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Nearly four years after the Varsity Blues scandal rocked headlines, laying bare the sleazy lengths that status-obsessed parents—including Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin—were willing to go to to get their kids into elite colleges, the so-called “mastermind” of the scheme, William “Rick” Singer, was finally sentenced in a Boston courthouse today.
Singer, who is no longer flashing his über-tanned abs on a paddle board in Newport Beach, California, while living in a five-bedroom mansion, but residing in a trailer park in St. Petersburg, Florida, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison and three years of supervised release, splitting the difference between what his legal team recommended (no more than six months behind bars) and what prosecutors were angling for (six years).
The jail term is significantly lower than the 65 years that prosecutors were asking for when I was reporting my book about the scandal, Guilty Admissions, mainly because Singer ended up being such an incredibly game cooperating witness to the government, which charged him with money laundering; racketeering conspiracy; conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government; and obstruction of justice. (He pled guilty to the charges.) By helping the government reel in dozens of parents, reminding them in wire-tapped phone calls of how they had paid him huge sums of money—made out to Singer’s phony charity—to help their children earn acceptance letters to schools like Stanford, Yale and Georgetown, Singer shaved off time in the slammer.
But Singer’s relatively mild comeuppance for a crime that enraged the nation, inciting another heated round of debate over the inequities of higher education, made Wednesday’s ruling more of a shrug-worthy anticlimax as opposed to a sizzling grande finale to the saga. (Almost all of the 50-plus participants in the scandal have already pled guilty and been sentenced. One parent was pardoned by President Trump and only one parent who took the case to trial was found not guilty.)
This was no Bernie Madoff, let-him-rot-in-jail ending. Granted, nor was Varsity Blues a $64 billion Ponzi scheme—in the end, Singer netted just over $25 million for faking sports resumes and bribing coaches to get students admitted to schools as fake athletes; his other “side door” approach was to have kids take the ACT/SAT in testing centers where he was paying off proctors and having his own standardized test “ace,” Mark Riddell, correct the students’ answers after they’d taken the test.
But perhaps the bigger letdown of his sentence is that it reminds us that the infuriatingly opaque, and unequal, world of college admissions hasn’t changed all that much post-Varsity Blues. Sure, many universities have implemented more checks and balances in their athletic departments, making it harder for a YouTuber like Olivia Jade to be passed off as a star rower. But in a sign of the heavy resistance that faces any meaningful changes to the status quo, when California lawmakers attempted to pass bills that would have brought more transparency and control over the college admissions system—for example, providing more scrutiny of special admissions cases for athletes, and regulating the (completely unregulated) profession of independent college counselors, private universities lobbied hard. The end result was a watered down bill that forces California colleges and universities to report the number of legacy students they admit every year.
Indeed, the overall ecosystem of college admissions, at least to elite colleges and universities, remains intact with parents shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to independent counselors who guide their kids through essay writing and selecting the perfect non-profit to found in order to show off their unique passions and dedication to things beyond AP Chemistry.
The biggest shock to the system in recent years wasn’t Varsity Blues, but the Black Lives Matter Movement, which colleges and universities responded to by putting a significant emphasis on accepting more diverse and first-gen students on to their campuses. But while those numbers have increased, campuses have yet to be turned on their heads. Stanford reported that while 18 percent of the class of 2023 are first-gen students, almost the same number—16 percent—are the children of Stanford alumni. In other words, it still matters very much to be part of a population that is generally considered to be white and privileged.
More than anything, Varsity Blues was a shockingly vivid reminder of all of the inequities within college admissions that played like a soap operatic reel directed by Tim Burton. The cast was almost too good to be true, and not just because it included actual Hollywood actors. There was the dad (water treatment entrepreneur Devin Sloane) who had his son pose as a fake water polo player in the backyard swimming pool in Bel-Air, procuring the necessary gear on Amazon. There was the Hollywood socialite (Jane Buckingham) who proctored her son’s ACT exam in her house. There was the glamorous, Harvard tennis star turned standardized test whiz (Mark Riddell) whom Singer recruited to take, or correct, kids’ tests for them. Then there was Singer himself, a tightly-wound workout junkie and former community college basketball coach, who detected decades before college consulting became a cottage industry, that there was money to be made in helping parents navigate the increasingly complex world of admissions.
The color and inanity of it all made the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston, where all those charged were forced to appear for hearings and sentencing, a paparazzi hot spot, with camera crews camping out and jumping to life anytime a black Escalade turned the corner. When I was there in September of 2019, the day Huffman was sentenced a very light term of two weeks in jail, such miscues would cause a beefy Bostonian cameraman to yell out “False alaaaaahrm!” at regular intervals. When Huffman finally did show up and stepped out of her vehicle, accompanied by her husband William Macy and a clutch of lawyers, the twenty-yard walk to the entrance of the courthouse was like a red carpet perp walk. “Felicity, are you sorry for what you did?” reporters would shout angrily. “Are you prepared to go to prison for this?”
But that was 2019. Varsity Blues was still an unfinished drama whose consequences weren’t yet fully known. The world didn’t know yet what COVID-19 was, or what havoc a U.S. President could wreak in his final hours. The name George Floyd had no meaning. How much time Felicity Huffman would serve really did seem like the most important question of the day.
On Wednesday, Singer showed up in Boston looking every bit the reformed conman. His sleek, charcoal suit and crisp white shirt was in stark contrast to the blue, athletic windbreaker that he wore to the very same courthouse back in 2019. The press was on hand, but it was not the circus it once was—at Loughlin’s hearing, the actress signed autographs for fans bearing signs.
When Singer’s verdict was announced, reporters dutifully filed stories and Tweeted, but social media then went on its merry way. The world had moved on. And besides, college applications were due in a few weeks.
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