Hollywood's Go-To College Counselors Respond to Cheating Scandal: "This Is Not the Standard"

University of Southern California - Getty - H 2019
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Celebrities may attempt to make "immoral" $30 million donations or build libraries to make their child stand out, but rarely have education experts seen this kind of fraud.

College consultants to Hollywood's elite say that it's uncommon for stars to perpetrate cons to get their children into top schools — but big donations are another story. Hollywood private-school admissions expert Christina Simon says it's "a time-honored tradition of people with immense wealth donating a building to a university or something like that," in hopes of getting their child in, but "that's not what we're talking about here."

On Tuesday, Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud in a nationwide college entrance exam scam, dubbed "Operation Varsity Blues" by the FBI. Huffman had communicated with a "confidential witness" to have her daughter take the SAT off-site under the auspices of a proctor who would correct some of the answers. Said proctor worked for William "Rick" Singer of Newport Beach, California, owner of for-profit college prep company Edge College & Career Network, and purported charity Key Worldwide Foundation, to which Huffman and her husband, William H. Macy, paid $15,000.

Loughlin is accused of paying $500,000 to USC to have her two daughters designated as crew recruits to gain guaranteed admission without actually participating in the sport.

Danny Ruderman, a college admissions counselor who has worked with children of Don Cheadle, Brian Grazer, Kevin Huvane and Steven Levitan, calls the charges "appalling" and not common for A-list parents. "This is not the standard," he tells The Hollywood Reporter.

"I have had major players in Hollywood and celebrities who do the right thing. They want their children to go to a place that matches who they are, not just some name. And that is actually the standard, not the exception," Ruderman says. "When you hear a story like this, there is a knee-jerk response to go, 'Oh, people are buying their way in to schools.' That may be true, but it's not, in my experience, widespread."

Ruderman adds that he personally has never been approached or asked by clients to work fraudulent schemes. However, he believes that if an alum donates large amounts of money to a school over 20 years, "They'll absolutely look at your application, but that doesn't mean that you're buying your way into a school."

Fay Van Der Kar-Levinson, who counsels and preps families of Hollywood's top elite, says there's a difference between bribes and donations, which don't guarantee admission but can serve to make a child's application stand out. "There are families who have power, influence and money and it shouldn't make a difference in college admissions, but it does, because these colleges are businesses," she says. "If you bring in x amount of money, that allows the school to support another student who otherwise could not be able to attend."

Kar-Levinson makes a distinction between "transparent" offers to donate and "actual criminal activity," citing one experience: "Several years ago, one client of mine in the entertainment industry who was very eager to have her child attend a West Coast college offered $30 million for attendance," she says, adding, "This particular school said, 'No, thank you, we just don't operate that way.' But this was open. This client said, 'I would love for my child to be here, and we want to be supportive of this school, and we're in a position where we can do that.' The school's response was, 'If your child matches what our admissions is looking for, we're happy to have you here.' But the child did not match."

With the activities of Singer, who was charged with racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy and obstruction of justice, "there is nothing transparent about this; they were lies," says Kar-Levinson, referring to Loughlin's daughters: "The two girls were shown rowing and they haven't been on the team. This is the first time I've heard of such blatant manipulation. This is falsifying scores, which is very shocking," she says of Huffman's daughter.

One source shared with THR that they had heard Singer speak at a panel for parents interested in admission, and wasn't surprised to learn of his indictment: "The guy was so amped and saying, 'You [have] to brand your kid — it's the only way to get into school — and you have to do it a certain way.' It struck me that he wanted parents to create an image or brand for [their] child, whether or not it is what your child is. 'Let's create your child and sell this,' marketing them like an item to be sold. It felt dishonest that he was encouraging parents to create an inauthentic school candidate."

McGreggor Crowley, an admissions counselor at IvyWise and former director of selection at MIT, says universities have a code of ethics to keep admissions departments and development departments, which handle fundraising, separate. "It's a very squishy thing if an admissions officer is asked by a family, 'Hey, how can we help you guys out?'" The family would be referred to the development officers. While Crowley's clients do ask about how to donate, IvyWise doesn't get involved, so conversations take place between families and colleges.

"Many families 'in the know' know who to call," Crowley says. "Every college needs to do fundraising. And the development office tends to be pretty savvy with dealing with families that have an expectations that, 'Oh, if I donate this much money, then what percent of chance does my child have of being admitted?'"

Crowley says there's a lot of management of expectations in that college officers tell parents that their donations may be very generous, but there is no quid pro quo. But he can understand the perception of a direct connection between donations and admission: "You look at the Kushners, for example, and their donations to Harvard and you wonder what went through in that discussion," he says. "You know there are names of very prominent people who donated money to schools and their children end up going to those schools."

Educational consultant Stephanie Meade of Collegiate Edge agrees, saying that "guarantee" is the key word. Parents can make big donations to universities but, as she has seen, their children still may be rejected from the school. Paying a consultant and athletic coaches directly would fall under an unethical "guarantee" of acceptance.

School consultant Betsy Brown Braun is not surprised about the arrests, and considers them the natural outcome of "the college admissions procedure having gone insane — the degree of difficulty to get into college is beyond anyone's wildest imagination and people are terrified. We need to tighten our systems tremendously — we need a watchdog," she says of the practice of big donations that might cross the line. "It's rampant, people accept it — and it's immoral because it doesn't make a level playing field. Kids are not getting accepted because of the kid, but because of what parents can pay" to get them into a selective school, she says, adding, "One of my favorite things to tell parents is, 'Steven Spielberg went to Long Beach State.'"

But in 20 years of working as an education consultant, says Brown Braun, "I've never seen anything to the extent of this. I've heard of SAT cheating, people who plant others to take tests for them, but never in all my years have I seen such blatant bribery that involved parents, a go-between and people associated with prestigious universities. It's desperation, the extent to which the parents will go."

The Hollywood community remains outraged by the claims against Huffman, Loughlin and the 40 others charged. Ruderman says he awoke to 50 texts from shocked parents and students: "Most of it is outrage, like, 'How or why would we ever do this to our kids?' type of things. These are moms that are commenting like 'What kinds of lessons are we teaching our kids?'" he says. "'Even if we could buy our children's way into Harvard, what good is that?'"