Among those arrested in the Key Worldwide Foundation bust, code-named Operation Varsity Blues, were the actress Felicity Huffman, accused of paying $15,000 for a college exam proctor to secretly correct her daughter’s test scores; the actress Lori Loughlin, accused of paying $500,000 to falsely list her two daughters as athletic recruits; and the parenting book author Jane Buckingham, accused of paying someone to take the ACT for her son and then asking for a copy of the exam to administer to him at home so he would think he’d really taken the test.
The desperation of the Varsity Blues scam is astounding, especially given that it involves enormously wealthy and influential people, who in a prior generation might have taken more legal, but no less forceful, actions to get their children into college. Why would so many respected people allegedly risk so much for something that ultimately matters so little?
I suspect for the same reasons the Fyre Festival exploded — a pervasive culture of influence, surface appearances and the fear of missing out so great that you’ll do anything, even scam your child’s way into college, to avoid it. If you’re born on third base and don’t make it home, the whole team ends up looking a little silly.
Part of what makes the Varsity Blues scandal so resonant is that it bluntly exposed workarounds that already exist to undermine higher education’s facade of meritocracy. It has long been legal — if distasteful — for wealthy parents to bribe colleges, a fact federal prosecutors helpfully highlighted in a news conference Tuesday.
"We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school’s more likely to take your son or daughter,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling told reporters.
William Singer, the admissions adviser at the heart of the scam, offered parents two theoretical improvements on this model. He allegedly floated his services as a bargain relative to the old-fashioned route to purchasing a place in a freshman class, a claim that counts as a scam within a scam; endowments at a university such as Duke start at $100,000, which given what some of the parents paid, would have counted as a bargain. And, as he said in court, “That was what made it very attractive to so many families, is I created a guarantee.”
Some of the parents were allegedly instructed to qualify their kids for extra time, a scam private school parents have been pulling for years by hiring a psychiatrist for a blanket diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. According to federal officials, the Varsity Blues parents went further, using the diagnosis to route their children to special test centers controlled by Singer to allegedly facilitate cheating. In other cases, Singer allegedly directed parents to create fake applications with staged competition photos and paid university staffers to classify their kids as athletic recruits.
Like the Fyre Festival disaster, the Varsity Blues scam is shocking because of an apparent disconnect: In both cases, ambitious people went to extraordinary lengths to create the appearance of success and, along the way, lost track of the substance.
The Fyre Festival’s Billy McFarland used a promotional video full of Instagram models and a savvy social media rollout strategy to convince prospective ticket buyers that he had a private island set up to offer an outrageously luxurious music festival experience. The Varsity Blues families allegedly used cruder methods, including Photoshopped pictures of kids participating in sports they didn’t play and faked “athletic résumés," and then backing up their fictions with outrageous sums of cash.
And to bring it all full circle, in at least one case, Singer’s scam allegedly facilitated the kind of social media profiteering that McFarland took advantage of to promote the Fyre Festival. Olivia Giannulli, Loughlin’s 19-year-old Instagram influencer daughter, scored an Amazon Student Prime endorsement deal her first month at the University of Southern California, where she was allegedly accepted as a crew recruit after submitting an application with a “photograph of [Olivia] on an ergometer.” According to the indictment, Giannulli has never rowed on a crew team.
Singer delivered in a way that McFarland couldn’t: He actually got these privileged kids into school. But like McFarland, Singer found out that you can fake it only so far, whether that’s when your festival attendees show up and find Federal Emergency Management Agency tents and cheese sandwiches instead of a glam festival experience, or when the feds accuse your parents of not trusting you not to disgrace them.
Part of it, I’d guess, is that some of these kids didn’t even want to go to college. Loughlin’s daughter, Giannulli, came under fire last August ahead of her freshman year orientation, when she told her nearly 2 million YouTube subscribers that “I don’t know how much of school I’m gonna attend.”
The day after the fall semester began, Giannulli reportedly flew to Fiji for work. In her earlier YouTube video, she had warned that sort of thing might happen.
“I’m gonna go in and talk to my deans and everyone, and hope that I can try and balance it all. But I do want the experience of like game days, partying,” she said. “I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.”
Her mom, who did, is now facing up to five years in prison for the way she allegedly got her there.