The US is no stranger to organised crime, much of it romanticised in Hollywood lore. And you get the feeling the academic scandal that rocked the country in March may yet be ripe for conversion to the silver screen. Featuring seven-figure bungs, a criminal mastermind, wire taps, accomplices and a court case, it is a scriptwriter’s dream. The narrative even gives us wealthy families being publicly taken down for robbing opportunity from the poor.
This was the US Justice Department’s biggest prosecution over university (or college) admissions to date. The investigation involved 200 agents and brought charges against 50 individuals in six different states (33 of them parents). The list of prosecutions included big names from business and entertainment.
Faced with increasingly challenging admissions criteria at top American colleges, wealthy parents had turned to help. That help came in the shape of William Singer (our criminal mastermind), a man who promised admissions success – for a fee. Singer founded a business called the Edge College and Career Network (aka Key) and used the California-based company as a front from which to operate, siphoning cash from the parents to the accounts of accomplices in US higher education.
I created a side door that guaranteed families to get in. So that was what made it very attractive to so many families, I created a guarantee – William Singer
Singer testified that he had bribed test administrators to artificially inflate SAT and ACT standardised test scores. He explained in testimony:
“If I can make the comparison, there is a front door of getting in where a student just does it on their own, and then there’s a back door where people go to institutional advancement and make large donations, but they’re not guaranteed in. And then I created a side door that guaranteed families to get in. So that was what made it very attractive to so many families, is I created a guarantee.”
As well as paying for tests to be corrected, Singer is accused of falsifying ethnicity details and other personal information to game admissions systems. He is also alleged to have concocted athletic backgrounds which allowed students to pass entry criteria with lower academic standards. (It is common practice for US universities to allow extremely promising sportsmen and sportswomen to take an easier academic route into their intakes.) Student athletes at the University of Southern California (USC), according to the indictment, “are typically considered by a designated admissions sub-committee, which gives significant consideration to their athletic abilities and which frequently admits applicants whose grades and standardised test scores are below those of other USC students, including non-recruited athletes.”
The racketeering conspiracy charges also include hiding bribes by laundering them through a charity.
But it’s the brazen manner of these cheats that’s perhaps most alarming. For between $15,000 and $75,000, Singer would arrange for the tests to be either taken by, or corrected by, someone else, usually a chap called Mark Riddell. Parents were advised to declare false disabilities and get medical certification that would extend exam time, while SAT/ACT accredited teachers were thrown bungs of $5,000 to $10,000 to turn a blind eye to the exam taker’s identity or to surreptitiously switch exam papers.
In the athletics scam, parents are said to have paid around $25m between 2011 and 2019 to Singer in order to bribe coaches and university administrators.
One example cites the parents of a prospective Yale student who was made out to be the co-captain of a club football (soccer) team in California, despite the fact that she did not play the game. Singer instructed the assistant coach of women’s soccer at USC, Laura Janke, to “create a soccer profile asap for this girl who will be a midfielder and attending Yale so she has to be very good. Needs to play Academy and no high school soccer, put down you or Ali as coaches for Academy FC Newport etc … awards and honours – more info to come – need a soccer pic probably Asian girl.”
The parents paid $1.2m to Singer, of which $400,000 is said to have been paid to Rudoph Meredith, the head coach of the Yale team, who would receive the fraudulent application. Meredith resigned in November last year.
Four students were recruited to the USC women’s soccer team despite none of them having played competitively, again with payments going from Singer to Janke and her colleague Ali Khosroshahin. The university’s Jovan Vavic was also in on the scam, this time on the water polo team.
The list of alleged breaches goes on with dozens of students being falsely attributed sporting prowess or academic capability they did not possess to smooth entry into a number of universities (see box below).
A dozen defendants are named in the indictment – former university employees and contractors, private sports academy leadership, school test administrators. For a legal document, it’s a surprisingly good read. Though you might want to just wait for the film.
Which US universities were involved?
The indictment names ACT and the the College Board (which administers the SAT) as well as a number of universities across the US. All receive federal grants in excess of $10,000.
Georgetown, Stanford, UCLA, USD, USC, U-Texas, Wake Forest and Yale compete in most sports at the Division I level, the highest level of intercollegiate athletics sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.