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The College Admission Bribery Scandal Is Truly Bizarre

Federal agents arrested dozens of people in connection with a conspiracy to admit the children of the rich and famous into elite universities, sometimes under the pretense of being an NCAA athlete. Its code name: Operation Varsity Blues.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

My favorite part of the still-unfurling college admissions bribery caper—a.k.a. the Great Scantron Scammer Scandal, a.k.a. the 2019 Cheater Charade—is this: “Aw.”

According to a federal indictment, that is what the actress Felicity Huffman said upon learning that the man who was allegedly supposed to help boost her youngest daughter’s SAT score had just had a baby, and so needed some extra notice to prepare. Aw. A baby! How sweet! The bad news—for both Huffman and for the test taker/baby haver, who is now in (legal term incoming) A Lot Of Trouble—is that the person she allegedly discussed the scheme with happened to be a cooperating witness for the government, which, alas, does not seem to think that wealthy parents bribing their children’s way into elite colleges or high test scores is the stuff of pleasant chitchat.

On Tuesday, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston announced charges against dozens of people, including parents, college coaches, and college exam administrators, in a complex pay-to-play plot that helped get children of the rich, famous, and skeptical-of-their-heirs into college, sometimes for exorbitant sums. The group includes many high-profile figures, including actresses Lori Loughlin (who prosecutors say spent $500,000 to get her two daughters into USC as recruits to the crew team) and Huffman (wife to William H. Macy, who was not charged or named in the indictment).

Under the scheme, law enforcement officials said, parents spent between $200,000 and $6.5 million to get their children into elite universities, or between $15,000 and $75,000 to have their children’s SAT or ACT scores artificially improved, either by having a stand-in take the test for them, manually changing incorrect answers after the fact, or giving the students correct answers while they took the test. This led to admissions to institutions including Yale, USC, Georgetown, Stanford, UCLA, UT-Austin, and the University of San Diego (saucily described in the indictment as merely a regularly selective school).

But don’t take it from me—listen to the man whom U.S. attorneys say is the ringleader himself, William Rick Singer, owner of the Edge College & Career Network, who recounts helping a student with so-so grades get diagnosed with a learning disability, a strategy prosecutors say he advised his clients to pursue to help doctor their test scores:

This investigation, in case you were not convinced of the FBI’s seriousness in this matter, was code-named Operation Varsity Blues.

As for the varsity element: Law enforcement officials say that parents looking to get their sweeties into esteemed institutions paid bribes to Singer, who then paid coaches at the given universities. Those coaches allegedly then informed the schools that the students were on their list of recruits, thereby gaining them entrance to the school. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the schools were unaware of the ruse.

Many of these recruited students, however, were not competing at the level their applications indicated, according to the indictment. One devastating footnote mentions that a student whose Georgetown application listed her as having a “top 50 ranking” with the USTA “appears to have ranked 207th in Northern California in the under-12 girls division” … “at her best.” Others weren’t competing at all: Some, like a supposedly “elite high school pole vaulter,” didn’t play the sport at all. (His application used someone else’s picture and, after his parents allegedly decided not to inform him of the recruitment plot, he was surprised to be asked by an adviser during USC orientation if he competed in track. Loughlin’s daughters, the two USC crew recruits, did not participate in crew, either.) Others still eventually did turn up to play on their new teams, but then, according to U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling, who addressed media Tuesday at a press conference, either “played briefly and quit,” or else faked an injury. One parent hoped to pass off his son as a long snapper, but was told that his grades were too low for Notre Dame and Vanderbilt; he was redirected to USC. The hits keep on coming.

Lelling noted Tuesday that the college admissions system is a zero-sum game: Each spot given to a kid whose parents paid up for it came at the expense of someone whose parents didn’t, or couldn’t. “There will not be a separate admissions system for the wealthy,” he said. “And there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”

But lest you think this is the start of some tectonic shift toward collegiate meritocracy—well, Lelling also had this to say: “We’re not talking about donating a building … we’re talking about fraud.”

Which is to say: C’mon, Aunt Becky, just do things the normal way. But at least there’s this: You can buy a Felicity Huffman–branded mug that says “Good Enough Mom.” It’s on sale.