William "Rick" Singer leaves Boston Federal Court after being charged with racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice. Singer is charged in an alleged college admissions scam involving parents, ACT and SAT administrators and coaches at universities including Stanford, Georgetown, Yale, and the University of Southern California. 
Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images
Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Cheating scandal exposes how far parents will go to promote their kids

This quote may best explain what led to a college admissions scam purported to be the largest – and certainly the most entertaining – in American history. Connecticut attorney Gordon Caplan, who allegedly paid $75,000 to bribe test proctor to correct the answers on his daughter’s ACT exam, is quoted in court documents released Tuesday as explaining: “To be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here. I’m worried about …if she’s caught doing that, you know, she’s finished.”

None of the 32 parents charged by the Justice Department after a 10-month multiagency investigation seemed to care about the morality of spending thousands or even millions of dollars to cheat and lie their children’s way into elite colleges. 

From 2011 to this year, parents paid $25 million to college consultant and scandal architect William “Rick” Singer to guarantee their children’s admission into elite schools. One route was flat-out test cheating, while the other was paying college coaches, nine of whom now face charges, to represent the kids to admissions officers as recruited athletes and thus priority applicants.

These were children born with every advantage, super-rich offspring who fell short of the academic excellence required to qualify for spots at Yale, Stanford or Georgetown, but whose parents felt they deserved them anyway.

Designer Mossimo Giannulli, husband of “Full House” actress Lori Loughlin, complained in an email in the indictment that a state school like Arizona State University was not good enough for his progeny. “I have some concerns and want to fully understand the game plan and make sure we have a roadmap for success as it relates to (our daughter) and getting her into a school other than ASU!” wrote Giannulli. 

He and his wife are charged with paying $500,000 to bribe a coach to pretend their two daughters were sought-after recruits to the University of Southern California’s crew team, though neither played the sport.

(While the FBI says the kids didn’t know in some cases what their parents did, an affidavit says students at USC admitted as athletes were advised by the university’s senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel to blame an injury for why they were not playing. Fired by USC this week, Heinel faces conspiracy to commit racketeering charges.)

“This is a case where they flaunted their wealth, sparing no expense to cheat the system so they could set their children up for success with the best education money could buy, literally,” said FBI Special Agent Joseph Bonavolonta in Boston at the release of the indictments.

Parents spent anywhere from $2000,000 to $6.5 million for guaranteed admission. Despite the widely held belief that minority applicants earn the edge in admissions, wealth provides a boost in a process that is nothing close to a meritocracy. 

Yet, Americans appear comfortable with rich parents winning a spot for their child through a generous donation, offering, for example, to underwrite a new building or addition with the tacit understanding that admissions will then look more positively at their child’s application.

“We are missing the point drawing that distinction,” says education writer Peter Schmidt, author of “Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War over College Affirmative Action” and a former reporter and editor for the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Just because these bribes are being laundered through the institutional level doesn’t make it OK.”

Nor does Schmidt agree that admitting an unqualified applicant in exchange for receiving a new science wing justifies the practice. “In Central America, you can find cocaine kingpins handing out food and clothing to their communities and being beloved for it. We are still going to prosecute those dealers. The fact some people benefit from corruption is not an excuse for corruption.”

This case is rife with corruption, including the increasing pursuit by affluent families of a learning disability label so their teens can earn more time on high-stakes tests. The mastermind behind this scandal, Singer, who owns the admissions company Edge College & Career Network and cooperated in the investigation, advised parents to shop for therapists who would rubber stamp testing accommodations for their kids, including taking the test over two days and in private settings, thus enabling more opportunity to cheat. 

Actress Felicity Huffman is charged with paying a $15,000 bribe on behalf of her daughter, who was able to get “100 percent extra time” to take the SAT. When the teen’s counselor almost foiled the scheme by telling Huffman she’d administer the test, the actress allegedly insisted her daughter take the exam on the weekend in a test center where Singer had a test proctor on his payroll, according to the unsealed indictments. The teen’s score went up 400 points.

The real victims in this case, said FBI agent Bonavolonta, “are the hardworking students who did everything they could to set themselves for success in the college admissions process but ended being shut out because far less qualified students and their families simply bought themselves in.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.