Sensational headlines recently splashed across global news outlets in what was dubbed the largest scam in college admissions history in the U.S. Operation “Varsity Blues” sent shockwaves through the higher education community and beyond, as it ensnared celebrities, power brokers, athletics coaches and standardized test proctors in an elaborate investigation that involved the FBI, the U.S. Treasury and the Department of Justice.
Over $25 million was paid by wealthy parents to William “Rick” Singer, an intermediary who held out the promise of opening a side door to families into some of America’s most elite universities. Through his fake charity, the Key Worldwide Foundation, and his consultancy, The Edge College & Career Network, he offered those who could afford his services admission to Stanford, UC Berkeley, Yale and the University of Southern California—for a price.
The case has so far yielded charges on money laundering, racketeering, conspiracy, tax conspiracy, mail fraud and obstruction of justice. Singer has admitted to helping more than 750 families secure admissions to US universities unethically. Parents paid between $200,000 to $6.5 million, each, to give their children an unfair edge in the admissions process. Wiretap evidence shows that although some might not have known the extent to which the fraud was being perpetrated, they were all willing and active participants in highly suspect behavior. To further exacerbate their culpability, they sought to write off the “donations” they made to Singer’s charity as tax deductions.
The majority of those indicted were parents who, given the evidence, viewed university admissions as a high stakes game where the ends justify the means. The right university was the ultimate status symbol that could not simply be purchased, unless you had a fixer like Singer who knew how to game the system. One parent described Singer as having the magic elixir that could get your child into the school of their dreams. Parents lamented the fact that the U.S. university admissions system was unfair, a rigged game that lowered the bar for admission for under-represented minorities, legacies, athletes, first generation college students and other groups that received preferential treatment in the process. It is an open secret that universities have long given special consideration to “development cases”—students whose families have the ability and willingness to donate millions of dollars to leading institutions, but Singer could offer similar access for a much more reasonable price.
While the number of highly selective universities in the U.S.—think the Ivy League institutions, Stanford, Duke, Chicago, Hopkins and MIT—has remained relatively static over the last few decades, the number of global applicants to these universities has skyrocketed and their acceptance rates have plummeted.
In 1998, the acceptance rate at the University of Southern California (USC) was 45%; by 2009, it had dropped to 24%; today it’s less than 13%. Over 110,000 students applied to UCLA last year. Acceptance rates to Columbia and Brown have more than halved over the last ten years, to 5.1% and 6.6% respectively, for students graduating in the class of 2023. Basketball school, Duke, now accepts only 5.7% of regular decision applicants—for every 100 students that apply, 94 are rejected. These are statistics more commonly associated with universities like Harvard and Stanford. If you don’t hold a U.S. passport or green card, the competition is even fiercer. The acceptance rate for international students to MIT is less than 2%. While UC Berkeley accepts 17.1% of California residents, only 8.7% of international applicants get in.
Parents are now willing to go to greater extremes to give their children every advantage possible. Singer’s scheme centered on paying off key players that had the ability to influence aspects of the admissions process. Administrators and proctors of the SAT/ACT—standardized tests crucial to the success of students’ university applications—were bribed to give students extra time or correct wrong answers for them. This approach is symptomatic of a much wider problem and not limited to the elite. Both the SAT and ACT exams have been affected by widespread cheating scandals in recent years, as technology has made it easier and more accessible to engineer a higher score through unethical means.
The March 2019 SAT exam was cancelled two days before the test date in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Egypt due to it being leaked and distributed online. The administering body of the ACT, which is the most widely taken U.S. university admissions test in the world with two million students sitting it every year, cancelled test scores for all test takers in South Korea and Hong Kong in the summer of 2016 after its materials were compromised. Cheating on the SAT is so widespread in China, that students not enrolled in international schools there must take the SAT abroad.
Singer also exploited another weakness in the system—the preferential treatment given to recruited high school athletes in the admissions process. Universities like to have winning sports programs because winning teams generate school spirit, which generates school pride, which results in more ticket sales and alumni donations—particularly in certain high-profile sports such as American Football.
Singer knew that to be a highly recruited athlete was to have one of the greatest “spikes” (or differentiating factors) one could have as an applicant, so he devised a pretty simple way to make sure that his students received the necessary nod. He bought off the coaches.
Rudy Meredith, the Yale Women’s Soccer Coach for 24 years, recently pled guilty to accepting over $860,000 in bribes to designate applicants as highly sought-after recruits. Actress Lori Loughlin paid $500,000 to the USC rowing crew coach to flag her two daughters as competitive recruits although they had never rowed before. Singer even employed a photoshop expert that would superimpose his client’s faces onto stock photos of athletes to develop a more compelling narrative. This was the center of the scam—identifying the weakest link in the admissions chain and exploiting their greed.
Ultimately, this story is about the parents and unchecked ambition. Operation Varsity Blues is not only a story about corrupt practices in U.S. university admissions; it is fundamentally about parents with a broken value system and the extent to which they will manipulate, lie and bribe their children’s way to a better future. Singer and his accomplices were simply the conduits for their ambition.
Peter Davos is the Founder and CEO of Hale Education Group.