In the fall of 2017, a group of 75 or so well-heeled parents from the toniest neighborhoods of Los Angeles gathered in a ballroom at the Hotel Bel-Air to listen to college counselor William “Rick” Singer say the words they’ve been dreaming of hearing since their progeny began to walk: “We will get your child into college.” These were upper-class parents, the kind who had spent the previous 15 or so years fretting over the butterfly effect of every educational decision they made concerning their child: Did we put them in the right nursery school? Did the private school we chose correctly correlate with our child’s unique style of learning? Does their résumé feature the correct ratio of athletics to community service? In Singer, they found a man who vowed to somehow make sure all of those decisions had been correct.
“Listen to me,” he told them, “and I will get your child into college.”
Moments after his spiel ended, Singer found himself in conversation with one concerned mother whose daughter struggled with standardized tests, her scores still not at the level they needed to be. Did Singer have any suggestions for her? According to this mother, who asked not to be identified by name, Singer said within five minutes of beginning the conversation, “We could have her take the test with one of my proctors, and we could jump her score up three or four points so it wouldn’t be that obvious. It will cost you $15,000.”
Count her among those not entirely surprised that Singer, 58, agreed on Tuesday to plead guilty to racketeering conspiracy, money-laundering conspiracy, and other charges at the center of a scam that has ensnared 13 coaches, administrative officials, and associates of Singer’s, 33 parents including Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin, and Mossimo Giannulli, and has gripped news readers eager to learn its every absurd detail.
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“I didn’t know what exactly he was saying,” said the woman, recalling the incident some 18 months later. “At first, it didn’t hit me. ‘How are you going to do this?’ ‘She’s taking the test.’ ‘How will it improve?’ Then, all of a sudden, it hit me. Holy shit; he was telling me he could rig it. I could not have been more mortified.”
Since news of the scandal first broke, little else is being discussed among parents in Los Angeles. Many are livid that the gross inequities of the college-admissions process are even more egregious than they originally thought. Others closer to Singer’s business, the Key, were in preservation mode: with reports of parents canceling checks to the entrepreneur while others braced for impact, worried that any association with the counselor would sully their child’s reputation, valid or not. By Wednesday morning, scores of people were doing what they could to remove their names as friends from Singer’s Facebook page. The page was dismantled by lunchtime.
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Still others believe there is more to come. “Parents will do whatever they can to get them into school,” said the mother. “In desperate situations, when money is no object, they probably thought, ‘What’s the worst that can happen? They won’t get in.’”
Before Singer moved his business down to Southern California, he was a fixture in the Bay Area, reportedly working with both titans of the tech business—Steve Jobs, venture capitalist John Doerr —and other families of more modest means. One father I spoke with, who also asked that his name not be used, began working with Singer in 2006 to help his oldest child with his college admissions. The counselor stayed on to tutor his two younger children as well. Singer would visit the family every few weeks to work with the children on their SAT test prep, check in with them on their grades, review essays
“He was very knowledgeable about the admission process, and he had a lot of ideas about what you should do to boost your application,” said the father. “None of it was illegal.”
To him, it came as a huge shock when Singer’s name was featured in Tuesday’s indictment. “This is not the Rick I know. My experience was nothing but good, and I think my kids would say the same,” he said. “He was tough on them. He wasn’t trying to provide them a mechanism for the easy road. It was one of the reasons I liked him. He was someone my kids respected who was providing the same message as me.”
It appears that methodology warped by the time Singer finished with this Sacramento-based family and segued to Southern California, where he relocated his business the Key, which in addition to providing traditional college-counseling services, promised to develop a “personal brand” for teenagers that would help them stand out among the throngs of other applicants. Child-development specialist Betsy Brown Braun recalls sharing a stage with the college counselor during an event one year ago in Bellevue, Washington, put on by the Young Presidents’ Organization. First, Braun spoke to the crowd of parents with children ranging in age from nursery school through high school, highlighting her message of cultivating self-reliance and resilience. Then Singer, dressed in a tracksuit, took the stage
“He was just very frenetic. His presentation was very slick: you have to get your kids ready, you have to create a brand for them, etc., etc.,” said Braun in an interview. “The parents are frantically writing, everybody is salivating, and I’m thinking, ‘What is going on?’ It’s crazy what this guy is saying. It’s completely antithetical to what I am, to what I believe.”
Braun also runs parenting groups in Los Angeles, and she has urged her clients to steer clear of Singer. “I thought he was selling trickery,” she said, adding that two of the people indicted on Tuesday happen to be her own clients. It’s a stunning development to the parent educator and author. The Huffman news shook her in particular. “I know her,” she said. “She’s a really good lady. Was she just so desperate?”
“It costs $10,000 to $20,000 for a college counselor, and that’s without bribery,” she said. “If you go into this process so closed off that you think college counselors can get your student into college, you need to do some serious examination. No one gets your child into college besides your child. Where is our faith in our kids? The process has spun out of control.”
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