William Rick Singer, CEO of college admissions preparatory company The Key, pleaded guilty to racketeering, conspiracy, money laundering, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice in March 2019. These serious offenses were committed as part of a wide-ranging scam to help wealthy families get their children into elite universities by cheating on exams, bribing college coaches, and falsifying application materials.
Singer was hardly alone. In fact, dozens of university coaches from Yale, Stanford, and other prestigious schools; parents; exam administrators; and other individuals across several states were also charged at the time for their roles in college admissions fraud schemes.
It's not the first case involving college admissions fraud crimes, but the sheer breadth and brazen nature of these offenses profoundly rattled public trust in the admissions process. Below we'll look at how these crimes are committed and the various charges they entail.
College Admissions and the Incentive to Commit Fraud
To understand how people might be motivated to game the system, we need to consider how the admissions process works. Generally, colleges and universities look at standardized exams (primarily the SAT and ACT), high school scores, teacher recommendations, athletic achievement, and other activities. Each school does things a little differently, but they may have a cutoff point for exam scores or assign values to various criteria.
Therefore, families of means whose children's grades, exam scores, athletic ability, or other attributes don't quite make the cut may be tempted to buy their way into an elite college.
College Admissions Fraud: Cheating, Bribery, and Deception
The scandal involving Singer and his company consisted of allegations covering two main fraudulent activities:
- Bribing university coaches to help falsify athletic credentials, often claiming achievement in sports in which the child never participated; and
- Cheating on the SAT and/or ACT, often paying for someone else to bribe text administrators and take the test in the student's place.
According to prosecutors in the investigation, some parents paid as much as $75,000 per test in hopes of gaming the system. Actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, were charged for allegedly paying as much as $500,000 in bribes to falsely portray their two daughters as competitive rowers in an effort to gain admission to the University of Southern California.
Other acts of college admissions fraud (not related to the Singer investigation) also involved cheating, deception, and bribery (or influence peddling), some of them perpetuated by the colleges themselves. They include the following:
- The Ivy League Imposter - Adam Wheeler pleaded guilty to 20 charges in 2010, including identity fraud and larceny, for lying his way into Harvard. The court ordered Wheeler, dubbed the "Ivy League Imposter," to repay nearly $46,000 in financial assistance.
- New York SAT Cheating Ring - Fifteen high school students paid as much as $3,000 for five college students to take the SAT on their behalf using fake I.D.s. in 2011. Charges included scheming to defraud, criminal impersonation, and falsifying business records.
- Courting Politically Connected Applicants - In 2009, former University of Illinois associate director of admissions Abel Montoya testified that each office on campus maintained a "Category I" list of politically connected candidates in order to "encourage" their admission over equally or more-qualified candidates.
College Admissions Fraud Crimes: Specific Charges
Charges related to college admissions fraud crimes vary by jurisdiction and the underlying facts of each case, but these are some of the most common charges:
- Conspiracy to Commit Racketeering - A "racket" is an illegal scheme, often conducted under the guise of legitimacy, and a "conspiracy" is a plan by more than one person to commit illegal acts.
- Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud - This crime includes any scheme to obtain money or property under false pretenses through the U.S. Postal Service or any private interstate delivery service. The majority of those charged in the Singer investigation were charged with this offense.
- Conspiracy to Commit Wire Fraud - Like mail fraud, this crime includes schemes to obtain money or property under false pretenses; instead of the mail, however, this is conducted through telephone lines or electronic communications.
- Money Laundering - This offense applies in instances where an individual paying or receiving a bribe makes efforts to hide the source (or destination) of the bribery funds. For example, Singer allegedly instructed co-conspirators to deposit their bribe into a fake charity account he had established.
- Identity Fraud/Theft - The use of a fake Social Security number or other personal identifying information to gain something of value, such as entrance into a top-flight university by impersonating someone of lesser financial means.
Involved in a College Admissions Fraud Crime? Get Legal Help Today
Most parents will go to great lengths to provide for their children, sometimes going too far. If you're in any way involved in a scheme to get your child admitted into a school using questionable means, you may be facing serious charges. Learn more about the legal boundaries, and your rights, by speaking with an expert criminal defense attorney near you today.