The College Admissions Scam Shows How Parents Duped Their Kids, Too

Olivia Jade and Lori Loughlin.
Olivia Jade and Lori Loughlin. Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

“Trojan happiness” was the subject line of an email that actress Lori Loughlin’s husband sent to the man who, according to an affidavit, conned their daughter into college. “She is very excited and both Lori and I are very appreciative of your efforts and end result!” he wrote of her acceptance to the University of Southern California.

Loughlin, her husband, and dozens of other wealthy parents participated in a “nationwide conspiracy” to get their kids into elite schools by cheating on exams and in high-school classes, faking athletic prowess through doctored profiles, and offering kickbacks to coaches. One of the most dismal parts of this scandal: In many cases, the kids seemed to have no idea that it was happening. Their parents were trying to shield them from the realities of one of the crueler processes many teenagers have to endure: college admissions.

Wiretapped and recorded phone calls, transcribed and submitted in the affidavit by an FBI special agent, reveal the details. They’re between parents and Cooperating Witness 1 (who is unnamed in the document but, according to CNN, is the scam’s ringleader Rick Singer), the founder of the Key Worldwide Foundation through which hefty payments from parents were laundered.

In a call with defendant Gordon Caplan, a lawyer in Connecticut, Singer explained that the kids whose parents paid him to rig SAT and ACT exams (price tag: $15,000 to $75,000 per test) often thought they earned the score themselves:

It was so funny ’cause the kids will call me and say, “Maybe I should do that again. I did pretty well and if I took it again, I’ll do better even.” Right? And they just have no idea that they didn’t even get the score that they thought they got.

What actually happened, per the affidavit: Kids would apply to get extra time on the SAT and ACT by faking learning disabilities. (The kids are kind of in on this part: The witness advises parents to coach kids to “be stupid,” and “be slow” during the evaluation.) Granted extra time, the parents also make up a reason that they need to take the exam out of town—say, because they’ll be at a wedding. This all acts as an excuse to both test administrators and the kids as to why they need to take the test at one of the Singer’s designated test centers (often located in another state). At the center, after a kid handed in the exam, someone would either correct their scores or swap the exam with one that’s been taken on their behalf. The child would get a good score and be none the wiser.

“She’ll feel good about herself,” Singer promised Caplan of his daughter.

As salacious revelations about this scandal unfurl, it’s hard not to feel for these students who might be, for the first time, realizing that some of their achievements were literally paid for. But the alternative seems not-great, too: showing up at college and being mysteriously behind academically, and also unused to coping with the inevitable dramatic failures of young adulthood, having become accustomed to parents bailing them out. (It seems fair to speculate that this is a recipe for at least a few children to grow up to be entitled scammers themselves.)

Nonetheless, parents went out of their way to pull the wool over their children’s eyes as they snuck them in the “side door” of college admissions (as the main witness euphemistically called it). In one case, marketing firm CEO Jane Buckingham’s child was too sick to fly to Houston, where the exam-cheating was set up to happen. Someone took the exam in his place while he stayed home. Buckingham, according to the affidavit, planned to give him a practice copy of the ACT and pretend that it was a real exam that she was “proctoring,” so that he could still believe he was the one responsible for the score. Though she was trying to shield him, I imagine that the fallout he’s experienced Tuesday is much, much worse than simply dealing with the reality of a lackluster ACT score as a high schooler.

According to the affidavit, actress Felicity Huffman even strategized at one point to have her younger daughter take the exam once without cheating, and once with, because she knew her daughter would want at least one chance to improve her score. “I just know that no matter what, she’s so academically driven … no matter what happens, even if we go, ‘This is a great score,’ that she’ll go, ‘I really want to take it again,’ ” Huffman said in a recorded phone call. (She ended up not enrolling that daughter in the scheme.)

While these parents don’t vocalize concerns about damaging their children’s esteem in more subtle ways, they are aware of the pain that would follow if their scheme got out. At one point Caplan asks, “But what I’m—what I’m asking is, is there any way for this to get back to [my daughter] or to the family?” He’d noted in another conversation: “It’s just, to be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here. I’m worried about the, if she’s caught doing that, you know, she’s finished.”