On March 12, 2019, federal agents in Boston announced during a news conference that they had uncovered the largest college admissions rig in the country, which they dubbed Operation Varsity Blues. Fifty people were charged, including 33 parents, nine university coaches, and others. Some of the parents were CEOs of private and public companies, investors, and heads of real estate and law firms. One was a fashion designer and two were famous actresses. Collectively they had paid college counselor Rick Singer $25 million between 2011 and 2018 to help get their kids into top-tier schools including Yale, Stanford, USC, and Georgetown by way of bribery and fraud.
According to author Nicole LaPorte, however, the roots of the scam date back nearly 30 years. A senior writer for Fast Company magazine, LaPorte wrote the 2011 book, The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Movies, Moguls and a Company Called DreamWorks. For her new book, Guilty Admissions: The Bribes, Favors, and Phonies Behind the College Cheating Scandal, which she discusses in a virtual talk hosted by Vroman’s on February 24, LaPorte spoke to more than 100 sources and studied court documents to untangle a dizzying web of affluent, desperate parents, crooked educators, and their ringleader. LaPorte, who lives in Westwood, also looks at how L.A. was the “epicenter” of the sordid story.
Admission into Ivy League schools has always been competitive; Harvard’s acceptance rate in 2020 was just 4.9 percent. LaPorte argues that some L.A. parents—whom she calls “artisanal parents”—actually start the grooming process much sooner, hiring tutors to prepare their toddlers for kindergarten, which leads to prestigious private high schools like Harvard-Westlake, Buckley, Marymount, and Marlborough that charge as much as $44,000 for tuition.
But good grades, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, and fat donations from parents no longer guarantee that you’ll get in. Colleges now encourage students to market themselves as brands; it’s more about depth than breadth, as one counselor in the book puts it. They’re also recruiting more and more students from racially and economically diverse backgrounds, which makes privileged white parents nervous.
Singer preyed on their anxieties. With high school counselors notoriously overworked, parents pay private counselors as much $30,000 over four years to help their children apply to universities, take standardized tests, and write resumes and essays. Born in a Chicago suburb, Singer was a basketball coach in Texas and Sacramento, where he started his independent college counseling business in the early ‘90s.
“He was able to connect with kids and a lot of it really started with his basketball players,” LaPorte tells Los Angeles. “He found a way to connect with and inspire them. It was through athletics that he learned about and understood college admissions, and how athletics was a way to get kids in.”
Initially, Singer only embellished students’ resumes and essays. His tactics had a “Darwinian sense of survival,” but weren’t illegal. Later, he developed a “side-door” approach: bribing coaches.
Athletes have a better chance of getting into big-name schools than nonathletes. So Singer created false athletic profiles and asked coaches to designate students as recruits for their soccer, tennis, water polo, or sailing teams, even though they had never competed in the sport. He even helped families stage or Photoshop images of their children playing the sport. Singer ran a for-profit college counseling company called the Edge College & Career Network, or the Key, as well as a non-profit called the Key Worldwide Foundation. Parents gave money to the foundation, disguised as donations, which Singer used to bribe coaches.
Douglas Hodge, a former CEO of the Newport Beach-based investment management firm PIMCO, used Singer to get four of his children into USC and Georgetown as fake athletic recruits. Similarly, Singer helped Full House actress Lori Loughlin and husband Mossimo Giannulli, whose once-ubiquitous fashion line at Target was worth $28 million, slip their two daughters into USC as bogus rowing crew members.
“This whole scandal laid bare college athletics and just how much trust was placed on the coaches,” says LaPorte. “If a coach says this student is a great rower or a great sailor, the admissions team would just take their word for it.”
By 2012, Singer was living in a five-bedroom, Mediterranean villa in Newport Beach. L.A., Orange County, and Silicon Valley became the hubs of his operation. In these elite circles, he was simply known as “the guy.”
“L.A. has a much more transactional culture. There’s this very real culture of pay to play.”
“There were many wealthy parents who were susceptible to him,” says LaPorte. “L.A. is a younger city. A lot of people here who’ve made it to the top of their industry and make a lot of money maybe didn’t go to college. There’s less familiarity with the university system here, so people here get very fixated on only a few of them. It’s a much more transactional culture. There’s this very real culture of pay to play.”
Singer’s other method involved hiring tutors to pose as college exam proctors. Singer controlled testing sites in West Hollywood and Houston, where he bribed administrators to allow Mark Riddell, a Harvard graduate and college counselor from Florida, to either take the ACT or SAT for students or correct their answers.
Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated actress Felicity Huffman had Singer pay Riddell to proctor her daughter Sophia’s SAT test.
Parents gave Singer between $15,000 to $500,000 for his services, though one Chinese family spent $1.2 million, while another shelled out a whopping $6.5 million.
Singer’s downfall came in 2018, when Morrie Tobin, an L.A. financier, tipped off federal prosecutors in Boston. Tobin, who was being investigated for a separate securities fraud case, admitted he had been part of a bribery scheme with a former Yale women’s soccer coach. This led investigators to Singer, who cooperated with the investigation and pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, money laundering, and fraud. He’s awaiting sentencing and faces up to 65 years in prison.
Though the case is ongoing, to date, 22 parents and two coaches have been sentenced to jail: Huffman served 11 days; Loughlin two months; and husband Giannulli is still in prison. Hodge received the longest jail term of nine months.
As LaPorte’s book explains, Operation Varsity Blues wasn’t just about rich parents and their dirty secret, but also about America’s class division and a faulty and cut-throat college admissions system that rewards undeserving students. Exactly a year after the story broke, the pandemic hit. COVID-19’s economic fallout and the fight for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death have only magnified those issues.
“On the one hand, COVID has made the divide between the haves and have nots even more pronounced,” says LaPorte. “When they shut down SAT and ACT test centers because of COVID in California and some other states, that made taking the test very difficult. But some students had the resources to fly to other cities and take the SAT there. They were able to overcome that obstacle. Even if their kids are on Zoom and not getting in-person instruction, their parents are still able to hire tutors. For kids in private schools, their educational journey has not been affected as much as families who don’t have the means and their kids are at public school. But there’s been a big push in higher education to enroll a more diverse student body and that’s been amped up in the last year because of Black Lives Matter. They want to make the class look more like the world we live in.”
Nicole LaPorte and Jeff Selingo discuss Guilty Admissions and Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, Wed., Feb. 24., 6 p.m. More info here.