The FBI have unsealed the documents from ‘Operation Varsity Blues’, alleging that $25 million in bribes were paid by people looking to sneak around the usual university admittance process between 2011 and 2018.
Fifty people – including 33 parents and various sports coaches – have been indicted as a result. The case has drawn widespread media coverage due to the alleged involvement of high profile celebrities like Felicity Huffman (of Desperate Housewives fame), Lori Loughlin (of Full House fame), and Olivia Jade (Lori’s social media famous daughter). In addition to these celebrities, alleged parents include the managers and CEOs of large American investment companies, hotel chains, law firms, and wineries.
Traditional US college admission has centred around three methods. The ‘front door’ (where students do the application as per usual with standardised testing and college essays), the ‘back door’ (where wealthy parents and their kids flex their muscle through large donations and gifts in order to secure admission), and what admissions scandal instigator William Rick Singer is calling the ‘side door’. This fraud centers around the latter: through payments ranging from $500,000 to $1.2 million, Singer and his associates are alleged to have helped these parents commit entrance subterfuge. In the case of Lori Loughlin it is alleged they committed admissions fraud by having her daughter Olivia pretend to be a rower in order to secure admission at the University of Southern California. Other deceptive methods the FBI alleged Singer and his associates committed included testing fraud – which involved faking learning disability needs to take SAT and ACT tests home in order to achieve a higher score – and having other people write entrance applications.
In order to facilitate the payments of parents Singer founded a non-profit organisation called Key Worldwide. The organisation, founded in 2014, claimed to help “disadvantaged students around the world”. However, according to the authorities, it functioned as a façade through which the side door payments could be funnelled as “charity donations”. Singer pocketed some of the cash and paid the rest in bribes to those who could help him get the results he guaranteed for admission and test fraud.
The FBI have laid criminal charges against all parties involved, but there are also people seeking compensation. One woman has filed a $500 billion civil suit in San Francisco against all the indicted individuals, claiming that her son was denied admission to some schools because of other parents buying their way in. More broadly, the response to this school scandal has inspired spirited debate on the equality and nature of the American college admission system with senator Elizabeth Warren commenting on how this scandal demonstrates “the rich and powerful take care of their own”.