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.