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From the man behind an audacious scam to manipulate who gets into elite colleges, we now have a very public acknowledgment about how admissions decisions really work – and the role money and connections play.
This time, the admission comes with a prison sentence.
“The fraudulent testing scheme, bribing of university officials, lying on students’ applications and profiles, I did all of it,” William “Rick” Singer, the man at the center of the nationwide cheating scandal known as Varsity Blues, acknowledged in a Boston courtroom on Wednesday, where a federal judge sentenced him to 42 months in prison and ordered Singer to pay the IRS more than $10 million in restitution.
Singer pled guilty in 2019 to racketeering and other charges and had been cooperating with prosecutors. In court Wednesday, Singer said he was very sorry, to the students he worked with, to families who paid him to help get their kids into college and to the universities he scammed.
He even said he was “ashamed of myself” – a statement that matters little right now.
“The fraudulent testing scheme, bribing of university officials, lying on students’ applications and profiles, I did all of it.”
William “Rick” Singer, the man at the center of the nationwide cheating scandal known as Varsity Blues.
What does matter, and what will always matter, is how stacked and outrageously unfair elite college admissions is. After a repentant Singer is hauled off to prison for three and half years (prosecutors had asked for six), will money and connections place less of a role in who gets in?
Not likely, say those who prosecuted Singer, a private admissions consultant who funneled millions of dollars to coaches and college administrators in his quest to get wealthy parents admitted to sought-after institutions such as Yale, University of Southern California and Stanford, in some cases using a “side door” to portray them as athletes.
More than 50 people were charged, including prominent actresses, coaches, CEOs and test administrators.
“There is ultimately no surefire way to safeguard against criminal ingenuity,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memo. “Loopholes — and those willing to exploit them for money — will remain.”
The rabid desire for spots in the nation’s most exclusive institutions shows no signs of abating either, even as annual estimated costs in some cases top $82,000 for those who don’t get financial aid and are willing to pay the sticker price.
“Honestly, you can’t do much until you dramatically increase financial aid or dramatically reduce spending. Colleges need a certain number of full fee students and parents who will donate generously to cover their costs.”
Natasha Warikoo, sociology professor, Tufts University
“Singer got less time than it takes to complete the degree he helped so many rich and powerful families steal,” Anthony Jack, a sociologist who researches inequities in education and teaches at Harvard Graduate School of Education, told our partners at GBH after Singer was sentenced.
Jack, the author of “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students,” once told me the scandal “felt like an old wound being ripped open anew. So many first-generation college students, lower-income students and students of color had to overcome entrenched inequalities to apply to college, often with minimal help.”
And while colleges and universities have pledged reforms in the wake of the scandal to prevent such abuses, no one should hold their breath that immediate change is on the horizon – even though the case startled even those who prosecuted Singer, while highlighting the role wealth, privilege and outright corruption plays in who gets into our nation’s top colleges.
“I was never foolish enough to believe it was a meritocracy, but I had absolutely no idea how corrupt and infected the admissions process was until this case exposed everything,” Rachael Rollins, U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, told reporters after the sentencing, drawing on her own frustrations as a parent.
Rollins also noted what has become obvious to anyone who watched the Netflix documentary on Singer or read books and articles about the case: “The conduct in this case was something out of a Hollywood movie.”
All that attention, once again, matters little to those without money and connections who are trying to gain access to the nation’s most elite and competitive colleges simply on – gasp! – merit.
Colleges love to announce, year after year, just how hard it is to get in; for example, Yale last month offered admission to just 776 early action applicants, out of a pool of 7,744, noting it was the lowest acceptance rate in 20 years.
A few years after the scandal captivated public attention, I attended a conference at USC in California (one of the schools that played a prominent role in the scandal) and heard a number of ideas for change and reform. As far as I know, none of them have been put into place in widespread ways, though it’s hard to know exactly how individual colleges reacted.
Angel B. Pérez, who is CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, told our partners at GBH that Trinity College, where he was working as vice president of enrollment and student success when the scandal broke, did its own investigation “to make sure that there wasn’t anything we could not stand behind in terms of our process.” He added, “Colleges and universities realized that they had to regain the public trust.”
I reached out to Natasha Warikoo, a professor at Tufts University and the author of a new book on equity in college admissions, who is also closely watching how an expected U.S. Supreme Court decision to strike down affirmative action might change enrollment patterns. She was not without hope for change.
“I do think that these very public criticisms are making colleges take a close and careful look at their practices,” Warikoo told me in an email. “I’m cautiously optimistic that the very public discussions are pushing colleges to, at the very least, reduce the influence of the development office, coaches (particularly those of sports that mostly serve elites), and alumnae.”
Still, it will take a lot more than public discussion to really make a big difference, she noted. “Honestly, you can’t do much until you dramatically increase financial aid or dramatically reduce spending,” Warikoo said. “Colleges need a certain number of full fee students and parents who will donate generously to cover their costs.”
Indeed, as our reporting at The Hechinger Report has previously shown, colleges, with some exceptions, have been notoriously reluctant to stop giving a leg up to legacy students, whose parents attended the schools they hope to attend. These students are up to eight times more likely to be accepted at elite colleges, according to one estimate.
The reason is not complicated. As Warikoo pointed out, colleges need money; tuition is their only source of revenue. One study our columnist Jill Barshay reported on found that 42 percent of legacy graduates were flagged as potential donors, while only six percent of non-legacy students were. Legacy admissions are just another way college admissions policies overwhelmingly benefit white, wealthy students whose parents can afford full tuition or can give donations.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court dominated by conservatives could disrupt more than 40 years of legal precedent in how race and ethnicity are considered in college admissions.
If neither can be used as part of decision making going forward, campuses that are already predominantly white and wealthy will become even more so, no matter how hard the gatekeepers of college admissions try to level the playing field and steer clear of the Rick Singers of the world.
This story about Rick Singer was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters.