Eight Elite U.S. Colleges Ensnared In Fraudulent Admissions Scheme

Students who apply to colleges senior year generally assume that their application will be reviewed fairly and that they will be accepted or rejected based solely on their merit. On March 5, 2019, an unsealed indictment in federal court charged 50 people including parents and athletic coaches at eight universities with racketeering, fraud, and bribery in the admissions process. The indictment unleashed a fire of criticism upon the college admissions process and revealed the ease with which wealthy students can maneuver around the often Kafkaesque application process to secure admission to their desired universities. 

The Department of Justice, in coordination with the FBI, discovered a scheme in which parents paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to William Rick Singer, a con man disguised as the president of a charity, to ensure their students’ acceptance into colleges including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, and the University of Southern California. Singer employed a variety of illegal tactics to execute this scheme, including distributing the parents’ payment to proctors of the SAT and ACT and to the colleges’ athletic coaches. According to the indictment and a 200-page affidavit submitted by FBI Special Agent Laura Smith, parents paid up to $75,000 each to hire someone to take the SAT or ACT for their children, to change answers after the fact, or to serve as a proctor who was actually in on the scheme. Singer also encouraged parents to obtain a learning disability waiver, even if the student had no disability, to facilitate the cheating process by allowing extended time. 

Although the widespread SAT cheating scandal alone garnered waves of criticism, it was only a fraction of a much larger conspiracy. Singer also created fake athletic profiles for students to increase their chances of admission, most notably by photoshopping their faces onto pictures of other athletes engaged in their respective sports. Moreover, Singer distributed the fees he collected from parents as bribes to university athletic directors and coaches, including the head coach of women’s soccer at USC and a volleyball coach at Wake Forest. Due to the way college admissions are set up, athletic coaches can select potential scholar-athletes for special consideration in the admissions process, greatly increasing these seniors’ chances of gaining admission. 

The payments parents made to Singer — totaling $25 million since 2011 — were falsified as donations to a charity he set up and registered with the IRS under false pretenses. However, according to the New York Times, federal prosecutors discovered the scheme when a suspect in a separate fraud case tipped them off, hoping to gain leniency in exchange for cooperation with authorities. In April of 2018, the FBI caught a Yale soccer coach accepting a bribe, and she led the investigators to Singer, the ringleader.

As ambitious people who have applied or will apply to high-ranking universities, Tech students expressed outrage at the lack of fairness in the admissions process. Many expressed concerns about staples of elite admissions like legacy programs that allow children and grandchildren of graduates and donors to gain an upper hand in admissions to colleges like Harvard and Yale. Yet this explosive indictment served as a wake-up call to all those who thought that admission was solely about merit. As Josh Hochstat ‘19 explained, “I find it interesting that we’re not going after the people that get into Harvard by their parents donating $3 million to get a wing, and that’s not fraud because it’s completely legal to donate and then magically get accepted.” He added that “this is just one of the flaws [of the college process] that is now publicly shown” and that based on the importance of the SAT in college admissions, the government should regulate its administration. Demetris Kyriacou ‘20 agreed, describing the perpetrators’ actions as “very disgraceful” and concurred with Josh that while “corruption is always going to be there,” legacy programs — which are currently legal — “should be abolished.” 

As some 1,500 Tech students nervously await their results, celebrate their acceptances and grieve for their rejections, many will wonder whether or not undeserving students took the few coveted seats offered by their dream colleges. Most likely, they will never know.

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