Skip to main content

College Admissions Scandal

A college admissions prep advisor told wealthy parents that while there were front doors into universities and back doors, he had created a side door that was worth exploring.

Case Study

In March 2019, perhaps the biggest scandal in college admissions history broke when the Department of Justice, following a sting called Operation Varsity Blues, charged fifty people with fraud that enabled the children of wealthy parents to gain admission to colleges such as Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, UCLA, USC, and the University of Texas at Austin that they were not qualified to attend.

The center of the fraudulent scheme was William “Rick” Singer, CEO of a college admissions prep company, The Key. For large amounts of money–laundered as contributions to a foundation Singer controlled, Key Worldwide Foundation, which only pretended to help underprivileged students—Singer would help his wealthy clients’ kids in two ways.

First, for $75,000 or so, Singer would bribe administrators of the ACT and SAT standardized tests to allow a fellow named Mark Riddell to take the exam for the kids. Riddell was very bright and very experienced, and could generally deliver the desired test score or something very close to it.

Second, for amounts that sometimes exceeded a million dollars, Singer would bribe athletics coaches at target universities to recruit the wealthy parents’ children for the rowing, soccer, basketball, or even football teams. The coaches would typically support the student for admission and perhaps a small (maybe “books only”) scholarship. With the aid of doctored photographs, the coaches could produce evidence for admissions officials that the student was truly an athlete. Then, after the school year began, most of the students quietly withdrew from the sport without ever participating in it (although a few did). They remained enrolled in the school, however, although they would not have been admitted absent the sham.

Among the parents charged with fraud were actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli (Loughlin’s husband), author and businesswoman Jane Buckingham, attorney Gordon Caplan, investment firm CEO Douglas Hodge, food company executive Michelle Janavs, and Silicon Valley investor Chris Schaepe.

Among the coaches charged were UT-Austin’s Michael Center (tennis), Stanford’s Jovan Vavic (water polo) and John Vandemoer (sailing), Wake Forest’s Bill Ferguson (volleyball), UCLA’s Jorge Salcedo (soccer), Georgetown’s Gordon Ernst (tennis), and Yale’s Rudy Meredith (soccer).

At this writing, Singer and Riddell have already pled guilty, as have several parents. Other parents, who have refused to plead guilty, have been hit with additional charges, including conspiracy to commit fraud and money laundering. Several of the coaches have resigned or been fired, and a few have pled guilty.

Universities are taking different approaches, but generally deciding on a case-by-case basis how to treat students who were admitted through the “side door” that Singer’s scheme created. Some admissions have been rescinded and a few students have been expelled. Their knowledge of or complicity in the scheme is an important factor for some schools, naturally.

Conformity Bias

Conformity Bias

The Conformity Bias describes people’s tendency to take their behavioral cues from those around them.


Ethical Insight

Studies show that people tend to take their cues as to how to act, even in situations with ethical dimensions, from those around them.

For example, students who think there is a lot of cheating going on in their school are more likely to cheat themselves than students who don’t think there is as much cheating occurring. Likewise, citizens who think that the level of tax evasion is very high are more likely to try to cheat on their taxes than are citizens who believe that most people pay their taxes.

Wealthy people are more likely than the rest of us to know people who have sent their children to elite universities through the back door by donating large sums of money. They are also in a peer group of parents that are more likely to have used a side door – such as the one that The Key provided – to secure admission into a prestigious university. In addition, they are likely to feel aggrieved by affirmative action plans that may disadvantage their children, on average, and this may make it seem to them that it is permissible to game the admissions system.

Discussion Questions

1. Do you think that the conformity bias might have played a role in this college admissions scandal? Explain.

2. Can you identify other behavioral ethics biases that played a role in this case? What additional biases might have motivated the parents’ actions? Clouded the students’ perspective? Influenced the Key’s business philosophy?

3. Is it plausible that if the parents involved believed that the college admissions system was completely meritocratic that they would have been less likely to give themselves permission to cheat? Why or why not?

4. The concept of altruistic cheating tells us that people are more likely to give themselves permission to cheat when they can rationalize that they are doing it for someone else’s benefit. How might altruistic cheating have played a role in this scandal? Are these parents more likely to cheat to benefit their children than to benefit themselves? Discuss.

5. Are the parents who reason in this way (rationalize using altruistic cheating) ignoring the benefits that they themselves receive from their child’s admission to an elite school? What form might those benefits take? Explain.

6. It appears that some of the coaches who took bribes to help admit unqualified students used some of the funds to supplement assistant coaches’ salaries and supplement their programs’ budgets. If true, might that be another example of altruistic cheating in action? Why or why not?

7. Incrementalism, also known as the “slippery slope,” often leads generally well-intentioned people off an ethical cliff. In our current world, parents who can afford to do so often hire SAT coaches to help their children get higher standardized test scores, and writing instructors to improve admissions essays. This seems to be accepted practice. Might the parents in this fraudulent admissions scandal have viewed what they did as just one more small step beyond what was already common? Or would that take a mighty rationalization? Explain.

8. The government naturally hopes that the punishments that will be meted out to the participants in this fraud will deter others from acting similarly. Do you think that will be the case? Why or why not?

9. Is it possible that the disclosures stemming from this scandal might lead people to believe that the entire system is terribly corrupt and therefore conclude, via the conformity bias, that it is okay for them to find ways to game the system as well? In other words, if everybody is doing it, can it be so wrong? Discuss.