American Greed

Even with Operation Varsity Blues guilty pleas, college admission coaches remain unregulated

More than a year after revelations that college admissions consultant William "Rick" Singer accepted millions of dollars in bribes to get children of the rich and famous into top schools, the profession remains largely unregulated despite widespread calls for new laws.

"I just don't know that any state had their heart in it," said Mark H. Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, a professional organization that sets standards for its 2,400 members nationwide.

"Legislators live by the news cycle like everybody else," he told CNBC's "American Greed."

Singer, 59, agreed last year to plead guilty to four felony counts in what prosecutors called the largest college admissions scam ever. A sentencing date has not been set. Singer admitted accepting some $25 million in bribes to rig the admissions process in what he described as a "side door" into college.

William "Rick" Singer leaves federal court in Boston, where he faced charges in a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme, March 12, 2019.
Bryan Snyder | Reuters
William "Rick" Singer leaves federal court in Boston, where he faced charges in a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme, March 12, 2019.

Singer said he helped parents craft fake documentation to allow students to be admitted as recruited athletes even though they never participated in a sport, and he developed an elaborate system to help students cheat on their college entrance exams. He then paid coaches and administrators to look the other way. Through his attorney, Singer declined to speak to "American Greed."

This week, California investor Todd Blake and his wife, Diane, a retail marketing executive, became the 27th and 28th parents to plead guilty in the investigation prosecutors dubbed "Operation Varsity Blues," admitting they paid $250,000 to get their daughter into the University of Southern California as a purported volleyball recruit.

Other prominent individuals caught up in the scandal include actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, who admitted paying $500,000 to get their two daughters into USC as rowing recruits. The couple pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in May, and face sentencing next month. Actress Felicity Huffman served 11 days in prison last year for conspiracy, after admitting she paid Singer $15,000 to rig her daughter's SAT score.

Felicity Huffman and husband William H. Macy arrive at the U.S. Courthouse in Boston on Sept. 13, 2019.
Nic Antaya | Boston Globe | Getty Images
Felicity Huffman and husband William H. Macy arrive at the U.S. Courthouse in Boston on Sept. 13, 2019.

Of the 55 parents, coaches and administrators charged, only a handful are still fighting the charges. The first trial had been scheduled to begin in October, but prosecutors have asked for a delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the defendants have agreed. If the judge approves the delay, trials are unlikely to begin before January at the earliest.

There ought to be a law?

After the scandal broke in March 2019, lawmakers in several states launched reform efforts. The most sweeping was in California, where the proposals included a requirement that college admissions consultants register with the secretary of state's office. But Sklarow said it quickly became clear that the idea was impractical, and it died in committee. A handful or proposals in other states suffered a similar fate.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom did sign into law a scaled-down package of bills in October requiring, among other things, that state universities adopt tighter controls on "admission by exception," where students are admitted outside the normal processes. And the University of California Board of Regents approved a plan in May to phase out use of the SAT and ACT over the next five years.

But in California and nationwide, college admissions coaches are, for the most part, continuing to regulate themselves.

"I think California came up with some crazy figure like $15 million just to sort of make a list of consultants without even any real background check work," Sklarow said.

Besides, he said, lawmakers realized that there were already professional organizations including his IECA and the American Institute of Certified Educational Planners that are setting standards and certifying consultants. Sklarow said his organization offered to help states set standards had any of the proposals become law, but it soon became clear that state certification would be redundant at best.

"No state was proposing anything that was as aggressive as what is already in place," he said.

The IECA, established in 1976, requires its members to hold a master's degree in counseling or a related field — which Sklarow said the organization verifies by transcript. Consultants must have worked with at least 50 families over a three-year period before they are considered for membership, and they must pass background and security checks. They must also agree to abide by the organization's Principles of Good Practice governing things like competence and conflicts of interest. The organization offers an online directory of its members, and it has a robust process for resolving complaints.

Sklarow said membership applications and other inquiries to his organization have surged since Operation Varsity Blues came to light. He also said it is worth noting that Rick Singer never once tried to become a member during his more than 25 years in the business.

"He wouldn't have gotten past, probably, an initial review," Sklarow said.

Not only did Singer lack the counseling background the organization requires, Sklarow believes Singer's marketing — which emphasized his purported ability to get students into the college of their choice — would not have passed the organization's scrutiny.

"We're looking for promises that we know can't be kept," he said. "We're looking for any sort of language that talks about (how) the consultant can get you in, which is what Rick Singer had on his website, rather than we'll help you find the best match for you."

Consulting during Covid

The IECA and the AICEP also require members to conduct several verified, in-person visits to college campuses each year, which is all but impossible during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is one of a number of ways that the crisis is impacting the profession.

Sklarow said consultants are trying to stay on top of colleges' plans for the fall, which he said are changing almost daily.

"The biggest thing for consultants right now is just keeping up with a flood of information," he said.

That also means consultants are dealing with a backlog of students because this year's high school graduates — who normally would have parted ways with their consultants by now and moved full speed ahead with their plans for the fall — are continuing to ask for advice.

"Very early on, we advised our consultants to stay in touch with their seniors, that they needed to make sure that their seniors knew they could rely on them for up to date information," he said.

At the same time, they are working with high school juniors and seniors who are beginning to navigate the college admissions process in a time of complete uncertainty.

"How do we help that student, how do we help the family, at a time which is normally this sort of exciting positive, but has suddenly turned into just pervasive anxiety?" he said.

The crisis has added to an already fraught time for parents and students who Sklarow said are still all too often willing to go to extremes to get into the "right" schools, something he said Operation Varsity Blues helped expose.

"This whole process has gotten so out of whack," he said. "Whatever it was meant to be — this meritocracy, and kids apply, and wherever you get in you do the best you can — something's gone seriously wrong."

What lies ahead for crooked coach Rick Singer? What about Lori Loughlin and her family? Get the latest on the college admissions scandal that shocked the world. Watch the premiere of "American Greed: Biggest Cons," Monday, July 20 at 10 pm ET/PT only on CNBC.