Wednesday, 13 March 2019

How wealthy Americans ‘get their kids into university'

 Joshua Chaffin in The FT

William McGlashan had to make his son a football player. And quickly. 

In exchange for a $250,000 payment, a California-based university-admissions consultant had arranged for the younger McGlashan to skirt the normal application process at the University of Southern California and be accepted as a prized American football recruit. A “side door” into the university, the consultant, William Singer, called it. 

The problem was that the boy did not play football. They did not even have a football team at his secondary school. “We have images of him in lacrosse. I don’t know if that matters,” offered Mr McGlashan, a top executive at the private equity firm TPG and co-founder with rock star Bono of the Rise Fund, a socially conscious investment vehicle. 

“They [USC] don’t have a lacrosse team,” Mr Singer responded. Then he took matters into his own hands. “I’m going to make him a kicker/punter,” he decided, listing specialist positions in the sport often occupied by the slight of frame. “I’ll get a picture and figure out how to Photoshop and stuff.” 

“He does have really strong legs,” Mr McGlashan joked. 

The two men bantered about the deal, and how Mr Singer had made other applicants appear to be champion water polo players for the same purpose. Months earlier, the 55-year-old Mr McGlashan had paid Mr Singer $50,000 to have someone doctor his son’s university entrance exam. “Pretty funny. The way the world works these days is unbelievable,” Mr McGlashan observed. 

"I can do anything and everything, if you guys are amenable to doing it"   William Singer, founder of The Edge College & Career Network 

Those discussions are reproduced in a criminal complaint filed by the Justice Department on Tuesday after an investigation into bribery in college admissions that resulted in charges against 50 individuals — including prominent actors and investors — and involved some of the most prestigious names in US higher education. 

At the centre of the scheme was Mr Singer, 58, who was fired in 1988 as a high school basketball coach in Sacramento because of his abusive behaviour toward referees. He later reinvented himself as a svengali in Newport Beach for his apparent mastery of the increasingly cut-throat university admissions game. On Tuesday Mr Singer pleaded guilty to federal charges including racketeering conspiracy and obstruction of justice. 

“OK, so, who we are — what we do is help the wealthiest families in the US get their kids into school,” Mr Singer told one prospective client, Gordon Caplan, the co-chairman of the prominent US law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher. 

In extensive phone conversations authorities recorded with 32 parents, Mr Singer comes off as an indispensable problem-solver and quasi-magician — a man able to spare one client, the actress of Lori Loughlin, the apparent indignity of having to send her daughter to Arizona State University. 

“I can make [test] scores happen, and nobody on the planet can get scores to happen,” he boasted to one client of his consultancy, The Edge College & Career Network. 

“She won’t even know that it happened. It will happen as though, she will think that she’s really super smart, and she got lucky on a test, and you got a score now. There’s lots of ways to do this. I can do anything and everything, if you guys are amenable to doing it.” 

All told, Mr Singer collected about $25m in bribes over a seven-year period, according to authorities. 

 US college admissions are supposed to be a merit-based business. But it has always had its set-aside places for legacy applicants and the children of those willing to fork over enough money. 

At a time when the affordability of university education is emerging as a major political issue, the revelation that the moneyed elites had gamed the system for their children — at the expense of more deserving candidates — is likely to be seized on by politicians. 

Daniel Golden won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Price of Admission, which detailed the underside of the business at a time when globalisation was raising the value of a prestigious university degree — and making it evermore competitive for students to access them. 

Writing for The Guardian newspaper in 2016, Mr Golden called it the “grubby secret of American higher education: that the rich buy their underachieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations”. 

He claimed that President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner — not regarded as a brilliant scholar in high school — was accepted by Harvard not long after his father Charles made a $2.5m donation to the university. 

Mr Singer called that “the backdoor”. At The Edge, he came up with a “side door”: arranging bribes for tennis, sailing and soccer coaches so that they would sneak his applicants into school as ostensible sports stars. 

As the criminal complaint noted, many of the schools reserve admissions spaces for their athletics department: “At Georgetown, approximately 158 admissions slots are allocated to athletic coaches, and students recruited for those slots have substantially higher admissions prospects than non-recruited students.” 

USC, a school that was once considered more expensive than selective, was one of Mr Singer’s best bets. With the alleged connivance of the school’s senior women’s athletic director, Donna Heinel, he wangled spots for applicants supposedly destined for its water polo, basketball, football and rowing teams. Ms Heinel and the water polo coach, Jovan Vavic, were dismissed by the school on Tuesday and also criminally charged. 

Running through the complaint is the angst of affluent parents caught up in a school admissions process that is increasingly viewed as a make-or-break gateway to future success. 

One of those charged, Agustin Huneeus, a California vineyard owner, appears tormented that his daughter is losing out to Mr McGlashan’s son, a schoolmate. 

“Is Bill [McGlashan] doing any of this shit? Is he just talking a clean game with me and helping his kid or not? Cause he makes me feel guilty.” 

Mr Huneeus paid $50,000 for someone to doctor his daughter’s college entrance exam. She ended up scoring in the 96th percentile. 

Like Mr McGlashan, Mr Huneeus also opted to pay Mr Singer $250,000 to buy her admission to USC — in this case as a star water polo player. The girl was late in sending a picture so Mr Singer found one of an actual water polo player and submitted that instead.  

On one occasion Mr Singer had two different clients unwittingly sitting fraudulent entrance exams in the same testing room. In order for the scheme to work, he repeatedly emphasised to parents it was essential that they petitioned for medical exemptions so that their children could be given extra time to complete the test — ideally a few days. That way proctors bribed by Mr Singer would have occasion to adjust the results. 

“What happened is, all the wealthy families that figured out that if I get my kid tested and they get extended time, they can do better on the test. So most of these kids don’t even have issues, but they’re getting time. The playing field is not fair,” Mr Singer explains to Mr Caplan, the lawyer, as he markets his services. 

“No, it’s not. I mean this is, to be honest, it feels a little weird. But,” Mr Caplan responds. 

Ultimately, one thing that Mr Caplan and the parents shared was a determination to keep the scheme secret from the children they were desperate to help. It was no easy feat since, in some cases, test scores would be massively inflated for mediocre — even poor — students. 

There was also the need to secure the medical waivers and then petition for the students to take the test at specific facilities in Houston or Hollywood controlled by Mr Singer. (He often advised parents to tell authorities their students had to travel on the appointed date for a wedding or bar mitzvah.) 

“Now does he, here’s the only question, does he know? Is there a way that he doesn’t know what happened?” Mr McGlashan asked of his son at one point. 

Mr McGlashan — who was placed on “indefinite administrative leave” by TPG on Tuesday and did not respond to requests for comment — seemingly managed to put aside his reservations. 

So did another parent, Marci Palatella, the chief executive of a California liquor distributor. She and her spouse paid Mr Singer $500,000 to secure their son’s admission to USC after apparently hearing about his services from “people at Goldman Sachs who have, you know, recommended you highly”. 

As Ms Palatella later confided to Mr Singer, she and her partner “laugh every day” about the scheme. “We’re like, ‘It was worth every cent.’”

FBI affidavit: overview of the conspiracy 

Parents paid about $25m in bribes between 2011 and 2018.

Colleges and universities involved included Yale University, Stanford University, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California, and the University of California Los Angeles, Georgetown and Wake Forest 

Bribes to college entrance exam administrators allowed a third party to assist in cheating on college entrance exams, in some cases posing as the actual students, and in others by providing students with answers during the exams or by correcting their answers after they had completed the exams 

Bribes to university athletic coaches and administrators to designate students as purported athletic recruits regardless of their athletic abilities, and, in some cases, even though they did not play the sport they were purportedly recruited to play 

Having a third party take classes in place of the actual students, with the understanding that grades earned in those classes would be submitted as part of the student’s college applications 

Submitting falsified applications for admission to universities that included the fraudulently obtained exam scores and class grades, and often listed fake awards and athletic activities 

Disguising the nature and source of the bribe payments by funnelling the money through the accounts of a purported, tax-deductible, charity, The Key Worldwide Foundation, from which many of the bribes were then paid

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