acceptances to 2019 applicants who are implicated in the cheating allegation. Other colleges named in the fraudulent scheme are expected to do the same. The fate of those already attending the universities remains unknown.
Not surprisingly, the widespread admissions scam has left many Americans feeling betrayed about a system that is already perceived to be tilted in favor of the wealthy, who have access to better high schools and college preparatory services. Hopefully, universities will re-examine their admissions process and find a way to make it equitable for all.
Resources: Washingtonpost.com, cnn.com, sfgate.com, USAtoday.com, cnbc.com, WSJ.co