Rick Singer was an independent college counselor who held the golden ticket for his clients. He had concocted a “side door” that guaranteed admission to the college of a student’s choice. Students could enter the “front door” of a college by using the normal admissions process, which meant making the necessary grades and test scores and engaging in the appropriate extra-curricular activities to gain a “thumbs up” from the college’s admissions committee. Or, students could enter the “back door” of a college when their parents donated large sums of money – say $20 million or so – to the school, which pretty much guaranteed that the school would not deny their childrens’ applications for admission.
In Singer’s model, the “side door” was a little more complicated. He had learned that many universities’ non-revenue sports programs underpaid their coaches. These coaches had the ability to label applicants as “athletes,” which sent them to the front of the admissions line and made their admission to the school a near certainty. So, if Singer promised donations from parents that would go to these sports’ budgets and/or directly into the pockets of these coaches, he could tell his clients: “If we just pretend that your child is a fencer (or a rower, or a tennis athlete, or a soccer athlete, etc.), and you donate $X to my foundation, I can funnel that money to Coach Y and admission will be guaranteed.”
Another way to use Singer’s “side door” was to improve standardized test scores, which he also rigged. Singer had bribed people who administered standardized tests at a site in Houston and a site in Los Angeles. If parents could get their child certified as needing special accommodations for taking the exam (ideally, extra time over several days), and could also make up an excuse for having their child take the test at one of these locations (instead of their normal site), then Singer could manipulate the child’s test score. He had a “ringer” who would either take the test for the student, or make enough corrections on the student’s test before it was turned in, to acquire the desired score.
Singer pursued clients of children who were rich. As the scheme progressed, he pursued richer and richer parents. He also cultivated relationships with coaches at more and more prestigious universities (Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, USC, University of Texas at Austin, etc.). Singer was clever in playing on parents’ insecurities and devotion to their children. He would commonly begin by counseling students in the typical way—what courses to take, what activities to participate in, and so on. He would also advise students regarding their choice of schools, often getting their heart set on a particular school. Then, OMG!! He would tell the parents that their child had no chance of getting into their dream school on their own. But, TA-DA!! He had a “side door” that could do the job.
Singer suggested to parents that they simply take a picture of their child playing water polo (or soccer or tennis, etc.) or Photoshop their child’s face onto the body of someone playing that sport. He then advised parents to be prepared to make a sizeable donation (a little over one million dollars was the largest single donation he acquired) and admission to the school of their child’s choice was guaranteed. Singer would funnel some of the donation to the coach and usually some to the school. The coach would request that the student be put on a preferred admission list for athletes, and admission was sure to follow. The student would show up at school the next year, claiming an injury, and later “retire” from the sport.
It turns out that wealthy people love their kids and want their dreams to come true, just like everyone else. And rich people are just as insecure about being parents as everyone else. While a couple of the parents Singer dealt with were jerks (and at least one was a criminal), most were good people and loving parents. For example, Douglas Hodge was a top executive at one of the world’s biggest bond companies and a tremendous philanthropist. Gordie Caplan was the co-managing partner of a major law firm who constantly preached acting with integrity to his firm’s young lawyers. Felicity Huffman was an actor who also blogged about being a mom, selling “Good Enough Mom” mugs, and advising her readers not to try to be “supermoms” or to raise perfect kids. Writer Jane Buckingham’s mantra was to ‘try to take joy in who my kids ARE not who I want them to be.”
But all these parents, and many more, actively engaged in Singer’s schemes of fraud and bribery in order to get their children into the schools their children desired. Many had deep reservations about the morality of what they were doing. As Huffman drove her daughter to the site of the SAT test that was to be manipulated, she told herself: “Turn around, turn around, turn around.” But she didn’t.
Interestingly, most parents (though not all) went to great lengths to ensure that their children did not know about the cheating. They wanted their kids to believe that they had been admitted to these colleges on their own merit.
College admissions’ processes have had scandals over the years, but the so-called “Varsity Blues” scandal is the biggest one in the history of the college admissions process. When Singer’s schemes were ultimately discovered by the FBI, he went to prison. Many of the parents involved also went to prison, though for shorter periods. And many parents lost their jobs when their wrongs were publicized.