In March 2019, self-styled college admissions coach William Singer was thrust into the national spotlight after a federal investigation into a nationwide admissions fraud scheme known as Operation Varsity Blues.
Singer was accused of acting as an intermediary for wealthy parents who sought to ensure their children’s admission to elite colleges and universities.
To help achieve his clients’ goals, Singer sometimes facilitated fake biographies for students and bribed coaches and test examiners by laundering money through his foundation, known as “The Key,” under the slogan “unlocking potential, creating opportunity.”
Singer reportedly earned up to US$25 million over recent decades from parents hoping to secure their children’s acceptance into top schools. After his indictment by federal prosecutors, Singer admitted to the fraud, and has since helped investigators incriminate other parents.
Some of the schools where Singer’s clients were eventually accepted include Georgetown, UCLA, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of San Diego, Wake Forest, USC, Stanford and Yale.
Stanford and Yale are particularly difficult to get into, with acceptance rates of less than 10%.
Rise in consulting
According to his lawyers, William Singer was involved in education consulting as far back as 1992 when he started a personal consultancy business in the Sacramento area. While getting admitted into top schools was difficult at the time, it had not yet become the challenge it is today.
Singer was known for being “aggressive” and “demanding” in his dealings with families and school personnel. He’s also reported to have promised things he couldn’t guarantee, but fraud and bribery were not yet part of his toolkit.
Around 2011, federal authorities report that Singer’s business model started to change. He founded The Key and started to sell his services beyond Southern California. High profile clients also began showing interest.
According to federal prosecutors, it was at this time that Singer started to elicit bribes from parents in what he described as the “side door” entrance to campus. Singer reportedly argued that if parents gave large donations to schools through Singer’s facilitation, the chances of their children being accepted would increase.
Soon after, coaches and testing administrators were also included in his schemes, where he assured those involved that they would be engaging in common practices.
“You can tell them I did 760 of these this year,” he reportedly told a coach in 2018, referring to the use of fraudulent credentials.
“I can do anything and everything, if you guys are amenable to doing it,” he assured parent clients in one instance.
After the news of Singer’s complicity in the fraud went public, some parents who had used his services said they were surprised by the allegations and had been unaware that any illegal activity was taking place behind the scenes.
According to The Key’s website, which was taken down after the scandal broke, 90,000 customers had benefited from Singer’s advice and assistance throughout the years. In the federal investigation, 52 people were alleged to be involved in illegal admissions activity overall, including 35 parents.
Federal prosecutors claim that many of Singer’s clients did not break the law and received legal consulting advice from his firm. These include the family of retired NFL quarterback Joe Montana. Montana was not accused of a crime and later remarked that his children “were able to pick from a number of schools to attend due to their hard work and their merit.”
Nevertheless, even aspects of Singer’s public advice turned the heads of more mainstream college advisors, particularly his advised tactic of developing a personal brand in order to stand out and make connections.
“She got totally engaged in her brand, in her story and her passion by creating a youth movement around global warming. Now that she’s at college that brand is continuing,” Singer said in a video uploaded to his now defunct YouTube channel in 2013, extolling the virtues of personal branding utilized by one of his clients.
Pressure from prosecutors?
After Singer pleaded guilty to the charges, he made a deal with prosecutors to help provide evidence of other instances when parents sought illegal means to get their children admitted to top schools.
According to Singer, federal prosecutors allegedly told him to “bend the truth” in order to implicate some of the parents being investigated.
14 parents have pleaded not guilty to the charges and are using the allegations to argue that their indictments should be dismissed. On April 17, the judge handling the cases, Nathaniel M. Gorton, told prosecutors that they would have to address in detail these “serious and disturbing” allegations.
The next round of court cases on the matter are set to take place in early October of this year. Singer was released on US$500,000 bail after his guilty plea. Since cooperating with federal investigators, he has resumed his life in Southern California.
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