Over the past week the country has learned of an extensive scheme to fraudulently admit children of wealthy individuals to elite colleges and universities. Ironically, the investigation began with a top provided by an individual facing securities fraud prosecution who claimed a soccer coach solicited a bribe. The U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts and the Boston FBI Field office opened an investigation that thus far has uncovered a scheme that involved over 750 wealthy families who paid various sums of money to William “Rick” Singer, the ring leader and founder of a phony charity that funneled their money as bribes to help their children gain acceptance to the schools. Although the investigation continues, at this point 50 individuals have been indicted including 33 parents and around a dozen coaches.
The FBI generated a 200-page affidavit of the case including transcripts of interviews with Singer, conversations between Singer and parents, and evidence of payments. The indicted parents allegedly paid Singer a total of 25 million dollars. Singer, who has been cooperating with investigators, used the money to fraudulently enhance the students’ applications. In some cases, he arranged for the students to be declared with a learning disability that allowed them to take the SAT or ACT in an untimed manner in a private room. When the students completed the tests, the proctor would apparently correct their answers to achieve a certain minimum score deemed necessary to get into the desired schools. Similarly, for some students, he arranged for someone to take the tests for them, also ensuring a minimum score.
The other aspect of the scheme was to create phony athletic credentials to provide the students with preferred admissions based on sports. Some submitted videos of actual student athletes that the parents falsely claimed was their own child. There were videos of high school rowing, soccer, etc., wherein the applicant never participated but the parents nonetheless claimed was part of the team. In some cases, the students posed wearing athletic gear or on training equipment to further the false claims. Collegiate coaches were paid huge sums of money to accept the false credentials of the students and place them on their preferred lists. These lists of athletes the coaches submitted to their admissions offices all but guaranteed acceptance to the school. These then first year students either never joined the respective athletic teams or made a limited, unsuccessful attempt that led to them quickly quitting. Already enrolled in the school, participating on the teams was not required. They were not on athletic scholarships, just coach preferred lists.
The evidence demonstrates clear fraud by the parents, coaches, test takers, and test proctors who corrected answers. There is an issue concerning what the students knew. To date, only one student has been charged because they were a knowing participant in the scheme. According to the investigators, the children did not know what their parents were doing. Parents did not want their children to know so as not to tarnish the achievement of their acceptance. They wanted their children to believe they earned their way into the schools. Perhaps the students believed that they earned their score on the SAT, rather than that someone took it for them or corrected their answers. What about those students whose parents falsely claimed they had a learning disability and took the tests in a special environment? They had to know they did not have such learning disability and did not merit the special testing environment. The phony athletes must have known. They knew they were not playing on their high school sports teams and they were not world class caliber athletes vying to compete at the collegiate level.
Upon learning of the indictment, the schools immediately terminated, or at least suspended, the coaches and officials involved in the bribery and false athletic documentation cases. Several coaches have already entered guilty pleas and await sentencing hearings. There is no evidence or allegations in the investigation against the schools themselves. They deem the schools victims of the fraud because the schools were duped into accepting students they would not otherwise have accepted. The NCAA stated it will also look at the athletics fraud to determine whether any of the schools or their specific programs deserve sanctions. The schools canceled any pending admissions applications from these students and are also weighing heavily the possibility of expelling current students who gained admission pursuant to this fraud. Regardless of whether the students knew of their parents’ fraud, if they gained entry in this manner they should be expelled and apply legitimately. Some of the private companies for which the parents worked, despite no connection to the fraud, also terminated them for their involvement in this scheme.
This case is another example of disgusting abuse of wealth and power. Parents with millions of dollars exploited weaknesses in the college admissions system, paying large bribes to affect the fraudulent admission of their children. Allegedly the highest bribe was over 6.1 million dollars. Only a small percentage of our society could even consider this level of expenditure. More so, these “parents” were so convinced their children could not successfully gain admittance to various colleges and universities that they had to resort to serious criminal enterprise to make it happen. They cared not that their children were not up to the standards of these schools and likely would be unsuccessful in their programs. To them, it was all about the status of being accepted, no matter how likely the inability to succeed. They may have had the wealth to manipulate the system, but that did not equate to the means to graduate or even deserve the opportunity to enroll. Their entire professional careers, if they have any, will be founded on fraud and illegitimacy.
Each case will be decided on its own merits and the actions of the defendants. Generally, each is facing the possibility of years in prison and large fines. Defendants in crimes like this – non-violent white-collar fraud – often go to minimum security prisons, some referred to as country-club prisons. Although a lengthy sentence, even at one of these institutions, would be punishment, each of these parents who exploited their wealth and power to fraudulently get their kids into school needs to pay a significant fine commensurate with the amount paid. For example, an individual who paid a 2-million-dollar bribe ought to pay no less than a 10 million dollar fine, assuming they have the means to pay. They propelled their kid into a school which they did not deserve and for which they would not likely succeed. They stole a slot from a deserving student who likely worked incredibly hard for the opportunity to attend such a good school. Education is supposed to be the great equalizer in our society, providing all graduates with the prospect of good professional jobs. This fraud scheme not only hurts the kids involved, but all of society.
There are wealthy individuals who donate large sums of money to help an institution fund major construction projects (e.g., build a new library). According to the U.S. Attorney and FBI, this does not constitute bribery or fraud. It is a legal, albeit desperate and arguably immoral option to assist in the admissions process. What about those with means utilizing test preparation services that ostensibly teach techniques to raise the students’ test scores. Those are entirely lawful services, but they provide an unfair advantage to benefit students who are less deserving or meritorious for entrance to the same schools over students who cannot afford them. Additionally, there are parents who pay consultants or editors to assist their children with college applications, specifically with their essays. Another grossly unfair advantage and one I would argue amounts to fraud because the submitted work is truly not that of the student. This case is not related to the extremely consequential issue in higher education concerning the unfathomable debt students and families incur just to attend. Hopefully this investigation will force much needed review of the overall college admissions process with careful scrutiny of application enhancements only available to the extremely wealthy and that unfairly benefit less capable and less deserving students. Hopefully this much needed discussion will include the debt issue as well.