How Privilege Led to the Biggest College Bribery Scheme in U.S. History

Not Aunt Becky.
March 20, 2019
8 mins read

Imagine spending years of rigorous academic study to qualify for one of the most elite schools in the nation. Soon, you submit your college application and hope for the best, only to receive a letter of rejection from the school, informing you that you haven’t been chosen. You start to agonize about your lack of qualifications and your ruined future, but later it turns out that a recent college bribery scheme may be to blame.

On March 12, during spring break for many college students in America, news broke that over 50 individuals had been charged in a bribery scandal to enroll their children in several of the most elite colleges in the nation. You may recognize the names of some of the accused, such as Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, who starred in the ABC TV series “Desperate Housewives” and “Full House,” respectively.

It turns out that they and other parents involved in the college bribery scheme have been paying an admissions consultant since 2011 to bribe coaches and administrators into convincing colleges that their children excel at a sport, increasing their chances of enrollment. The situation became even shadier when it was revealed that the consultant had hired lookalikes to take the place of the parents’ kids at college entrance exams and paid instructors at testing centers to fix their scores.

The coaches involved in the bribery scheme represented well-known colleges such as Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, the University of Texas, the University of California and several others. Coaches for soccer, sailing, tennis, water polo and volleyball participated in the bribe by recruiting the unqualified students, which was made possible by photoshopping the faces of the kids onto the bodies of actual athletes.

And the man responsible for one of the largest college bribery scandals? His name is William “Rick” Singer, and he helped parents bribe coaches and test instructors through his college preparatory business called The Key, which has its tendrils in 81 American cities and five other countries. He also ran a nonprofit charity to accept the payments of parents involved in the college bribery scheme.

For his central role in the scandal, Singer has pleaded guilty to charges of fraud, racketeering and money laundering. During the investigation, he was also charged with obstruction of justice, after the FBI learned that he had been tipping off several of the parents involved.

As a college student, the only reaction I had when I read news of the college bribery scandal was one word: yikes. Unfortunately, cheating and finding loopholes in admissions systems isn’t a fresh concept.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, there was academic cheating, like test-score manipulation, at the University of Virginia in 2001, the U.S. Naval Academy in 1994, the University of Maryland in 2004 and Duke in 2007. But the recent college bribery scheme separates itself from other acts of academic cheating. Combining the “payments” of all the individuals involved in the scandal, the cost amounted to around $25 million.

According to the AP News, “Federal authorities called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department.”

There’s definitely a lot to unpack, including how the college bribery scheme and others like it reveal a lot about the education culture people feed into, namely one in which wealthy parents obsess over their kids enrolling in an elite university. It’s a symbol of status and prestige, one that conveys to friends and acquaintances that their kids are better than everyone else’s, but the mentality that you’ll only achieve success by attending the best colleges further widens the gap between the wealthy and all the classes beneath them. The saddest part is that even some parents from middle and lower classes buy into the facade.

Another reason why bribery scandals like this one deserve the public’s attention is to how corrupt the education system can be, and how unfair it is to hard-working teenagers who spend hours upon hours perfecting their grades and excelling at extracurriculars. Olivia Jade Giannulli, the daughter of Loughlin (Aunt Becky from “Full House”) and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, could have successfully — not to mention, undeservedly — enrolled at an elite college had her mother not gotten caught.

Giannulli, who attends the University of Southern California, runs a popular YouTube channel with over 1.6 million subscribers. In April 2017, the YouTube star contentiously tweeted, “It’s so hard to try in school when you don’t care about anything you’re learning.”

It’s unknown if Giannulli was even aware of her parent’s bribery, but the outrage over the scandal has already resulted in one California mother suing actresses Huffman and Loughlin for $500 billion — yes, billion.

Jennifer Kay Toy, the mother in question, wrote in a lawsuit, “I’m [out]raged and hurt because I feel that my son, my only child, was denied access to a college not because he failed to work and study hard enough but because wealthy individuals felt… it was ok to lie, cheat, steal and bribe their children’s way into a good college.”

While Toy is most likely not going to receive the $500 billion from her lawsuit, and as laughable as the exorbitant amount is, it just goes to show how cheated many other parents feel about the college bribery scheme that has stolen the limelight.

It’s safe to say that the reputations of those involved in the scandal will be hard to rebuild long after the media stops talking about it, or at least I hope so. The Hallmark Channel, in whose movies Loughlin often starred, has already dropped the actress from any future projects, and Huffman will likely have an equally hard time finding someone willing to take her on in Hollywood.

Coverage of the college bribery scheme will cease once something more timely and shocking hits the newsstands, but the lessons learned from it will hopefully stay in the minds of anyone who values a good — and honest — education.

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