Skip to main content

Advertisement

Advertisement

College admissions scandal: Actresses, business leaders and other wealthy parents charged

CALIFORNIA — Federal prosecutors charged dozens of people Tuesday (March 12) in a major college admissions scandal that involved wealthy parents, including Hollywood celebrities and prominent business leaders, paying bribes to get their children into elite American universities.

Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy at a gala for the Atlantic Theater Company in New York in 2017. Huffman was one of thirty-three parents charged with paying bribes to get their children into elite American universities.

Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy at a gala for the Atlantic Theater Company in New York in 2017. Huffman was one of thirty-three parents charged with paying bribes to get their children into elite American universities.

CALIFORNIA — Federal prosecutors charged dozens of people Tuesday (March 12) in a major college admissions scandal that involved wealthy parents, including Hollywood celebrities and prominent business leaders, paying bribes to get their children into elite American universities.

Thirty-three parents were charged in the case, and prosecutors said there could be additional indictments to come. Also implicated were top college coaches, who were accused of accepting millions of dollars to help admit students to Wake Forest, Yale, Stanford, the University of Southern California and other schools, regardless of their academic or sports ability, officials said.

The parents included television star Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli; actress Felicity Huffman; and William E. McGlashan Jr., a partner at the private equity firm TPG, officials said.

The case unveiled Tuesday was stunning in its breadth and audacity. It was the Justice Department’s largest ever college admissions prosecution, a sprawling investigation that involved 200 agents nationwide and resulted in charges against 50 people in six states.

The charges also underscored how college admissions have become so cutthroat and competitive that some have sought to break the rules. Authorities say the parents of some of the nation’s wealthiest and most privileged students sought to buy spots for their children at top universities, not only cheating the system but also potentially cheating other hardworking students out of a chance at a college education.

In many of the cases, prosecutors said, the students were often not aware that their parents were doctoring their test scores and lying to get them into school.

“The parents are the prime movers of this fraud,” Mr Andrew E. Lelling, US attorney for the district of Massachusetts, said Tuesday during a news conference. Mr Lelling said those parents used their wealth to create a separate and unfair admissions process for their children.

But, Mr Lelling said, “there will not be a separate criminal justice system” for them.

“The real victims in this case are the hardworking students,” who were displaced in the admissions process by “far less qualified students and their families who simply bought their way in,” Mr Lelling said.

“This is an extreme, unsubtle and illegal example of the increasingly common practice of using money to get an edge in the race for a place in an elite university,” said Mr Christopher Hunt, who runs College Essay Mentor, a consulting service for applicants.

“The more common practice is to spend money in indirect ways: High-priced test prep. Coaches so your kid can be a recruited athlete. Donations as an alum. Donations as a non-alum.”

At the centre of the sweeping financial crime and fraud case was William Singer, founder of a college preparatory business called the Edge College & Career Network, also known as The Key. Federal prosecutors did not charge any students or universities with wrongdoing.

Authorities said Singer, who has agreed to plead guilty to the charges and cooperated with federal prosecutors, used The Key and its nonprofit arm, Key Worldwide Foundation, which is based in Newport Beach, California, to help students cheat on their standardised tests and to pay bribes to the coaches who could get them into college with fake athletic credentials.

Singer used The Key as a front, allowing parents to funnel money into an account that would not have to pay federal taxes.

Parents paid Singer about US$25 million (S$33.9 million) from 2011 until February 2019 to bribe coaches and university administrators to designate their children as recruited athletes, which effectively ensured their admission, according to the indictment.

Singer is also accused of bribing Division I athletic coaches to tell admissions officers that they wanted certain students, even though the students did not have the necessary athletic credentials.

Most elite universities recruit student athletes and use different criteria to admit them, often with lower grades and standardised test scores than other students. Admissions officers typically set aside a number of spots in each freshman class for coaches to recruit students to their teams.

“At each of the universities, the admissions prospects of recruited athletes are higher — and in some cases significantly higher — than those of non-recruited athletes with similar grades and standardised test scores,” the indictment said.

Singer also helped parents go to great lengths to falsely present their children as the sort of top-flight athletes that coaches would want to recruit.

Singer fabricated athletic “profiles” of students to submit with their applications, which contained teams the students had not played on and fake honors they had not won. Some parents supplied “staged photographs of their children engaged in athletic activity,” according to the authorities, and Singer’s associates also photoshopped the faces of the applicants onto images of athletes found on the internet.

In one example detailed in an indictment, the parents of a student applying to Yale paid Singer US$1.2 million to help her get admitted. The student, who did not play soccer, was described as the co-captain of a prominent club soccer team in Southern California in order to be recruited for the Yale women’s soccer team. The coach of the Yale soccer team was bribed at least US$400,000 to recruit the student.

“This girl will be a midfielder and attending Yale so she has to be very good,” Singer wrote in an email detailing instructions, adding that he would need “a soccer pic probably Asian girl.”

After the profile was created, Singer sent the fake profile to Rudolph Meredith, head coach of the women’s soccer team at Yale, who then designated her as a recruit, even though he knew the student did not play competitive soccer, according to the complaint.

In its investigation, known internally as Operation Varsity Blues, the government focused on the role that it said the 33 indicted parents played in a scandal that also ensnared two standardised test administrators, a test proctor, and more than a dozen coaches at top schools, including the University of Texas at Austin and the University of California.

Those parents were willing to pay between US$15,000 and US$75,000 per test, which went to college entrance exam administrators who helped their children cheat on them by giving them answers, correcting their work or even letting third parties falsely pose as their children and take the tests in their stead, according to the indictment.

Singer instructed at least one parent, McGlashan, the partner at TPG, to claim that his son had learning disabilities in order to gain extended time for him to take his college entrance exam alone, over two days instead of one, according to court documents.

The government said that McGlashan’s son was told to take the exam at one of two test centres where Singer worked with test administrators who had been bribed to allow students to cheat — one in Houston and one in West Hollywood, California.

And Singer told McGlashan to fabricate a reason, such as a wedding, for why their children would need to take the test in one of those locations.

McGlashan’s son was unaware of the scheme, according to court documents.

A spokesman for McGlashan and for TPG did not respond to an email seeking comment. THE NEW YORK TIMES

Related topics

scandal education universities USA admission

Read more of the latest in

Advertisement

Popular

Advertisement

Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.