Cleveland Charter High School

Opinion: ‘Operation Varsity Blues’ — the largest college admissions cheating scandal

We are in the midst of one of the largest-ever college admissions scandals, and the outrage from students and alumni nationwide is palpable. As of this writing, 33 parents are facing federal charges for their participation in this cheating scam, according to the Justice Department. These wealthy families include Hollywood stars such as Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, legal titans, and even famous CEOs, and were only caught after a lengthy, nationwide investigation dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” by the FBI, according to released court filings.

The alleged mastermind behind this college admissions cheating scheme is William “Rick” Singer, who even provided his wealthy clients with guarantees of admissions, ABC News reported. Recently, he pled guilty to the conspiracy charges of racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice. Over the course of eight years, families had paid Singer and his accomplices over $25 million, explained Andrew Lelling, US district attorney for Massachusetts, according to ABC News. 

Singer’s scheme even involved changing test scores, the Intelligencer reported. Gordon Caplan, one of the parents implicated by the FBI, allegedly paid $75,000 to doctor his daughter’s ACT score, giving her a 32, when she had supposedly not even passed a 22, according to the Intelligencer. Before his indictment, Caplan was co-chairman of mega-law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher. He has since been placed on leave.

Singer also arranged for students to gain admission to elite universities such as Yale, USC, and Georgetown by posing these unqualified students as athletes, according to the Washington Post. College athletic coaches were bribed into participating in this ruse. For example, one Yale women’s soccer coach was paid $400,000 to help admit one unqualified student into Yale University as a student-athlete even though that student had never played soccer at a high level, the Daily Hampshire Gazette reported.

From Photoshopping the faces of their children into athletic team pictures to correcting standardized test answers, parents used every tactic they could imagine to ensure their less-than-qualified children would be accepted. According to federal officers, Singer even disguised the bribery scheme as a charity, enabling parents to deduct the bribes from their taxes.

The fallout from this scandal is already being felt. The daughters of Lori Loughlin, Olivia Jade Giannulli and Isabella Rose, have reportedly left USC and it is unclear whether they will return, according to the Intelligencer. USC has also released a formal statement that they have investigated all the incoming applicants for associations to this scandal, and USC has reportedly removed six applicants from the acceptance list due to possible connections, Inside Higher Ed reported.

People around the country are angered at these latest events, but questions are being raised about the differences between these tactics and lawful ones that provide unfair advantages to the rich and powerful. It is an unfortunate fact that the parents caught in “Operation Varsity Blues” could have gained admission to elite colleges for their children by simply employing other, equally unfair strategies.

For example, many families simply pay millions of dollars directly to colleges to get their children in. Jared Kushner, the son in law to United States President Donald Trump, is a famous example of this “backdoor” admissions process. He was admitted to Harvard University in 1998 despite having bad grades in high school because his father, New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner, had pledged $2.5 million to the prestigious Ivy League school, which at the time accepted 11% of their applicants. Nowadays, Harvard admits only 5% of their applicants.

A report called “Moving On Up” by New America found that the children of families in the top 1% of earners (at least $700,000 a year) were 77 times more likely to get into an Ivy League college than all of the lower middle class in America combined.

It is a little known fact according to, that private universities reserve about 20% of the entering class for legacies. Legacies refer to the children of prior graduates of that university. These children are, of course, incredibly privileged, even more than the children of the families caught in the cheating scandal. All of the families caught in the present cheating scandal never paid more than $1.5 million to any one college.

In addition, the children of the very wealthy have other unseen advantages. For example, many wealthy children are trained at an early age to be skilled at obscure sports such as rowing. Such training costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, and only the very wealthy could afford such an expense. By dominating the field of  these obscure sports, the children get a better chance to win admission to the best colleges.

We need to understand how truly unfair the present college admission system actually is. Even apart from these families who had been caught, every year, tens of thousands of extremely wealthy families are already able to get their children into the best colleges because of money and privilege.

Like millions of other students, I am an average high school student who has to juggle extracurriculars, sports, and AP classes everyday so that my applications to top colleges can even be considered. Parents around the world work grueling extra hours so that they can afford their children’s dreams of higher education.

However, it is a disheartening thought to know that years of hard work and effort are still worth less to colleges than an open checkbook. It is an unfortunate fact that many parts of the present system of college admissions are inherently unfair to anyone but the children of the rich and powerful. If we truly wanted to fix things, we should be directing our anger at this unfair college admission system, rather than toward the few dozen families who happened to be caught this one time.