college admissions scandal

A Thorough Guide to the College Cheating Scandal

Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.
Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. Photo: Getty Images

On Tuesday, news broke that dozens of wealthy people — including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin — had been charged in a widespread college-entrance-exam cheating scandal. Apparently, rich parents were enlisting the help of a shady college-preparatory program to get children into elite private colleges through fraudulent means. CNN called the scandal a “national conspiracy.”

Naturally, there are a lot of questions to ask about this situation. How does one commit fraud on a college application? There was a way to cheat on the SATs? How expensive is this kind of scamming? And aren’t there less illegal ways for rich people to buy their way into competitive schools? Here, we answer all of your burning questions.

How many people were involved in the college cheating scandal?

According to CNN, 50 people have been arrested following an FBI investigation called “Operation Varsity Blues.” In total, two entrance-exam administrators, one exam proctor, nine coaches at top schools, one college administrator, and 33 parents were taken into custody. Huffman and Loughlin, as well as the Loughlin’s husband, the designer Mossimo Giannulli, are among those who have already been arrested. (Huffman’s husband, William H. Macy, has not been charged, though he was referenced in the indictment.)

In addition to those well-known names, others named in the sting include CEOs, senior executives, doctors, and lawyers.

How does one become involved in a college cheating scandal?

This nationwide scandal was allegedly orchestrated by William “Rick” Singer, who owned a college-prep program known as the Key. According to the indictment, Singer made $25 million from wealthy parents who paid him to do everything from cheat on college-entrance exams to get their kids recruited for sports they don’t even play.

Huffman reportedly paid $15,000 to have a proctor from Singer’s company in the exam room as her daughter took the SAT. Loughlin and Giannulli allegedly paid $500,000 so that they could have their daughters be recruited for the University of Southern California crew team. (Neither of the daughters had rowed crew before.) Singer provided other services as well, including correcting SAT-exam answers before they were sent off, tricking therapists into signing forms to give students extra time to take the exam, and giving large bribes to college coaches.

Singer has been charged with racketeering conspiracy, money-laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice for his alleged role in the crimes. According to E! News, between 2011 and 2019, he conspired with dozens of parents and university administrators to get students into Yale University, Georgetown University, Stanford University, the University of Southern California, and Wake Forest University.

Okay, but how do you fake a college-ready athlete?

One of the more stunning details of this absolutely outrageous case is that one of Singer’s tactics for sneaking underperforming wealthy kids into the country’s most prestigious universities apparently involved the use of stock images and Photoshop. According to the complaint, Singer and his associates would find “photos of athletes on the internet, and either used those photos or used software such as Photoshop to insert applicants’ faces onto the bodies of legitimate athletes.” But the most common tactic Singer used was sending bribes to coaches at top schools so that the coach would mark them as athletic recruits.

How much does a scheme like this cost?

The lead FBI investigator, Joseph Bonavolonta, told CNN that parents paid anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million for guaranteed admission into a school.

“This is a case where they flaunted their wealth, sparing no expense, to cheat the system and set their children up for success with the best education money could buy — literally,” Bonavolonta said.

Aren’t there … less illegal ways to buy your child’s admission into a private school?

One of the most perplexing elements of the story was not the Photoshop or the SAT cheating — but rather why these devious methods had to be used in the first place. Plenty of people online wondered why anyone would spend $500,000 on getting their child admitted into a college through fraudulent means when there are so many legal — but equally shady — ways for rich people to buy their way into elite schools.

This is honestly a good question, and it’s unclear why none of the shady millionaires listed in the complaint thought of this.

What has happened since the arrests?

The athletic coaches named in the federal indictment have either been placed on administrative leave or fired by their respective universities. The future of the people arrested arrested on Tuesday will be determined at future sentencing hearings for the numerous federal charges they are facing. Singer has plead guilty to all the charges he is facing, though he has expressed “remorse,” according to his lawyer Donald H. Heller, and plans on fully cooperating with the FBI.

It’s unclear what will happen to all the children whose admission to college was allegedly facilitated through bribes and Photoshop — the U.S. Attorney leading the case says that they are “still considering” whether or not they’ll press charges. On late Wednesday, USC announced that it would be rejecting applications from potential students involved in the scheme, and that it is looking into current students and graduates who might be involved.

On Thursday, the Guardian reported that two students from Stanford University filed a class action lawsuit against USC, Yale, and other colleges entangled in the scandal. The lawsuit, which was filed by Erica Olsen and Kalea Wood the previous day in San Francisco federal court, claims that the plaintiffs were denied a fair opportunity to apply to the college. “Each of the universities took the students’ admission application fees while failing to take adequate steps to ensure that their admissions process was fair and free of fraud, bribery, cheating and dishonesty,” the lawsuit reads in part.

A Thorough Guide to the College Cheating Scandal