Case Report: College Admissions Scandal
Adapted from the NY Times, March 18, 2019
Robert Singer was part coach, part therapist, part motivational speaker and part name
dropper. Like a traveling salesman, he sought out clients near and far, selling dreams of
prosperous futures.
His message was confident and concise: He knew the secret to getting into college.
“He was well dressed, he was well spoken, he had a PowerPoint,” said Eric Webb, a father
of two who drove to Champaign, Ill., from Peoria in 2012 to hear Mr. Singer talk about
building children’s brands, leveraging their talents and finding the schools of their
Intrigued, Mr. Webb hired Mr. Singer to prepare his son and daughter for college, paying
him at least $5,000 a year for several years of monthly visits to dole out sage advice.
But even as Mr. Webb’s teenage son began counseling sessions with Mr. Singer in 2012,
federal prosecutors say, Mr. Singer was simultaneously bribing a college tennis coach on
the East Coast and setting up a foundation on the West Coast to camouflage bribes from
rich parents.
Mr. Singer, 58, became the mastermind of an enormous, elaborate scheme carried out
over years, brazenly paying off coaches and test monitors, faking exam scores and
fabricating student biographies, prosecutors say — all to help wealthy parents cheat their
children’s way into desirable colleges.
Thirty-three parents have been charged in the case. Some famous ones have already
been convicted and served time in jail. Mr. Singer, who pleaded guilty to racketeering
conspiracy and other counts, has claimed on his website that he had thousands of clients,
though it is unclear how many of them he helped to break the rules.
Mr. Singer…carefully cultivated networks of parents around the country — typical middleclass families in Illinois, business moguls and celebrities in Los Angeles, and even
professional athletes — who used his college counseling services and invited him into their
homes and inside their deepest worries.
They all wanted the same thing: An answer to the vexing question of how to beat the
odds at selective schools that turn away as many as 20 applicants for every one they
When he first started his college admission consulting business, in the mid-1990s, he was
regarded as very effective by many parents. One said, “He was persuasive, articulate and
implied he knew the tricks, and that he could really help kids get an edge to get into
college. I refer to him as a master salesman. He was a great pitcher. He was believable.”
It was around 2011, prosecutors said, that Mr. Singer began soliciting bribes from parents
to facilitate their children’s admissions to college — something he called a “side door”
entrance to the entire college competition. Under his theory, the “front door” was for
ordinary, law-abiding students applying the normal way and hoping for the best, and the
“back door” was for families who made large donations to schools in the hope of
boosting a student’s chances for admission there, a practice that is legal but not certain
to succeed.
Until the operation was interrupted by the F.B.I. eight years later, Mr. Singer promoted
his side-door method, including faked athletic credentials and cheating on tests, as
something the other methods were not: a sure thing.
He recruited coaches to his plan by telling them that plenty of other coaches were
already involved, and that he had handled plenty of student applications this way. “You
can tell them I did 760 of these this year,” he told a coach last year.
And to parents, he conveyed the same sort of certainty and swagger about his side-door
method that he had shown for decades about standard college admissions coaching.
Could cheating on a standardized test get a family in trouble? “I have never seen it
happen,” Mr. Singer assured the father who asked.
In 2012, Mr. Singer stepped more deeply into criminal activity, prosecutors said, by
setting up the Key Worldwide Foundation, the charity that was used to disguise the true
nature of payments from parents.
It was ostensibly established to provide a gateway to higher education for disadvantaged
students, but it made financial donations to colleges and universities that were the top
choices of Mr. Singer’s more affluent clients.
The foundation’s tax returns show that it received more than $7 million in contributions
from 2013 through 2016, and that it listed around $2.7 million in donations that it
distributed in the same period, mostly to universities.
Between 2011 and 2018, parents paid Mr. Singer some $25 million to get their children
into the right schools, prosecutors said.
By the end, as investigators were learning of the scheme, Mr. Singer seemed to have his
illegal methods well established. He had grown bold about his side door, even cocky.
When he sought out photos of a student that he planned to insert digitally into a real
image of an athlete, he breezily told one parent not to worry, he had done this “a million
times.” In communications with colleges, he laid out false athletic credentials for students
that might easily have been checked and revealed as lies; he listed one high school
student as a “3-year Varsity Letter winner” in water polo and “Team M.V.P. 2017,” even
though the girl did not know how to play the sport.
When investigators stepped in last year, and confronted Mr. Singer with his years of
questionable dealings, he turned on some of the families who had poured out their
deepest parenting fears and trusted him with their complicated family dynamics.
In phone conversations that Mr. Singer knew were being recorded by the F.B.I., he
prodded parents to acknowledge their part in shared crimes. If a parent sensed a
problem and suggested meeting in person, Mr. Singer agreed — and then wore a wire.
Even then, he did not fully commit to cooperating with the government, the records
show. Mr. Singer had built his business on relationships, recommendations and trust, and
he appeared unwilling to tear all of it down again. At one-point last year, the authorities
say, Mr. Singer secretly reached out to several people involved in the plot — people he
had presumably once sold on his know-how, his power, and himself — and warned them
about the criminal investigation.
1. Is the college admissions consulting business an ethical business? Why or
why not? Explain your answer.
2. Is it fair that wealthy parents can game the system by paying a consultant
like Singer a lot of money to get their kids into “elite” colleges and
universities? Discuss from both a libertarian and a communitarian
3. Do you think the students who were admitted to colleges through
Singer’s “side-door entrance” process should be allowed to attend those
colleges? Should the ones who are already students at those colleges be
expelled? Why or why not? Explain your answer.
4. Do you think Singer was taking advantage of parents and high school
students who paid him a lot of money to help get into the colleges of their
choice? Or were the parents and students willing collaborators who knew
they were doing something unethical? Explain your answer.
5. Do you think that Affirmative Action college admission programs that give
preferential consideration to students from minority or impoverished
backgrounds are ethical? Or should only test scores and high school
grades be used as the basis for admission? Explain your answer.
6. Was your own experience in getting into college fair? Or do you think you
were unjustly rejected or admitted to some schools? Explain.

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