College Bribery Scandal: What You Need to Know and a Catholic Take

The news has triggered a national debate about the unfair advantage that students from powerful, wealthy families often enjoy.

Actress Felicity Huffman is seen inside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Los Angeles March 12. Hollywood actresses Huffman and Lori Loughlin are among 50 people indicted in a nationwide university-admissions scam, court records unsealed in Boston March 12 showed. A federal judge set bond at $250,000 for Huffman after she was charged in the cheating scandal.
Actress Felicity Huffman is seen inside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Los Angeles March 12. Hollywood actresses Huffman and Lori Loughlin are among 50 people indicted in a nationwide university-admissions scam, court records unsealed in Boston March 12 showed. A federal judge set bond at $250,000 for Huffman after she was charged in the cheating scandal. (photo: David McNew/AFP/Getty Images)

ATHERTON, Calif. — When Manuel and Elizabeth Henriquez’s older daughter set her hopes on attending Georgetown University, her wealthy parents were not content with hiring a pricey tutor to boost college board scores.

According to the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, who announced a slew of indictments tied to a nationwide college admissions fraud investigation March 12, the Atherton, California, couple paid Rick Singer, a college consultant, to secure a spot for their daughter at Georgetown by illegally gaming the system.

Singer allegedly deployed a corrupt proctor to help the Henriquezes’ daughter fill in the correct answers on her college board exam. He also reportedly bribed a Georgetown tennis coach to have her classified as an athletic recruit, dramatically improving her chance of acceptance, and then produced an essay for her application that bolstered the false claim.

The Henriquezes were among 50 individuals — 33 of them parents — charged by the Justice Department, following an FBI probe into the audacious college-consulting operation.

The news has set off a national debate about the unfair advantage that students from powerful, wealthy families often enjoy as they navigate the increasingly competitive gauntlet of college admissions. Lelling seemed to underscore this point when he stated: “We’re not talking about donating a building” to boost a college applicant’s chances of acceptance. “We’re talking about fraud.”

But the media storm has also prompted advocates for classical Catholic education and related initiatives to use the headlines as a wake-up call.

Over the past decade, they have sought to deepen the religious identity of Church-affiliated schools, and now they hope that the latest headlines will encourage parents and students to challenge the narrow mainstream view of education as a ticket to career success.

“It all boils down to this question: What is your vision for your children?” said Michael Van Hecke, the headmaster of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, California, and the president of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, which helps Catholic schools recover the Church’s educational mission.

“If you aim for the true formation of man, college and career will happen, and the child will be ready to go where they should go,” Van Hecke told the Register. “But if Harvard is heaven, then you will do whatever you need to do to get there.”


Unfair Process

In fact, the scandal broke as Harvard University was embroiled in a high-stakes court battle over its admission policies.

A group of Asian students have criticized the university for allegedly imposing strict quotas on qualified Asian applicants, while prospective students from other racial groups may be accepted at a higher rate, despite lower test scores and grades.

Critics have also flagged Harvard’s 14% acceptance rate for legacy candidates — students with parents who attended the school.

“I have put two children through college, and my thought is that the entire admissions process is unfair,” said Grazie Christie, a Florida-based physician and Catholic commentator, who has four biological children who are Hispanic and one adopted child who is Chinese.

“My Hispanic children will have a much easier time getting into college than my Asian child.”

Some of Singer’s clients hid the payoffs for cheating and lies from their own children, who didn’t realize how they had gained entrance to Stanford University, the University of Texas, Yale and the University of Southern California.

But the Henriquezes’ daughter, who attended a Catholic girls’ high school, allegedly knew about the illegal activities and even “gloated” about the success of the effort, according to papers filed by Boston’s U.S. attorney.

Two actresses, Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, are among those who were charged and could face prison time, if convicted. Critical media attention was directed against Loughlin’s daughter Olivia Jade, who disclosed in an August 2018 video that she had little interest in her upcoming studies at the University of Southern California and was mostly pursuing “the experience of, like, game days, partying.”

As a result of the scandal, Hallmark Channel announced March 14 it was severing its long-standing relationship with Loughlin.

Thirteen college coaches are also accused of receiving large bribes to recruit students who had never played the sport competitively.

Further, the indictments noted that Singer’s consulting business was structured as a nonprofit educational charity for disadvantaged children, allowing his clients to deduct their fees.

“They chose to corrupt and illegally manipulate the system,’’ said Lelling at a March 12 news conference. “There can be no separate college-admissions system for the wealthy.”


Bay Area Wake-Up Call

In the San Francisco Bay area, where wealthy local families have used college consultants, athletic training and large donations to smooth their children’s path to college, the scandal has stirred soul searching and a measure of defensiveness in Catholic-school communities. Thirteen Bay Area parents were charged by the Justice Department.

Parents at Notre Dame high school in Belmont, California, received a letter from the head of school, Maryann Osmond, that condemned the actions of a school graduate and two parents charged by the Justice Department.

“Cheating in any form is unacceptable at Notre Dame,” the letter stated. “We are shocked and deeply disappointed that one of our former students and her family are involved in this scandal.”

Another local Catholic school in the Silicon Valley is also grappling with the consequences of the involvement of students and parents in the federal indictment.

“I am very sad that any Sacred Heart students and families were involved,” Richard Dioli, the director of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, told the Register.

“I think all of us — teachers, parents and students — are pretty dismayed at how broken the college-admission process seems to be, and we question the whole system.”

“But as I said in my letter to our community, this current situation is not a reflection of any one school, college counselor or child. Rather, it is a clear result of the permeating culture of ‘achievement at any cost’ in which we live,” said Dioli.

He framed the indictments as a “wake-up call” in the letter he released after the scandal broke.

“God has given us a precious gift in our children, and we must love, respect and nurture their individual talents, whatever they may be. St. Madeleine Sophie [the founder of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus] said, ‘For the sake of one child I would have founded the Society.’

“No child in her eyes would ever be considered ‘not good enough’ or unworthy. I pray we all can celebrate the unique human beings our children are becoming, and not ever worry they won’t measure up to an idealized version of success — whether a ‘top college,’ ‘top job,’ or other such fiction.”


Privileged Parents’ Power

But some parents and teachers told the Register that Sacred Heart had failed to confront an aggressive campaign by some parents who want to measure the school’s success by purely secular criteria, like SAT scores and college-admissions stats.

“You have to understand the power these parents exert on [school] policy,” said one member of the school community.

“When you are a private institution depending on big money from a very few people and are trying to ... be competitive with other institutions around you, it is easy to lose sight” of the school’s founding values.

“Families choose our school because of the excellent academics, the sports and the ways to play [the college-admissions process] that are within the bounds of legality,” said a teacher who reflected on her own efforts to defend Sacred Heart’s Catholic mission.

“I witnessed many acceptances to big universities that were made on the merit of the family fortune and the family’s ability to maneuver the student into extended time testing,” which Dioli said is a service provided by the college board for students with learning issues.

The purpose of extended time is good, she said, especially if students legitimately need it, but the system is “often abused.”

But while one parent insisted that a Catholic-school community should operate at a higher ethical and moral standard, she also acknowledged that the broader culture also played a role in shaping parental goals.

A day after the scandal broke, she said, one professional contact told her that he, too, would be “tempted” to illegally game the system to help his child get into an elite college.

“This cancer is very widespread,” she said.

“It may have to do with all the ambiguity and weirdness and underhandedness of the whole college-admission process.”


College Counselor’s Perspective

Indeed, the explosion of media stories about how high-priced college consultants can help entitled students get into elite universities has offered a window into a rarified world where parental ego and anxiety can overshadow a student’s personal goals and capabilities.

Barbara Austin, the founder of College Quest, has worked as a private college counselor in the Bay Area for 25 years and has witnessed the enormous strain of this rite of passage firsthand.

Some students sign on with Austin during their sophomore year of high school, and she begins to help them burnish key elements of the résumé and personal story they will submit to colleges down the road.

“Talent, leadership, volunteer service, the rigor of their classes, positioning their recommendations, the [college] interview, the essays” are all covered by Austin.

Many of her students have perfect GPAs and high test scores, but that won’t be enough to get most of them into top universities, and Asian students face additional hurdles, she said, because so many excel academically.

Austin’s services don’t come cheap.

“I charge anywhere from $10,000 to 15,000,” she told the Register, while noting her practice of taking some students for free.

Yet despite her occasional run-ins with pushy parents, Austin was surprised by the Justice Department’s findings.

“It is hard to get away with” cheating on college-admissions tests and bribing college coaches, she said, while noting that Singer was making a lot of money.

“My first reaction was: I am underpaid,” she said with a laugh, but then she turned serious.

“What I really disliked about this was that the parents made an important rite of passage easy” for their children, she said.

She contrasted Lori Loughlin’s daughter Olivia Jade with a Hispanic student she helped, who she noted had founded a boys’ tennis team in his school and worked enormously hard to boost his SAT scores so he could study computer science in college. His dogged efforts paid off, she said, and the young man got a full scholarship to Brown University.  

“It bothers people that some students don’t get into top schools after so much hard word,” she said, while others get in after their parents paid Singer “$500,000.”


Loss of Integrity

Father Paul Sullins, a sociologist at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., viewed the scandal from the perspective of an academic who has observed a “general loss of integrity in higher education.”

All too often, college “has become a prep for a career … and getting a job,” Father Sullins told the Register. “Living a life of virtue and telling the truth when it may cost you is not widespread, even at CUA, which emphasizes virtue more than most institutions,” he said.

Father Sullins expressed particular concern about the documented rise in cheating among college students. But he also suggested that wealthy families had been gaming the college-admissions process for decades.

“We know that in the past it was common for people to make large contributions to get into elite institutions, and that was politely ignored for a long time,” he said. “It used to be something that people put up with, but the fact that this is being received as something repulsive may be a step forward.”

But as the scandal raises questions about the basic fairness of a system that ensures upward mobility, some Catholic leaders want to start a more important conversation about the meaning and purpose of education itself.

The larger, more fundamental issue is not whether America’s meritocracy is a sham, said Catholic headmaster Michael Van Hecke, but rethinking the path we are on and making this a “Catholic-school moment for human and spiritual evangelization.”

“People are blinded by the world’s standards, and they think that will help their child make it in the world,” he said.

“But an educational system should be building and developing each child to be the human being they were meant to be. … We are all called to sanctity, doing the right and doing the good.”


Christian Anthropology Needed

Catholic education should begin “with a proper Christian anthropology,” Van Hecke said, one that helps students grapple with the fundamental questions that give human life meaning: “What is man made for, and how does he get there?”

“We shouldn’t be ‘college-prep’ schools; we should be ‘heaven prep,’” he said. “That doesn’t stop people from preparing for Harvard, but life is about wisdom and virtue.”

“What makes faithful Catholic education special is its commitment to formation, which is the heart of a true education,” Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, told the Register.

"A Catholic education succeeds when its graduates know God as the center of all truth and not a suspicious claim that is irrelevant to life and success. A faithful Catholic education regards moral choices as no less important than understanding the created world."

Added Reilly, “Have you ever seen an admissions test or accreditation standard that comes close to measuring those criteria for education? The SAT has its uses, but any test on which a computer could score better than a human is not a good assessment of true education,” he concluded. “To the contrary, Catholic formation is aimed at making us more fully human, not less.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.