In the summer of 2015, Georgetown University tennis coach Gordon Ernst sent an admissions officer an email that betrayed no hint of a scam.
Ernst, who enjoyed such stature in Washington that he had coached Michelle and Malia Obama, wrote that he wanted to “confirm my usage of three spots.”
Those spots, a precious commodity, represented some of the admissions offers the university would allocate to recruit tennis players for the next freshman class.
Georgetown received nearly 20,000 applications for the class that started in fall 2016. Slightly more than 83 percent were rejected. Precisely 3,369 were admitted. Ernst had a strong say in as many as six of those offers, according to the university, up to three each for the men’s and women’s teams.
Federal authorities charge that he conspired to sell at least some of them.
The scandal involving alleged bribery and cheating that has rocked the world of competitive college admissions in recent days took shape quietly over several years as a California-based consultant named William “Rick” Singer found a way to exploit two major weaknesses in a system that relies on trust. What happened at Georgetown — pieced together from federal court records and university statements, as well as from interviews with officials, admissions experts and others — offers a window into the audacious racket that compromised a core operation at schools from coast to coast.
Singer offered rich parents two illicit services to get their children into elite colleges, prosecutors say: For $15,000 to $75,000, they could buy special test-taking arrangements for the SAT or ACT that provided cover for straight-up cheating; and for much larger sums, sometimes more than $1 million, they could purchase special favors in the admissions offices.
Prosecutors say the mechanism for those favors, which Singer called a “side door,” was bribing athletic coaches to designate unqualified applicants as their recruits at Stanford, Yale, Georgetown and other big-name universities. That designation carries significant weight at colleges seeking to field competitive teams.
Cheating on admissions tests, though disturbing, is unsurprising. But the idea that coaches could be bribed in a sustained and massive scheme to subvert admissions standards has incensed parents and students and stunned university leaders.
“We are deeply troubled by these criminal allegations against Mr. Ernst and his violation of the ethical standards of our University community,” Georgetown President John J. DeGioia said in a statement Friday. “We understand the feelings of shock and disappointment among our students and alumni, who worked so hard to prepare for their time at Georgetown.”
On Tuesday, federal prosecutors in Boston announced that 50 people had been charged with crimes in the case. Among them were 33 parents — including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman — and nine former coaches at Yale, Stanford, Wake Forest and Georgetown, as well as the University of California at Los Angeles, University of Southern California and University of Texas at Austin.
Simultaneously, Singer pleaded guilty to racketeering and other charges. He is cooperating in the ongoing federal investigation in hopes of a lenient sentence. According to the criminal complaint investigators filed, Singer bragged of helping 761 students get into colleges of their choice, suggesting that the full scope of the scheme has yet to be uncovered.
No students were charged, and universities were not accused of wrongdoing.
Ernst, 52, of Chevy Chase, Md., did not respond to telephone and email messages seeking comment. No one answered the door Saturday evening at a house in Chevy Chase listed recently as Ernst’s residence. Court documents do not identify an attorney for him, and the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston said officials there do not have information about an attorney for Ernst.
Admissions professionals have long acknowledged that recruited athletes get special handling. A federal trial — in a separate civil lawsuit over affirmative action — revealed last fall that Harvard gives a significant admissions edge to recruited athletes. More than 80 percent of its applicants with top athletic ratings in a recent six-year period were admitted, an analysis showed. The university’s overall admission rate in that time was about 7 percent.
Often, outrage flares when a university is accused of abandoning academic standards to land stellar athletic talent.
The novelty of the Singer scandal is that coaches were allegedly enhancing the admissions prospects of students with little-to-no athletic talent. Parents allegedly wrote huge checks to make it happen — in one case, $1.2 million for a ticket to Yale for a women’s soccer recruit who didn’t play competitive soccer.
“It really shatters the ethical mold,” said David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, based in Arlington. He said the alleged scheme appeared to be unprecedented for its methods and scope. “I just can’t believe that adults would go to these lengths to rig the college admission process for their children.”
Known as Gordie, Ernst is a native of Rhode Island and played hockey and tennis for Brown University before graduating in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in organizational behavior and management. He competed for a few years as a professional tennis player before moving into coaching, according to an official summary of his career, first at Northwestern University and then the University of Pennsylvania. He became men’s and women’s tennis coach at Georgetown in 2006 and gave lessons to the Obama family when they were in the White House. In 2014, Ernst praised the first lady’s game. “Michelle has a big backhand,” he told the New York Times.
In 2015, Ernst was inducted into the New England Tennis Hall of Fame.
At Georgetown, Ernst coached numerous all-Big-East players, some in recent years. Neither the men’s nor the women’s team was a conference powerhouse. But the men’s team reached the Big East semifinals in 2017, and Ernst was said to have rebuilt the women’s team to help it compete against ranked opponents.
The teams are not large. Sometimes players walk on, the university said, but most are recruits. The men’s team this year lists 12 players and the women’s team eight. The annual recruiting total varies. In a typical year, there might be five or six.
How the alleged recruiting scam might have affected Georgetown’s rosters and results from year to year is unclear. Both teams posted a mix of winning and losing records in the past five years.
Prosecutors have accused Ernst of taking more than $2.7 million in bribes from Singer — “falsely labeled as ‘consulting’ fees” — from 2012 to 2018, according to an indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts.
In exchange for the alleged bribes, prosecutors say, Ernst named at least 12 applicants as recruits, including some who did not play tennis competitively, easing their path into Georgetown.
On Aug. 19, 2015, an applicant allegedly forwarded an email to Ernst that contained a fake listing of tennis accomplishments. Ernst sent it along to an admissions officer, the indictment says, and then followed up two days later with the email checking on his “three spots.” All three went to Singer clients, the indictment says, and Ernst received checks totaling $700,000 from September 2015 through August 2016.
Georgetown stumbled onto problems with Ernst’s recruiting methods in late 2017 as admissions officers were having routine conversations with high school counselors and other educators. Details of those discussions were unclear. But Georgetown spokeswoman Meghan Dubyak said the admissions officers discovered “irregularities in the athletic and other credentials” of two of Ernst’s recruits. The university put Ernst on leave in December 2017 and launched an investigation with outside counsel. That probe, Dubyak said, found that Ernst broke university rules, but it did not find evidence of criminal activity or bribes.
The university asked Ernst to resign, and he left Georgetown on June 30, 2018. He then secured a position as head coach of women’s tennis at the University of Rhode Island. Officials there said they vetted Ernst before hiring him and he received a positive recommendation from Georgetown’s athletic director, Lee Reed. (The university put Ernst on leave last week, pending its own review.)
Asked why Georgetown would recommend him, Dubyak said: “It was widely known that Mr. Ernst had been on leave since December 2017 and had not been permitted to coach students since that time. Any statement Georgetown made after asking him to resign focused on his athletic record only.”
Dubyak said Georgetown first learned of alleged criminal activity when the U.S. attorney’s office contacted the university in November 2018. She said the university cooperated fully in the investigation.
Experts say the best way to prevent athletic recruiting trouble is for admissions and athletic officials to consult with one another.
“The gold standard is really close collaboration with your coaches in looking at each recruit,” said Andrew Flagel, a former admissions chief at George Mason and Brandeis universities who is now a vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Sometimes, the two offices fight over admissions. But Flagel said the “most insidious model” is when coaches are given “slots” to recommend filling with little oversight or internal checks. “They get a certain number,” he said, “and sometimes it’s just up to the coach to decide how to play these cards.”
At Georgetown, prosecutors say, 158 admissions slots a year are designated for athletic recruiting. The Jesuit university, with about 7,400 undergraduates, has more than 600 student-athletes in 29 varsity intercollegiate programs.
Georgetown officials insist that athletic recruits get rigorous review from admissions committees and are held to high academic standards. They must submit the same applications as non-athletes and answer the same essay questions on a form unique to Georgetown. The longtime dean of admissions, Charles Deacon, supervises the committees that make final calls on who gets in.
In November, Georgetown tightened internal controls to require more systematic review of athletic credentials of its recruits and audits of how many of those admitted actually join teams.
Sarah Hua, 19, a freshman tennis player at Lehigh University, said she met Ernst years ago and grew up in the Washington area with her heart set on Georgetown. Hua moved to Florida during high school so she could train with top tennis coaches. She played six hours a day and took classes online.
When Ernst invited her for an official visit in her junior year of high school, Hua thought her chances were good. “He seemed really genuine,” Hua said. “He loved all the girls on his team like they were his daughters.”
Ernst told Hua she needed a higher SAT score. She said she did raise her score 100 points, to about 1300. But in a subsequent visit to Georgetown, she was heartbroken to learn that she had been turned down because of questions about her score and her school. “I honestly really felt like I was cheated out of this opportunity,” Hua said.
On the campus in Northwest Washington, students expressed resignation and dismay at the reminder of the power of wealth. Georgetown in recent years has sought to expand its share of students who come from families of modest means. But federal data show more than half pay full price for tuition, fees, room and board. This school year that totals about $70,000.
Gabby Elliott Brault, 20, a sophomore, said the scandal is disheartening.
“As a low-income, first-generation college student, I feel a little attacked by the news,” she said. “It’s another example of wealthy students buying their way into the university and taking spots away from deserving applicants who have a harder time getting into Georgetown.”
For Christian Paz, 21, a senior, the scandal provided more evidence that the system is tilted against people like him, a first-generation college student from South Los Angeles. And it resurfaced memories of his own admissions process, fraught with stress he had to navigate without help from his parents.
He said first-generation students are “trying to break into these spaces of higher education and . . . have been made to feel like we don’t belong.
“There are actual impostors on this campus, actual people who shouldn’t be here.”
John Hasnas, a business professor and executive director of the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics, said he gave the university some credit for spotting a problem with Ernst in 2017. Still, Hasnas said the scandal was shocking in its national scope and duration.
“The blatancy of the schemes suggests people involved knew universities weren’t paying proper attention and were easy to defraud in this way,” Hasnas said.
As a father of a college-bound daughter, Hasnas said, he is stunned at the sums allegedly spent on cheating and bribery.
“You have to be very into the status of the school to be willing to spend that much money,” he said.
Morgan Smith contributed to this report.