Photo: Mario Tama (Getty Images)

The FBI has busted open a multi-year and multi-million dollar cheating scandal that helped the kids of rich families get into “highly selective” universities by fudging their academic and athletic credentials, as reported by NBC News. The cheating scandal was centered around The Edge College & Career Network (known and referred to as “The Key”), a for-profit “college counseling and preparation business” that employed a variety of ways to help sneak incoming freshmen into some of the country’s most elite institutions of higher learning.

Essentially, as described by a cooperating witness in the case (CW-1, one of the founders of The Key), the plot targeted families who were rich enough to afford their services but not rich enough to use the traditional institutional advancement method (i.e. buying a university a new wing or library or some such thing). Instead of using that so-called “back door,” The Key would open what it called the “side door” by fabricating credentials that in theory would guarantee kids admission into a school that they otherwise might not get into.

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The whole scheme is yet another instance of the long tradition of the uber-rich paying lots of money to circumvent the system, and it’s one that The Key partook in without obfuscation. As described by CW-1 in court documents, The Key targeted weaknesses in the college admission process, such as individualized testing for students with learning disabilities and bribing coaches and athletics departments to allow kids to be classified as “recruited athletes.”

Some of the ways that The Key used to cheat kids into top schools:

  • Bribing test administrators to allow third-party employees to take standardized tests for students
  • Using a charity to launder money used for bribing coaches into labeling students as recruits
  • Fabricating fake student-athlete profiles for prospective students, including parent-supplied staged photographs showing their children engaged in athletic activity
  • Photoshopping students’ faces onto the bodies of “legitimate athletes”

This wouldn’t work if it were just one company promising things to the wealthy and neurotic, though. The investigation also found that—beyond getting test administrators at two locations (one in Houston, Texas and one in West Hollywood, California) to either let students cheat or, in some cases, correct answers after the tests—college athletics departments were in on this racket too.

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One of the cooperating witnesses in the case (CW-3) was a former Yale women’s soccer coach, and there are other instances of coaches agreeing to call incoming students “recruits,” to ease admissions standards, even though those kids had never intended to play sports at the collegiate level. Hence, the staged athletics photographs.

Among those charged, as pointed out by Law360's Aaron Leibowitz, are Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer, former Yale women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith, former Georgetown tennis coach Gordon Ernst, UCLA men’s soccer coach Jorge Salcedo, and Texas men’s tennis coach Michael Center, as well as several USC coaches. Also involved is Wake Forest volleyball coach Bill Ferguson, who was immediately placed on administrative leave by the university upon the news of the cheating scandal:

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In all, 40 people have been charged in the case, with charges ranging from conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, conspiracy to commit racketeering, and conspiracy to defraud the United States (the full list of those charged can be found on the United States Department of Justice website).

Among them are actresses Felicity Huffman (Sports Night, Desperate Housewives) and Lori Loughlin (Full House). Court documents say that Huffman and her husband, actor William H. Macy, paid The Key $15,000 in order to apply the scheme to their eldest daughter’s college application; the couple declined to use The Key’s services a second time for their younger daughter, however.

[NBC News]