Other than Aunt Becky and Lynette Scavo, perhaps the most compelling figure at the center of the college admissions scam is William “Rick” Singer, its mastermind. On March 12th, Singer, 58, pleaded guilty to money laundering, racketeering, obstruction of justice and tax evasion for his role in the scheme, which allegedly involved bribing coaches and paying off SAT exam proctors to get wealthy teenagers seats at top-tier universities. But who is William “Rick” Singer, and how, exactly, did he leverage his extensive network of college administrators and coaches to cater to his wealthy clientele? Here’s what we know about him.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Singer is that he has been a visible figure in the college admissions community for quite some time. He is the founder and CEO of the company the Key, a “Private Life Coaching and College Counseling Company,” according to the website. The Key catered to wealthy families trying to get their children into college, per its website: “the Key’s clientele is all referral based; consequently, the quality of the service provided to many of the world’s most renown [sic] families and individuals has provided an incredible foundation for The Key to grow its offerings worldwide.” (A request for comment went unreturned at press time.)
But Singer wasn’t always in the college admissions prep world. According to a 2005 profile in the Sacramento Business Journal, Singer is a graduate of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, who claims to have a master’s degree in counseling and a doctorate in business and organizational management. He coached high school sports for a while before transitioning, in 1992, to his first venture in the world of college admissions counseling, Future Stars College & Career Counseling. He later sold the company (which appears to still be active today), telling the Business Journal that “he was better at coaching than running a business,” and accepted a senior executive role at the Money Store, a mortgage company that was then a subsidiary of First Union Bank (now Wells Fargo).
After taking leadership roles at various other corporations, Singer apparently decided that he was, in fact, better suited for a career in business than he originally thought. In 2004, with the help of private investors and an advisory board featuring prominent higher education figures like then-Occidental College president Ted Mitchell, Singer launched the counseling service the CollegeSource before starting the Edge College & Career Network (also known as the Key) in 2007. (Mitchell is no longer involved with the company; In a recent statement, he decried the scheme. “This alleged behavior is antithetical to the core values of our institutions, defrauds students and families and has absolutely no place in American higher education,” he said.)
According to court filings, Singer ran two organizations: the for-profit LLC the Key, which provided college counseling and test prep services; and a tax-exempt nonprofit, the Key Worldwide Foundation. While the Key Worldwide Foundation was ostensibly set up “ to provide guidance, encouragement and opportunity to disadvantaged students around the world,” per its website, the Department of Justice alleges that Singer used the nonprofit as a front for his “side door” scam, funneling payments from parents to fund bribes to test administrators and coaches. The scheme was so successful that he was allegedly paid $25 million total between 2011 and February 2019.
In 2014, Singer self-published two books with author Rebekah Hendershot: Getting In Personal Brands: A Personal Brand Is Essential to Gaining Admission to the College of Your Choice, and Getting In: Gaining Admission To Your College of Choice. The book was full of legitimate tips and tricks to hack the college application process, such as how to write the perfect college essay, or get a higher score on the SATs.
But even in his legitimate business dealings, Singer was fond of taking the low road, Hendershot claimed in an interview with USA Today. In one instance, Singer suggested that a wealthy student fraudulently claim to be the impoverished child of a single mother in his personal essay. “It was a personal statement all about his experiences growing up poor, and I was literally sitting in a mansion when he showed it to me,” Hendershot said. “Rick had been telling him for weeks to write this essay telling him he was a poor student. But the kid was having trouble writing it because he couldn’t imagine what it was like to be poor.”
For the time being. Singer is actively cooperating with the criminal investigation, and he appears to be contrite about his role orchestrating the scam: “I am responsible,” he said when he appeared in court on Tuesday. “I put all the people in place.”
Although he was released on $500,000 bond, he will return to court June 19th for sentencing. He faces a maximum sentence of 65 years in prison and a $1.25 million fine.