William "Rick" Singer leaves Boston Federal Court on March 12, 2019. Photo: Getty Images
The uproar over the college admission scandal, which began in 2019after the announcement of the arrests of dozens of wealthy parents, coaches, and school officials, soon fell into hand-wringing over class,racial divides, the access of the wealthy, and how eliteeducation truly works. While more than 20 parents and coaches have so far been sentenced in the widespread conspiracy, the top-tier schoolsembroiled in the admissions grifts have largely maintainedtheir ignorance of the scheme, and instead have madeovertures about overhauling their opaque processes and policies.
It was on March 12, 2019, that the Department of Justice released a shocking announcement: For the past eight years, William “Rick” Singer, owner and operator of a college counseling and preparation business, had been running a stealth scam, which had earned himracketeering conspiracy,money laundering conspiracy, and obstruction of justice charges; he'd already pleaded guilty a week prior to the bombshellannouncement.
“I created a side door that would guarantee families would get in,” Singer hadtold acourtroom. “I was buying coaches for a spot — and that occurred very frequently.”
Also indictedwere dozens of wealthy parents, including some well-knownactors, who’d paid Singerhundreds of thousands of dollars to open the doorfor their teenage kids to the best U.S. colleges, like the University of Southern California,Yale, Stanford, and Georgetown. Many coaches at these top schools, along withSAT and ACT administrators, were also implicated; theirtactics, including bribery and rigging the aptitude tests, were publicly revealed.
The still unfolding scandal, which has seen sentencings as recently as last week, is portrayed in the new Netflix feature “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal,” a hybrid documentary-reenactment feature. The filmwas released last week.
Back in 2019, with their facade of strict meritocracy melting away under a harsh spotlight, most of these first-classinstitutions acted swiftly. For example, in Netflix’s film, a closing title card statesthat Stanford University — whose sailing coach, John Vandemoer, pleaded guilty to accepting money fortwo applicants — had redistributed funds to an outside philanthropic group, which the school later said may go to “financially challenged” college-bound students; Stanford apparently ended up givingthe money to 10 unspecified Bay Area college access programs.
That cardalso said thatStanford deniesthat their top athletic director knew anything of Singer or his griftsand that money does not influence admission to the school — which is ranked no. 6 in the nation and has a $28.9 billion endowment. The school also launched an external review; in Dec. 2019, that review found “no additional fraud,” it reported, but indicatedthat Singer had approached seven othercoaches at Stanford.
Nevertheless, Vandemoer alleged to the producers ofNetflix’s film that the “head athletics director” at Stanford was aware of Singer and his bribes. As reenacted in the film, Singer shows up at Vandemoer’s office unannounced, excusing his sudden appearance by saying he had connections at the highly securecampus. The former sailing coach adds in the filmthat when he'd told the head athletics director of alarge donation, his superiorsaid toVandemoer, “Oh, I know Rick.”Vandemoer also told the film’s producers that when he brought a potential $1 million bribe offer forward, the athletic director, who goes unnamed in the film,said that arrangement was “something Stanford could do,” but that $1 million wasn’t enough money.
In an email toOxygen.com on Thursday,a Stanford spokesmandenied that assertion and said that the final moments of the film fail to correct fabricationsbuilt into its narrative.
"Mr. Vandemoer’s allegation about the Athletic Directorand a $1M donation is false,"spokesperson E.J. Miranda wrote."Vandemoer never spoke to the A.D. or any other senior person in Athletics about attempts to influence admissions decisions through donations to the Athletic Department. It also is false that the university Athletic Director had any conversation with the sailing coach regarding potential support from Mr. Singer and how that could influence admissions decisions on students applying to Stanford."
Miranda also said that after the news broke, Stanfordput into practice "enhanced controls in the university’s gift acceptance process" and a second-level review process to confirmrecruited student-athletecredentials.
Meanwhile, down the California coast, USC – a preferred school of more thana dozen indicted parents —released a statement and FAQthat said it was “shocked and deeply disappointed” when it learned of Singer’s scam. The university said last year that following a review it had found 21 students had violated policies;the punishmentsdoled out ranged from deferred suspension to expulsion, the school said. USC’s senior associate athletic director and water polo coach, who allegedly received $1.3 million and $250,000, respectively, were fired or left their position. Thiswas also the case with two soccer coaches also were involved in the sting. Like Stanford, USC addedthat “reforms designed to safeguard the integrity of student-athlete admissions” wouldbe implemented.
the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Getty Images
But two years after the scandalbroke, it’s unclear if any tangible admissions reforms outside of the athletics department have been made at USC — the No. 24-ranked school in the nation where roughly $57,000 in annual tuition gets studentsaccess to a stunningcampus that the New York Times called “a place of pervasive wealth where celebrity, money, and status are still a part of daily life.” Matriculated USC students can now take a class at the Iovine and Young Hall, a “one-of-a-kind school” partially endowed by Andre Young (better known as the legendary rapper-producer-mogul Dr. Dre) and famed music producer Jimmy Iovine's$70 million donation; Young grabbed headlines in March 2019 when he perhaps inadvisedly,in the wake of the scandal, boasted online that his daughter had been admitted to USC“all on her own.” He later deleted that post.
And as seen in the Netflix film, the teenage social media influencer Olivia Jade Giannulli,the daughter of "Full House" actor Lori Loughlin, is admitted to USC after an alleged $500,000 bribe scores her a spot as a coxswain for the school’s rowing team. When news of the scandal broke in March, Giannulli was off on spring break in the Bahamas on a yachtnamed Invictusthat's owned by her friend’s dad, the multi-billionaire real estate mogul, Rick Caruso — who's alsochairman of USC's Board of Trustees.
Caruso was not implicated in the scandal, but did tell the LA Timesafterward that he knew two people that were involved. In hisstatement, Caruso said he was saddened those involved would "victimize USC." Meanwhile, on oneof the wiretapped phone calls, financier Bill McGlashan was heard saying“half the [USC] board knows me” to Singer, according to theLA Times, as he arranged the fudging of his son's ACT score. He pleaded guilty to wire fraud, handed three months in jail and paid a $250,000 fine.
Regardless of these revelations, last year it was reported by the Timesthat USC was directly courting Giannulli’s parents for donations and had been offering up a private tour of their campus.“I’d also be happy to flag her application,” anofficialwrote to her father, the Times reported; USC told the paper that this was sort of offer was "neither special nor unique" toGiannulli.
Giannulli dropped out of USC in March 2019 in the wake of the scandal, and her million-plus follower social media accountquickly went dark. She told Jada Pinkett-Smith in a Red Table Talk interview earlier this year that she “just felt so ashamed...I shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”Caruso remains at the top of USC’s trustee board.
After the scandal broke, USC did begin some initiatives towards change. In the fall of 2019, students were asked to complete a five-question Values Poll to gather information to “adjust USC’s culture and policies to better fit what the public finds important.” This was part of a campus-wide “Culture Journey” programthat was part of the university's first female president’s culture commission. The results found a notable disparitybetween values in the school's current culture and its desired culture.
AtYale, where a 24-year veteran soccer coach pleaded guilty to taking a bribe, an unnamed student there became the first known to have their admission rescinded for association with the scandal. The lone Ivy League school embroiled in the scandal said in itsimmediate aftermath that two students had been admitted through the scam; Yale would retain external advisors to detect and prevent future admissions fraud, it said.
In North Carolina, Wake Forrest University placed its head volleyball coach on administrative leave for allegedly taking a $100,000 bribe; the Wake Forrest Review reported that after the scandal, $50,000 would be given to a program aiding first-generation college students. And up in Washington, D.C. atGeorgetown, where it was learned via the indictment that a tennis coach had taken bribes involving a dozen students, the school said it would audit its athletics and recruiting department in a move “to strengthen the integrity of our process.”
But for many, these are bandages on a larger wound ripped open by the scandal — one that laid bare the structural issues around higher education and generational wealth, inequality, and race. Last year, students at Georgetown, the nation’s no. 23 ranked school, started a petition to end legacy admissions, when children or other relatives of graduates are granted admission preference. Students saidthe practice gives an “unwarranted advantage to those from privileged backgrounds, directly perpetuating structural racial inequality.
Other ideas to combat these difficult structural mattersinclude increasing enrollment at the more elite and selective schools,creating firewalls between admissions and the school’s development directors; these were alldiscussed at length at a February 2020 conference at USC. Plans around condensing college to a more affordable three years, creating a lottery system, or making state schools free for top in-state applicants have also all been floated as solutions to admissions issues.
Yet this all runs counter to the fact that these schools, in the end, are businesses — and therefore, selectivity will remain a major commodity, as author Daniel Golden points out in Netflix’s film.
“This scandal is not necessarily areason for colleges to change their ways,” he told producers. “Because it makes the colleges seem more exclusive and desirable than ever. If all these rich people are willing to go to these incredible lengths and risk jail time just to get their kids into these colleges, then they must be extremely valuable."
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What happened to the college admissions scandal? ›
Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Northwestern and the University of Southern California each expelled students or revoked students' admissions. Some students who were seniors in high school when their parents were arrested had their college applications denied or were forced to withdraw them.Who was the mastermind behind the college admissions scandal? ›
But William “Rick” Singer, the California college admissions consultant who orchestrated the scheme, described it as a “concierge service” in a conversation secretly recorded by the FBI and played for jurors Tuesday at the federal trial of two parents accused of paying Singer to get their children into top-tier schools ...How much did parents pay in college admissions scandal? ›
Dozens of wealthy people have been charged in the college admissions scandal. Federal prosecutors say parents paid about $25 million to get their students into elite schools.What are the charges in the college admissions scandal? ›
Most of the parents charged in the scandal were found to have paid bribes or committed fraud to get one or two children into college.Who went to jail for college admissions? ›
Lori Loughlin was sentenced to two months in prison in August for her role in the college admissions scandal. She reported to a low-security federal facility in Dublin, California, on Friday. Felicity Huffman, meanwhile, was sentenced to just 14 days in prison in September for her role in the scheme.When did college admissions scandal break? ›
It's been two years since Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman and several college coaches and officials were indicted in the nationwide college admissions scandal on March 12, 2019.