On March 12, federal prosecutors announced sweeping, nationwide conspiracy charges involving illicit efforts to secure admissions at elite universities. Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutors alleged that, as part of the conspiracy, parents paid a purported for-profit college counseling and preparation business to inflate high school students’ standardized test scores and falsify athletic achievements in order to gain admission into elite universities. Prosecutors charged 33 parents, 13 coaches, the owner of the for-profit college counseling and preparation business and several business associates, and two standardized test administrators. The eight universities mentioned in the complaint were not alleged to have been complicit in the scheme.

Background

Between approximately 2011 and February 2019, William “Rick” Singer, the owner of a for-profit college counseling and preparation business, allegedly conspired with parents, university athletic coaches, university athletic administrators and others to use bribery and other forms of fraud to secure the admission of students to colleges and universities. The alleged conspiracy had  two components: (1) a scheme that facilitated cheating on college entrance exams and (2) a college recruitment scheme that implicated university coaches and administrators.

With respect to the college entrance exam cheating scheme, Singer is said to have facilitated cheating on the SAT and ACT college entrance exams by instructing wealthy parents to seek extended time for their children on the exams, which included having the children claim to have learning disabilities in order to obtain the required medical documentation. Once the extended time was granted, Singer allegedly instructed the parents to change the location of the exams to one of two test centers where Singer had established relationships with test administrators. The test administrators would then allow an individual to take the exams in place of the students, to give the students correct answers during the exams, or to correct the students’ answers after they completed the exams. Parents allegedly paid Singer between $15,000 and $75,000 per test. In many instances, the students were unaware their parents had arranged for the cheating.

In a separate scheme that directly involved university coaches and athletic administrators, Singer allegedly funneled money to coaches and athletic administrators who had control or influence over a separate admissions pool for student athletes. The parents allegedly bribed the coaches and administrators to designate their children as athletic recruits—regardless of the students’ athletic abilities and regardless of whether the students actually played the sport for which they were being recruited. Singer is alleged to have made bribe payments to most of the coaches personally. At times, Singer allegedly created fake athletic profiles for the students, which reflected  honors that the students purportedly received and elite teams that they purportedly played on. In some instances, parents supplied Singer with staged photos of their children engaged in athletic activity, such as using a rowing machine or purportedly playing water polo. 

The Scheme Details

From 2011 to 2018, parents eager to see their children attend elite schools allegedly paid approximately $25 million to bribe coaches and university administrators to designate their children as members of favored admissions categories. Singer’s pitch to parents was that he discovered a “side door” to the traditional admissions process. Here is how Singer is said to have described it:

There is a front door which means you get in on your own.  The back door is through institutional advancement, which is ten times as much money.  And I’ve created this side door in.  Because the back door, when you go through institutional advancement, as you know, everybody’s got a friend of a friend, who knows somebody who knows somebody, but there’s no guarantee . . . my families want a guarantee.

The conspiracy targeted an apparent soft spot in the university admissions process where a single individual holds enormous power over a select number of admissions slots subject to a separate set of standards with little, if any, oversight. Admissions offices at some universities allot a set number of admissions slots each year to head coaches of varsity sports for recruited athletes, not all of whom receive salaries commensurate with the salaries of highly paid Division I football coaches. Recruited athletes have a far higher probability of acceptance into the school because coaches have significant power to push their preferred candidates through. Knowing this, Singer actively recruited coaches and administrators into his enterprise by assuring them that others, similarly situated at other institutions, were already engaged in the same conduct. As Singer explained during a call with a parent:

Okay, so, who we are . . .  what we do is we help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school. . . .  My families want a guarantee. So, if you said to me ‘here’s our grades, here’s our scores, here’s our ability, and we want to go to X school’ and you give me one or two schools, and then I’ll go after those schools and try to get a guarantee done.

In some extraordinary cases, parents allegedly agreed to pay nearly $1.2 million for the chance to ensure their child’s admission to elite schools. Far more common, however, was a pattern of activity over time where Singer used his trusted co-conspirators to shuffle multiple applicants through a well-organized process for admittance. At one university, Singer acknowledged paying the head coach of the men’s and women’s tennis team $2.5 million between 2012 and 2018 to secure admissions for 12 applicants. Those funds were exclusively paid to the coach via Singer’s charitable organization, KWF. In many other cases, however, funds were paid into the school’s athletic programs in addition to the personal payments to coaches. In one instance, a $100,000 payment was divided up three ways between the head coach of the women’s volleyball team, the school’s athletics fundraising club, and the women’s volleyball team itself. 

The Evidence—So Far

The government’s evidence to support the charges includes the testimony of three cooperating witnesses, consensually recorded telephone calls and wire intercepts of telephone calls, along with emails, bank records and financial wire data. The DOJ’s 204-page criminal complaint will almost certainly prompt other individuals—both charged and uncharged—to cooperate. Based on information in news reports, the scheme appears to have targeted any university that the parents found desirable; Singer’s enterprise likely extended beyond the eight universities identified by the DOJ so far. According to the complaint, Singer boasted to parents seeking his assistance that he aided nearly 800 families as part of the college recruitment scheme, meaning there are almost certainly instances of potential misconduct that go beyond those publicly identified by the DOJ to date. 

Proactive Steps

The DOJ has made clear it views the colleges and universities involved as victims. That said, the reputational harm and the potential for undermining the legitimacy of the schools’ admission practices (particularly going forward, now that schools have been put on notice) is significant. And class action lawsuits have already been filed against some of the universities, with more likely to follow.

Colleges and universities should consider taking steps to ensure that their admissions processes were not corrupted by this or similar schemes. Schools should pay particular attention to the college recruitment scheme as it implicates coaches and athletic administrators and examine their admissions practices, focusing on the process for the admission of student athletes and other potential special admit programs where oversight is either non-existent or minimal. Colleges and universities with prior associations with the coaches and other individuals charged in the conspiracy should particularly consider investigating their admissions policies.

In addition, schools may face possible infractions and penalties from the NCAA, which has rules regarding ethical conduct by coaches. In a statement, the NCAA said, “We are looking into these allegations to determine the extent to which NCAA rules may have been violated.” As the revelations of this investigation follow shortly after the DOJ’s investigation involving NCAA basketball recruitment, the NCAA scrutiny will likely only intensify. 

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