College admissions scandal: What did the students know about 'the side door,' and what should happen next?

Gregory Korte

Some students actively participated in the cheating: They had test proctors give them answers to college admissions tests and even "gloated" afterward, prosecutors said.

Others knew, or should have known, something was amiss: They were asked to "be stupid" to get diagnosed with a disability, which allowed for extended time on tests. Some flew across the country to take those tests. Or they were asked to show up to college orientations for sports they didn't play.

Sometimes, parents came up with elaborate ruses to keep their children in the dark about the cheating. They arranged fake proctors to let their children think they took a test actually being taken by a stand-in, or explained that they used old-fashioned networking instead of six-figure bribes to get them into elite universities.  

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No students have been charged in the sweeping college admissions scandal, in which wealthy CEOs and celebrities are accused of paying up to $6 million to secure slots for their children in some of the nation's most selective universities.

The University of Southern California took several students as part of what prosecutors said was a sweeping conspiracy by wealthy parents to use cheating and bribery to get their children into selective colleges.

Yet the students were the ultimate beneficiaries of the scheme. What should be done with those ill-gotten gains?

There's no easy answer, said Amy Sepinwall, a University of Pennsylvania professor of law and business ethics.  "Your heart goes out to these kids who in some ways seem like innocent pawns of their parents' machinations," she said.

But students who actively participated – and were old enough to know better – shouldn't be able to hide from punishment, she said. "Responsibility isn't a zero-sum matter," Sepinwall said.

The universities involved in the scandal have announced a variety of measures to address those cases. The University of Southern California, for example, said applicants tied to the scheme would be denied admission. Students already admitted would be handled on a case-by-cases basis, interim President Wanda Austin said in a written statement.

Sepinwall said the universities should go further and add scholarship slots for underprivileged students. (Sepinwall has graduate degrees from two universities implicated in the scandal: a law degree from Yale and a doctorate in philosophy from Georgetown. At both institutions, athletic coaches are accused of selling slots reserved for athletes to students who didn't play sports.)

In all, 50 people have been charged, including 31 parents from 26 wealthy families. They include television actresses, corporate executives, hedge fund managers, a university professor and the chairman of a law firm – all charged with mail and wire fraud.

Prosecutors have not identified the children by name or age.

For some, the scheme began as early as sophomore year in high school. For them, Sepinwall proposed a range of consequences, from an asterisk on their college transcripts to expulsion. In some cases, schools could encourage the students to reapply to see if they could get in on their own merits. 

Others might be treated more harshly, she said. "If the kid is 18 at the time he sits to take the tests and the proctor is feeding him answers, I don’t see why he shouldn’t be liable. And I think it’s an interesting prosecutorial choice. I think it says something about how they view the nature of the wrong," she said.

The accused mastermind of the scheme, Los Angeles college counselor William "Rick" Singer, allegedly boasted to parents that he had gotten nearly 800 students into college through what he called the "side door."

More: 'So that's what he was up to': Rick Singer, alleged architect of scam, peddled a 'side door' to college admissions

Not every family that Singer helped committed fraud.

Singer worked with students in more conventional college counseling, arranging tutors, advising on colleges and coaching on admissions essays. Some wrote glowing letters of recommendation for Singer, thanking him for his coaching.

USA TODAY attempted to contact dozens of students who worked with Singer. None agreed to be interviewed. One recent college graduate, whose parents are not accused of wrongdoing, called the allegations "very mind-blowing and troubling" but did not want to comment further.

Only one student involved in the case has spoken publicly. Jack Buckingham, son of lifestyle marketer Jane Buckingham, sent a statement to the Hollywood Reporter insisting he didn't know about the cheating but was sorry that he might have taken a spot over someone more deserving. 

“I know there are millions of kids out there both wealthy and less fortunate who grind their ass off just to have a shot at the college of their dreams. I am upset that I was unknowingly involved in a large scheme that helps give kids who may not work as hard as others an advantage over those who truly deserve those spots," he said.

An FBI affidavit backs up his claims that he didn't know. In phone calls recorded by the FBI last July, Jane Buckingham allegedly arranged to have a stand-in take a test for Jack, who was at home recovering from a tonsillitis. She wanted Jack to think he earned the score, so she allegedly came up with a ruse in which she would proctor a practice test for him at home.

Buckingham suggested that she knew the subterfuge was asking a lot of the proctor, according to the affidavit.

"I know this is craziness, I know it is," Buckingham told Singer, according to the FBI. "And then I need you to get him into USC, and then I need you to cure cancer and (make peace) in the Middle East."

'Money is power'

The fact that Singer and the parents went to such great lengths to keep the side-door scheme from the students suggested they knew it was wrong, said Beverly Stiles of Midwestern State University in Texas.

"I study students cheating, and of course, they don’t want to tell their parents," she said. "And here it’s parents cheating, and they don’t want to tell their kids."

Stiles studies what she calls "academic entitlement," in which students think they're owed better grades than they deserve. Though it's a phenomenon commonly associated with millennials – often maligned as the "participation trophy" generation – Stiles said there's no concrete evidence that cheating is worse than it's been in the past.

She said growing income inequality could make it worse. 

"Money is power in our society," she said. "Wealthy families can already afford legal advantages that poorer families can't: private schools, private tutoring, test preparation classes.

"Here, this is just one step further," she said. "You're using that income inequality to cheat."

Gordon Caplan paid Singer $75,000 last year to alter test results after Singer told him he'd done similar work for 761 families, according to an FBI affidavit. People are more likely to cheat if they think everyone else is cheating, Stiles said.

Singer allegedly said it would be done in such a way that Caplan's daughter would have plausible deniability. 

"She won’t even know that it happened," Singer explained to Caplan, the co-chairman of a New York law firm, who arranged for Singer to doctor his daughter's test results, according to the affidavit. "That’s how simple it is. She doesn’t know. Nobody knows what happens. It happened, she feels great about herself."

Other students didn't participate in the fraud but had suspicions.

Homayoun Zadeh told Singer in a text message in 2017 that his daughter was “extremely upset as to why I am pressuring her to make a decision on the spot."

Zadeh, a professor of dentistry at USC, tried to get his daughter into the university as a lacrosse player by falsely claiming that she was "one of the top defenders within the youth club development league," according to the FBI. He allegedly arranged for a $100,000 "pledge" to USC women's sports.

"I have not shared anything about our arrangement, but she somehow senses it. She’s concerned that others may view her differently," Zadeh said, according to the FBI. His daughter worried that “she did not get in on her own merits." 

Sometimes, the students were copied on emails as the parents worked with Singer to put together application packets – packets that sometimes included fabricated athletic profiles and even doctored photos.

In other cases, the students appeared to actively participate in the cheating.

A sworn statement from the FBI says Elizabeth Henriquez had one daughter cheat on standardized tests in 2015 by having the proctor feed them answers. Afterward, they all "gloated ... that they had cheated and gotten away with it," the affidavit says.

Her younger daughter took a test with the same proctor and another student, taking turns getting selected answers wrong to avoid suspicion of getting too high a score or getting the exact same answers right, according to the affidavit.

The student most in the spotlight is Olivia Jade Giannulli, 19, daughter of fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli and actress Lori Laughlin. She got into USC last year as a member of the rowing team despite not having rowing experience.

More: What we know about Olivia Jade, Lori Loughlin's daughter caught up in admissions scandal

A social media "influencer" with 1.4 million Instagram followers, Giannulli turned her admission to USC into an endorsement deal for Amazon Prime Student. 

“Officially a college student!" she posted last September. "I got everything I needed from Amazon."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College admissions scandal: What did the students know about 'the side door,' and what should happen next?