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Explainer: What is the US college admissions scandal about and how is a Singaporean billionaire involved?

SINGAPORE — Reports of an eye-watering US$6.5 million (S$8.86 million) payment by a Singaporean billionaire to get his daughter into the highly prestigious Stanford University is the latest revelation in the burgeoning United States college admissions cheating scandal.

Explainer: What is the US college admissions scandal about and how is a Singaporean billionaire involved?

Singaporean billionaire Zhao Tao paid US$6.5 million to the ringleader of an elaborate scheme, Mr William Singer (pictured), to get his daughter Zhao Yusi into Stanford University in the United States.

SINGAPORE — Reports of an eye-watering US$6.5 million (S$8.86 million) payment by a Singaporean billionaire to get his daughter into the highly prestigious Stanford University is the latest revelation in the burgeoning United States college admissions cheating scandal.

The scandal has been huge news in the US ever since it erupted in mid-March, taking in Hollywood actresses, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and many other high-profile figures — but what is it all about and how did it operate?

CHEATING, BRIBES AND FRAUD

The scandal involves two main forms of cheating used to get students from wealthy families into Ivy League and other elite American colleges.

The first was to cheat on the admissions test, such as getting someone else to sit for the test and bribing test administrators to turn a blind eye. The second was to use fake athletic credentials to get into these colleges, which often accept elite athletes to boost their reputations.

The scandal has sparked massive outrage across the US. These top universities are seen as stepping stones to greater privilege and if a wealthy family secures a place through fraud, that could mean a hard-working, poorer student misses out.

In the case with the reported Singaporean connection, no charges have been laid yet. But it is alleged that billionaire Zhao Tao paid the US$6.5 million — the largest amount in the scandal so far reported — to the ringleader of the elaborate scheme, Mr William Singer, to get his daughter Zhao Yusi into Stanford.

US prosecutors said that Mr Singer tried to get Ms Zhao recruited to the Stanford sailing team, providing a fake list of sailing accomplishments and making a US$500,000 donation to the sailing programme after she was admitted, the New York Times reported. Mr Singer has extensive connections in these elite colleges.

In 2015, a Chinese magazine reported that Mr Zhao, who heads pharmaceutical company Shandong Buchang, was invited to remain in Singapore by government officials back in 1992 after his medical capabilities and healing of a patient here were lauded in a newspaper article.

Forbes reported that Mr Zhao, who has a net worth of US$1.8 billion, is a Singaporean citizen.

The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority did not wish to verify this claim for “reasons of confidentiality”.

HOW EXACTLY DID THE SCHEME WORK?

Desperate parents from some of the wealthiest families in the US would pay Mr Singer to secure a place for their children in elite brand-name colleges using his various illegal techniques to cheat the system.

Besides getting someone else to sit for the test or bribing test administrators to guide them to the right answers, another way students’ test scores were falsified was to have someone review and correct their answers after they completed their tests.

Athletic achievements were also fabricated:

  • Students' faces were photoshopped onto athletes’ bodies and bogus achievements were added to their college applications

  • University coaches and administrators took bribes to secure admission for students who may not even have played the sport

Once their children were accepted, the parents would make payments to Mr Singer’s company, Edge College & Career Network, known as Key. The bribes were disguised as donations to a non-profit foundation, called the Key Worldwide Foundation, controlled by Mr Singer’s associates. The parents could then claim tax deductions. 

Mr Singer also ran a legitimate business providing college consulting services, where he would conduct counselling sessions for teenagers preparing to enter college.

WHO HAVE BEEN IMPLICATED?

Besides Mr Singer, who has pleaded guilty, 33 parents have also been charged, including Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman, of TV series Desperate Housewives’ fame, and Lori Loughlin, known for her role in the sitcom Full House which aired in the US in the late 1980s to mid-1990s.

The “Who’s Who” of America’s finance and business world are facing charges as well.

One of them is William E McGlashan, a well-known investor from Silicon Valley whose investment firm TPG invested in Uber, Spotify and Airbnb. He also created a new venture capital fund, the Rise Fund, which was focused on ethical investing and doing good. He has since been placed on leave from TPG and Rise.  

Another pair of Chinese parents paid US$1.2 million to Mr Singer for their daughter Sherry Guo to enter Yale. No charges have been laid in relation to this allegation.

Stanford’s sailing coach has been fired.

Several coaches from other universities, such as the University of Texas in Austin, the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles have also been charged.

No students or universities have been charged as US prosecutors said that many students were not aware of what their parents were up to.

Loughlin’s daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli, who is a social media influencer, was dropped from a sponsorship deal with cosmetics company Sephora.

HOW DID THE SCANDAL COME TO LIGHT?

Prosecutors in Boston were working on another case related to securities fraud when their suspect gave them a tip-off on a college admissions fraud scheme, the New York Times reported.

The suspect wanted to be granted leniency for his cooperation and told investigators that a college coach took bribe to secure athletic recruiting spots for prospective students.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) ran a sting last April in a hotel room in Boston, where a Yale soccer coach solicited a US$450,000 bribe from a parent in exchange for saving a spot for his daughter on the team.

The investigations into the soccer coach led investigators to Mr Singer, the main architect of the elaborate scheme.

WHAT HAPPENS NOW?

Observers are waiting to see how far the scandal will extend, and whether further charges will be laid.

CNN has reported that a group of parents and college students who were rejected from the schools filed a federal lawsuit against the colleges, saying they would not have wasted their time and money applying had they known the process was "warped and rigged by fraud". Some parents charged over the scam have already faced initial court hearings.

The FBI code-named the investigation into the scandal "Operation Varsity Blues" — meant ironically in reference to a 1990s film about the pressures of sports scholarships, the BBC reported.

Related topics

college admission fraud USA billionaire

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