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Guilty Admissions weaves together the story of an unscrupulous college counselor named Rick Singer, and how he preyed on the desperation of some of the country's wealthiest families living in a world defined by fierce competition, who function under constant pressure to get into the "right" schools, starting with pre-school; non-stop fundraising and donation demands in the form of multi-million-dollar galas and private parties; and a community of deeply insecure parents who will do anything to get their kids into name-brand colleges in order to maintain their own A-list status.
Investigative reporter Nicole LaPorte lays bare the source of this insecurity—that in 2019, no special "hook" in the form of legacy status, athletic talent, or financial giving can guarantee a child's entrance into an elite school. The result is paranoia, deception, and true crimes at the peak of the American social pyramid.
With a glittering cast of Hollywood actors—including Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin—hedge fund CEOs, sales executives, and media titans, Guilty Admissions is a soap-opera-slash-sneak-peek-behind-the-curtains at America's richest social circles; an examination of the cutthroat world of college admissions; and a parable of American society in 2019, when the country is run by a crass tycoon and all totems of status and achievement have become transactional and removed from traditions of ethical restraint.
A world where the rich get whatever they want, however they want it.
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Those who have power ought not exercise it wrongfully. Nor when they are fortunate should they imagine that they will be so forever.
—Euripedes (engraved on a statue of Hecuba at the University of Southern California)
College Night Terror
One fall evening in 2016, Frank Bruni, the author and New York Times op-ed columnist, took to the stage of the auditorium at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles. Bruni had come to the elite institution, whose forebears proudly proclaimed it "the leading prep school west of the Charles River," to talk about his book Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be. The presentation was part of the school's annual Senior College Night, when parents of students in the senior class gather to have the mysterious and often infuriating process of applying to college demystified.
Harvard-Westlake's upper-school campus sits in the craggy foothills of Coldwater Canyon, a sylvan corner of the city where luxury SUVs careen down winding, wooded roads that splinter off into cul-de-sacs dotted with midcentury architectural masterpieces wedged into the mountainside—or leaning against it on terrifying one-hundred-foot stilts. Here, nature and wealth seamlessly coexist in a kind of stubborn harmony. If you can dream it, you can build it, mudslides and gravity be damned. Situated less precariously, at the foot of the canyon, Harvard-Westlake brings an old-world vibe to these distinctly LA environs. The school—which was originally the all-boys Harvard School—moved to the site in 1937, marking the territory with a Tudor-style chapel that was a replica of a chapel at Rugby School in England. Harvard's founders built its version in 1914, and when the school made the move from another area in the city to Coldwater Canyon, the sanctuary was dragged across town in sixteen pieces. The chapel still stands proudly as a reminder of Harvard-Westlake's aspirational ties to blue-blooded prep schools farther east.
But if Harvard-Westlake originally functioned as a finishing school for young white Protestant males—who dined on lobster Newburg and caught glimpses of Clark Gable trotting across campus on horseback—today the school, which is much more ethnically if not economically diverse, is considered a rocket launcher to twenty-first-century success. "It's the ultimate bumper-sticker school," declared one LA parent. Gettys, Fairbankses, and Gyllenhaals have all received diplomas from Harvard-Westlake, whose handsome red-roofed campus has led some to dub it a "mini Stanford."
The comparison goes beyond physical attributes. More so than any other school in LA, Harvard-Westlake is proudly steeped in the religions of rigor and working your ass off. Some view it more as a corporation than a place of higher learning. The school's top administrator carries the title of president, along with the more folksy "head of school" moniker adopted by other private schools in the area. Students slog through hours of homework a night in their college-level literary theory and microeconomics courses, and scoff at more progressive institutions across town, like Crossroads School, where there are no AP offerings and academia is considered just one part of a holistic journey. Until recently, a lunch break wasn't mandatory at Harvard-Westlake, meaning many kids would eat on the run, in order to keep grinding. "Type A on steroids" is how one Harvard-Westlake parent described the school's ethos. "Everyone is competing with each other, and people are determined to win."
Bruni's talk was part of the school's effort to calm nerves and send the message that life isn't, in fact, all about winning—specifically when it comes to getting into college. His book, after all, was a rebuke of the notion that success in life is dependent on an Ivy League degree. So what if your kid didn't get into Princeton? His research had proven that reams of highly successful people—former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice; former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz; and Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart—were doing just fine without an Ivy League diploma. What mattered, he told the crowd that evening, is the experience kids have wherever they wind up, not to mention their family and personal relationships and the communities they involve themselves in; all of this is far more important when it comes to crafting an identity and sense of self than a sweatshirt bearing the name of a prestigious college.
There are places where this message might be embraced and celebrated, where the idea of sending a child off to one of the "Colleges That Change Lives"—as former New York Times education editor Loren Pope dubbed intellectually stimulating but obscure colleges such as Goucher and Hope—would be considered sound advice. But Harvard-Westlake, which has an annual tuition of $39,700 and is populated by the offspring of the city's top entertainment executives, attorneys, and business titans, is not one of them.
As one parent who was in attendance that night put it: "Everyone's sitting there like, 'I pay forty thousand a year, and my kid kills himself doing the work.' Nobody wants to hear that Wash U is a fantastic place. It's Harvard, Harvard, Harvard. Maybe Princeton."
This mind-set, which dominates the elite world of LA education, explains why the city was the epicenter of the Varsity Blues scandal, which broke in March of 2019, and why parents here were so easily swindled by a con man. Dubbed "the biggest college admissions fraud of all time," the scandal was masterminded by William "Rick" Singer, an independent college counselor based just south of Los Angeles, in Newport Beach, California, who used bribery and fake athletic profiles to get students admitted to such universities as Yale, Georgetown, and the University of Southern California. Criminal charges so far have been brought against forty parents, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin—the latter paid $500,000 to get her two daughters into USC as fake crew recruits—and has reverberated nationwide ever since.
Harvard-Westlake has not been implicated as part of Varsity Blues, but prominent parents at the school hired Singer for his (legitimate) services and recommended him to others. Indeed, the school, along with a handful of other top private academies in Southern California—where more than a dozen of the charged parents reside—provides a lens through which to examine the culture that exists surrounding college admissions in the wealthiest, most privileged pockets of the country. By peeling back the layers of this culture, one begins to grasp why many of these parents went to the lengths they did, and why they risked so much—including jail terms—in order to get their children into the right college.
Los Angeles, specifically, is a microcosm where extreme wealth and ambition collide, undercut by a shamelessly transactional attitude toward business—including the business of education. This is a place, after all, where money is freely dispensed to procure yet another upgrade or VIP experience and where there's always a way to grind out more favorable deal points. Indeed, "pay or play" is a widely accepted contract stipulation. "LA appreciates the game of it," said one former private-school administrator. "Their whole take on it is, 'Let's just try to best the game. Let's try to figure out where the pressure is.' Because they do this on everything. They do this when they negotiate film contracts. They do it when they're trying to add on to their house that they're trying to show off. Everything is a deal."
In top LA private high schools, the game for parents is getting their kids into a top college. Parents tackle it the way they do everything else in their lives: by winning favor with Important People—like the head of school and the members of a school's board. They throw around their checkbooks to gain influence. A big enough donation, many believe, will put a child on the radar of the board, whose high-profile members will scour their contacts when it comes time to apply to college and make calls on the child's behalf. Even a reasonable gift will procure an invitation to a private cocktail party at the head of school's house, an evening that will not be forgotten when college applications are due. Expensive gifts are lavished on teachers (iPads, trips to Paris), and private pitching coaches are hired to work with the school's baseball team—all to make it clear which parents have VIP status and which offspring need special care come college application time.
The elite schools, meanwhile, play into this, all but demanding "donations" and other acts of "giving" as soon as a child is accepted. At Harvard-Westlake (as at most private schools in LA), the letter each family receives requesting an annual donation, which the school stipulates is necessary to provide all of its outstanding services and resources (as well as to provide financial aid for students), often specifies an amount that's expected. This systemic fundraising has helped Harvard-Westlake become a leader in annual giving—just shy of $10 million a year. According to IRS filings, the school's assets are worth $419 million. Its revenue in 2019 was $116 million.
The practice of donating money to schools is a key factor in the Varsity Blues case. In some cases Rick Singer told parents to write checks to universities their children were applying to as part of his scheme; the money went to funds overseen by coaches and administrators who have been charged in the crime. Parents who are fighting the charges claim that their payments were just that—a donation, not a bribe. One parent told me that when Singer brought up the idea of making a donation, it didn't seem strange. "We've been writing checks to schools since our kids were in elementary school," this person said.
Schools like Harvard-Westlake do "not conceal the fact that they want to raise as much money as possible from as many people as possible," said a Harvard-Westlake parent. "Like any other organization, they're constantly saying that tuition isn't enough to provide everything that you guys want, so we need annual donations. And it starts right away. Like, literally right after you get your admissions letter.
"A lot of people try to put in their annual donations before they receive that letter," the parent added. Otherwise, they run the risk of looking like they're not doing what's expected if they give lower than the requested amount.
Public accolades for these acts of "generosity" come in the form of the school's annual report, which is sent out to the community and which groups families into elite circles based on how generous they've been. Members of the Dean's Circle contributed between $3,500 and $7,499; Leadership Circle members ponied up between $25,000 and $49,999; and those who are part of the vaunted Heritage Circle gave over $100,000. Important note: Anyone who gives at least $7,500 scores an invite to the annual President's Reception.
Less overt fundraising comes in the form of so-called Party Books. Organized and paid for by parents, who serve as hosts, Party Book events are thrown throughout the year, typically at the homes of wealthy parents who can afford to shell out for a fully catered meal or private whiskey tasting, not to mention valet parking services, for dozens of fellow parents. The money raised by selling tickets to the event all goes to the school, making Party Books a painless and efficient fundraising tool. "They provide a nice little chunk of change for the school, which basically has to do nothing," said Christina Simon, the coauthor of Beyond the Brochure: An Insider's Guide to Private Elementary Schools in Los Angeles.
Party Books are a way to flaunt wealth and influence, as well as make inroads at a school, which often approaches its A-list parents about opening up their lavish pads. A recent list of Harvard-Westlake's Party Book lineup reads like a Hollywood red carpet calendar: a dinner catered by hip, LA chef-restauranteurs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo—the owners of Animal and Trois Mec—at the home of Will Ferrell and his wife, Viveca Paulin-Ferrell ($300 a ticket); a private dinner at Spago hosted by Wolfgang Puck ($500); a movie screening and meal at the home of Jeff Shell, the CEO of NBCUniversal ($500); and a truffle dinner at Il Pastaio hosted by its chef and co-owner Giacomino Drago ($500).
When Party Book listings go up, parents scramble to sign up, lest they be relegated to the dreaded wait list, while at the same time fretting about how many people they'll actually know at the A-list soirees. They can be stressful for hosts, too. There was the studio executive parent who planned a Party Book screening of an upcoming movie from her studio. Only word got out that the movie was a dud, and no one signed up—which was glaringly evident on the Party Book website—so the executive canceled the event.
Party Books fuel the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses culture at private schools in Los Angeles, including the pressure to be able to say that a child will be attending a prestigious college. Some kids cringe at the very mention of a Party Book, knowing that their futures will be discussed over passed crudités, and beg their parents not to attend. Their parents, meanwhile, know exactly what they're getting into. One dad called them "a cesspool of insecurity. It's where parents mingle and talk about colleges—where their kid is going. On the drive home, there's a lot of 'Can you believe that idiot got into wherever.'"
Then there are the gala fundraisers, where items and experiences, such as a weekend getaway to another parent's private island off Fiji for $50,000, are auctioned off. A VIP parking spot for pickup and drop-off might be worth $30,000. "We just bought a ticket to the gala. I don't know if we're going to go," said one parent with children at the Buckley School. "It truly is an endless series of checks that you write. I feel like this is a racket on some level, and I don't know what I'm going to get out of it. Will they pay extra close attention to [my child]? Will they make the call for him?" She hasn't asked. Yet she continues to write checks, assuming, praying, there is a causal relationship at work.
Things work smoothly…until they don't. When the child gets a wait-list letter, or is flat-out denied admission to his or her school of choice, the shit hits the fan (as is customary in the see-and-be-seen, scream-and-be-heard culture of the entertainment business). Or even before that, if a student receives a B in a class—which in today's unforgiving college admissions environment means you can forget the Ivy League—parents will call in the teacher and even the headmaster and cry foul, and then do what they can to have the grade changed. Tales of unhappy parents (i.e., the school's clients) are endless. There was the dad who threatened to sue a private high school when his child didn't get into their college of choice. There were the parents who campaigned to have a guidance counselor fired because the counselor wasn't getting what the parents deemed were good enough college results. And then there was the director who was called over Christmas break and told to do something about the boy who wouldn't come out of his room because he didn't get in early admission to his school of choice. In other words, the director should make some calls—now.
"People think it's a service," said Caitlin Flanagan, the Atlantic writer who worked as a guidance counselor at Harvard-Westlake in the 1990s. "It's like they're flying in the first-class [cabin] of the plane now. Not business. Not economy. They're in first class. They want the best coffee, the best cocktail, the best sweet. But the thing is, when college counseling comes, your kid might get sent back to the back row by the lavatories. And they're outraged! 'I paid for first class! Why is my kid sitting by the overflowing lavatory?'"
Flanagan recalled the time that a father showed up in her office after his son was denied admission to Yale. The father was a Yale alum, and his older son had gotten into the school. He was fuming that the trend hadn't continued with his second son. "The father was screaming, 'It's his turn to go to Yale!'" Flanagan said, chuckling. "It's like, well, I don't think Yale has turns."
Flanagan quickly learned, as she wrote pithily in the Atlantic, that Harvard-Westlake's "impressive matriculation list was not the simple by-product of excellent teaching, but was in fact the end result of parental campaigns undertaken with the same level of whimsy with which the Japanese Navy bombed Pearl Harbor."
Until recently, these campaigns were surefire strategies. With enough meticulous planning and access to artillery—in the form of connections and money—entree into a top college was all but guaranteed for the privileged class (unhappy Yale dads notwithstanding). Legacies and kids whose parents could write fat checks toward a college's endowment or a new library wing were all but escorted through the gates of these higher learning institutions. One former admissions officer at an Ivy League school said that the acceptance rate for "tagged" applicants could rise as high as 60 percent (in comparison to the school's single-digit acceptance rate for regular applicants). Tagged students include development cases (students of parents with a prior donation or the potential to donate), political cases (where a politician or highly influential community member is advocating for a student), VIP cases (the child of a celebrity), and trustee cases (a member of the board of trustees is advocating for a child), as well as legacies and children of staff, to a lesser extent. As for recruited athletes, this person said that the acceptance rate can rise as high as 100 percent.
Tagged kids generally have access to endless forms of preparatory services and tutors to help burnish their applications and transcripts, setting them yet further apart from less monied applicants. This favoring system is far from dead. Yet in speaking to dozens of parents at the most elite schools in LA, some of which—such as Buckley School, Marymount High School, Loyola High School, Marlborough School, Campbell Hall, and Brentwood School—have had students whose parents were charged in the Varsity Blues scandal, it's clear that a distinct anxiety has settled on the upper classes when it comes to getting their kids into college. There is a gnawing frustration that a system that was previously unfair but ultimately possible to manipulate—no one ever believed that college admissions was the meritocracy it's proclaimed itself to be—has become both opaque and unknowable.
The reasons why are fairly clear: With more and more students applying to schools whose freshman classes aren't getting any bigger, college acceptance numbers are plummeting. Stanford's admission percentage is now so low—4 percent—that it no longer bothers announcing it. Meanwhile, colleges have made it a priority to enroll more first-generation and underrepresented minority students in order to better reflect the country's demographics. Multicultural "fly-in" programs, where high-achieving seniors from low-income and minority households are flown in for a campus tour, are now de rigueur. This shift has sent privileged parents into a tailspin, worrying that their accolade-drenched white kid from an academically rigorous school has become a tad, well, boring, in the eyes of an admissions officer. As the former private-school administrator said, "We started to hear that our students weren't that interesting. And that if you're going to be a white girl from Beverly Hills who has a 4.0 and did horseback riding, you better have something to say. It better be a really fresh, original voice. Because Stanford doesn't need another white girl who rides equestrian okay."
"That's a bitter, bitter thing for a child to realize," this person continued. "But the parents' reaction was always more severe: 'How dare they?'"
One student at Harvard-Westlake admitted to being embarrassed to list horseback riding on her application due to this very fear.
With the sense that the drawbridge is closing, suddenly things like legacy status or the ability to donate a library wing no longer feel like guarantees for the privileged class. As for kids who are simply working their butts off? It seems no one cares. A constant refrain among some private-school parents is how good old-fashioned hard work, monitored in the perfectly calibrated setting of a place like Harvard-Westlake, now gets you nowhere.
The feeling, in short, is that nothing is enough.
"To be a white kid from a private high school in LA—my daughter would come home and say, 'We have nothing. We're not diverse. We've never had a parent die. We don't have to support ourselves,'" said a parent at Campbell Hall, a tony school in the San Fernando Valley. (The son of one of the indicted parents in the Varsity Blues scandal, Adam Semprevivo, graduated from the school and went on to Georgetown, thanks to Rick Singer, who sold him as a tennis recruit.)
One former Harvard-Westlake parent told me that when her daughter was a senior and applying to an Ivy League school where her father had gone, her dean told her that she had no shot. "She came home and said, 'Why would they want another little Jewish girl?' She wasn't particularly resentful. She was just sort of honest."
Asian Americans at top private schools feel a similar sense of despair, as came to light in a federal lawsuit against Harvard by a group of students who were rejected by the university. The suit accused the university of discriminating against Asian American applicants. Although the judge ruled against the case in 2019, filings in the lawsuit revealed that while Asian Americans often had higher test scores than other minority students and white students, they were penalized for coming up shorter on soft skills, like leadership and grit. The feeling that lingers among Asian American parents is that their kids get lumped into a bucket—smart, hardworking students who are stereotypical grinders—and therefore have to do more to distinguish themselves to admissions officers. "Parents feel that everything is negatively prejudiced against Asian kids," said one parent. "It's like Jews in the fifties. 'They won't let us in.' There's a lot of anger there." There are also simply larger percentages of Asian Americans at elite private schools in comparison to other minorities, creating a numbers crunch. How many from each school will, say, Stanford, accept? (In the Varsity Blues case, one indicted parent is Asian American, I-Hsin "Joey" Chen, who has pled not guilty. Three parents are Chinese nationals—one has been sentenced and two have not been charged.)
This pinpoints the real issue that's underway: Families at schools like Harvard-Westlake aren't bemoaning how hard it is to get into college; they're bemoaning how hard it is to get into certain colleges, i.e., status schools that they themselves in many cases attended. "These parents are stressing because they have their ambition set on only a handful of colleges," said one former Ivy League admissions officer. "So if their kid doesn't get into an Ivy or a Stanford or a Duke or a Georgetown…They're just focused on that small number of schools. But less prestigious schools would do anything to get those students."
The question is, how much of this agita is valid? Harvard-Westlake's track record for placing kids in top institutions remains intact. Between 2014 and 2019, the school sent fifty-one students to Harvard, forty-four to the University of Pennsylvania, thirty-six to Stanford, and twenty-four to Yale. These stats underscore a reality that parents don't generally mention: For all of universities' interest in diversifying their ranks, the great majority of them need families who can pay full tuition in order to support that mission. Private high schools are a reliable supplier of such families. Data backs up the notion that things have not changed all that dramatically. In Paul Tough's book The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, he describes how in 2017 a group of economists at Stanford studied data proving that the most selective colleges in the United States were the least socioeconomically diverse. At Yale, for instance, only 2.1 percent of the student body came from the bottom fifth of the income distribution ladder. For a broader statistic, and to look at it from the other side, consider that more than two-thirds of Ivy League students come from the top 20 percent of the income scale. At Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn, and Brown, more kids come from the top 1 percent than from the entire bottom 60 percent of the country.
Most of the parents I have interviewed—most preferred to speak off the record for fear of facing retribution from the schools where their children were enrolled—are self-aware about their woe-is-me railing against what they ultimately feel is a form of reverse discrimination. Indeed, most of these parents, who are overwhelmingly liberal Democrats with a strong social-justice bent, outwardly applaud schools' efforts to admit a more diverse student body, genuinely believing it is for the greater good of the campus and society overall. They are completely down with it, in fact—until they feel it affects their own child's chances of getting in.
Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Stanford dean and the author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, said that the panic of these parents comes down to their fear of losing a privilege that they have long taken for granted. "As America becomes more diverse, I think white parents are losing their toehold on exclusive experiences," Lythcott-Haims, who is Black, told me. She noted that as private prep schools and colleges have evolved over the years from elite bastions for white Protestants into campuses that now are striving to "reflect the diversity of America," it's coming as a shock to people who have always assumed that a degree from a top college was a given. "Colleges have been saying for some time now, 'Hey, we want Black and Brown kids, too. And we want Asians, too.' And I think that's making white people terrified, because they're losing a privilege that they never realized was a privilege."
Ned Johnson, the go-to independent college counselor among hypercompetitive families in the Washington, D.C., area, and the president of the tutoring company PrepMatters, said parents of kids at elite high schools feel "a lower sense of control because it used to be that if you went to Andover or Exeter or whatever, two generations ago, the director could call up Harvard or Columbia and say, 'Here are the boys that you want.' There were these relationships between the best independent schools, or even the best public schools, with this or that university. And that is so, so, so far gone. So a lot of the perceived power or control of the very well-to-do has been diminished.
- "[A] riveting rundown of Operation Varsity Blues...Readers will be captivated by this entertaining look behind the headlines."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Feb 23, 2021
- Page Count
- 336 pages