It may be hard to believe, but the college-admissions scandal broke nearly two years ago. Countless headlines, a couple books, a Lifetime movie, and at least one mea culpa on Facebook Watch followed. But to understand what happened, it helps to understand the private school community in Southern California that created so many lucrative targets for con man William “Rick” Singer. And for that you need Nicole LaPorte’s Guilty Admissions.
LaPorte, a Fast Company writer who has also authored a book on DreamWorks, opens on Harvard-Westlake—the, well, Harvard of elite high schools in Los Angeles—where New York Times writer and author Frank Bruni is trying to encourage wealthy parents to breathe at the “Senior College Night” (it doesn’t appear as though they were taking his advise to heart). From there it whips through the worlds of exclusive preschools and “tier-one” elementary, middle, and high schools, where maintaining favor with connected people means writing big checks, and often. One quickly understands that it didn’t take a genius to exploit this environment. It just took Rick Singer.
Guilty Admissions is about excessive privilege and the lengths to which parents will go when that privilege is threatened, in real or imagined ways. Speaking on the phone at the end of January, LaPorte had just seen parts of this world crashing down, or at the very least being interrogated, in 2020. But in other ways there’s a sense that the lessons of the college-admissions scandal haven’t stuck for those not immediately implicated. We discuss this, the parents involved, and the not-terribly-elusive Rick Singer in the following interview, which has been edited for clarity and condensed throughout.
Vanity Fair: When stories like the Varsity Blues scandal break, you’re kind of like, How did these people get here? But your book does a wonderful job of retracing those steps. Could you start by describing the ecosystem that was primed for Rick Singer to exploit?
Nicole LaPorte: That was kind of exactly the inspiration for the book. I saw the headlines as everyone else did. I was literally on a work call and my husband texted me the story, and I kind of pulled it up and was just glancing at it. It was so shocking. I think we all know and have known for a long time about the quote, unquote, back door—that there are people who get into college because their parents build a library or whatever. So that idea wasn’t that shocking, but the idea that there was this quote, unquote, side door and also that these weren’t just wealthy parents; they were supreme, really wealthy parents. Many of them are billionaires. I mean, they can do much more than simply write a check to a school.
So that question of, like, Well, why would they need to do that? Why would Felicity Huffman? Why would these parents in particular—they’re like 0.05% at least—why would they go to these lengths?
I really did just focus my research on Los Angeles because that’s where I live, and that’s where many of the parents, but certainly not all of them, live. So that was my petri dish.
I think first and foremost there’s very much a pay-to-play culture at these schools. It can begin as early as when the parents are trying to get their kids to the “right” preschool. There’s a sense from the very beginning that money talks and that if you give the school money—and in many cases, schools blatantly ask for “donations”—you will get more access. You will get more help from the head of the school.
And so I think a lot of parents are almost trained to give money to schools in this tacit understanding that it is going to help them down the line, whether it’s getting from a preschool to the “right” elementary school or getting from, you know, a prestigious high school into the Ivy League. And so then when Rick Singer comes along and says he can get your child into a certain school if you just make a donation to the school by way of him, it almost is no different than what these parents have been doing for years and years.
Well, I did want to talk to you about that chapter on preschools, because for me it was the most terrifying. Can you talk a little bit about why that was such an important part of the puzzle to explain this world?
I just remember certain people saying, “Well, you know, this all begins in preschool.” They would say it. And I would just kind of honestly groan inside because I was like, I don’t have the time or the bandwidth to get into preschool for this book, but great, interesting, move on.
And then another parent would say it, and sort of enough people said it that I said, Okay, wait, what’s going on here? And I have two kids who had fairly recently gone to preschool, but it was, as I would learn—they did not attend the “tier-one” preschool. So I was very oblivious to all this.
I started reaching out to parents who attended some of these quote, unquote, tier-one preschools. And it was just amazing. I mean, the things they would say about what they did to get into the schools and how they would feel that they had to have multiple recommendations written. And there was a school that I talk about called the Circle, which is on Montana [Avenue in Santa Monica]. And, you know, just the process of applying there.
What was the process?
You have to, once you apply, you have to call the director—I think it’s once every few weeks—to show how much you want it. I just couldn’t believe the amount of hoops that the parents have to jump through. I immediately saw why these people had directed me to preschools because it just mirrors, in many ways, the culture at the private high schools, where, again, it’s donations. The parents who give money seemed to get preference. And it’s all about winning favor with the director because the director is the one who has the relationships with the quote, unquote, right private elementary school that you want your child to get into.
All these parents are telling me about how other parents were hiring a tutor or consultants to basically help their three- or four-year-old pass the assessment to get into the private school. Much in the way parents of high schoolers are paying for tutors and independent college counselors, they’re paying these, like, elementary-school whisperers or gurus to help them improve their handwriting or, I don’t know, short shapes better.
I interviewed one of them, and she very openly said that she charged $350 an hour. I think I said, “Oh, I heard the fee was $250 an hour,” and she said, “No, no, no. It’s $350.” Thank you! Fact-checking. Great.
With any of these parents whom you spoke to, those who had been through the preschool-to-college route in this world, did they feel like all of this was worth it?
They’re all very self-aware about it. They’re almost telling me this with their eyes rolling. Like, I know I’m doing this; I know this is ridiculous. But it’s just so ingrained, and they feel that they just have to do it. Maybe they’re not gunning for Harvard or Yale, but they just want the best for their kid.
But I don’t know. I never talked to anyone who said, “Oh, looking back, I totally regret it. My kid would have been fine at Cal State.” I mean, if anything, I remember parents saying, “Yeah, like, my kid now goes to”—it was an Ivy League school and it was this person’s alma mater. And they said, “You know, I’m really psyched that I get to tell my friends that my kid goes there.” It’s the privilege of being very honest—it was just like, Yeah, that does actually make me feel good. So I think that maybe reflects the reality.
You described in the book something that you call the “artisanal parent.” I was wondering if you could explain what you mean by that and describe how it feeds into this ecosystem too?
I do think to some extent I am an artisanal parent, and I think many of us are. It just starts really young, where you want your kid to be in the quote, unquote, right toddler group and the right music class. And, you know, everyone has the Stokke high chair. Well, I want the Stokke high chair. And my kids go to public elementary school, but I know the mom and the child with the matching Golden Goose sneakers, and I want that.
Some of it is just status, a fixation on status, but some of it isn’t just about status. You don’t have to be a super-wealthy, status-obsessed parent to be an artisanal parent.
Growing up in the ’70s, my parents didn’t care. We were treated more like pets: like, feed them and let them run around out back and enroll them in the local school and we’re done, and that’s just not the way it’s done anymore. So it leads to a lot of obsessing over details that can then bleed into ultimately what we’re seeing in the scandal.
Right, so, regarding the scandal, the book really goes into Rick Singer’s tactics, which I don’t think we got a lot of through the federal prosecutor’s arguments, which were focused so much on the parents.
I loved researching him because he’s such an odd antihero. He’s not this larger-than-life, sophisticated, brilliant con man along the lines of Bernie Madoff. I mean, he’s sort of like this eccentric hustler who runs around in a tracksuit who you might run into in the gym.
I don’t even think he’s a sophisticated thinker. He’s just a world-class hustler. And, I mean, I guess the brilliance, intended or not, is that he’s so disarming and that he’s so regular and so normal. And, you know, he looks like got his hair cut at Sam’s Club. Amazingly, these parents who are from worlds so far beyond his, like, they were kind of disarmed by it and almost, like, charmed, I think. He just found the right people. It was so easy for them to just pass these fake athletic profiles through admissions. I mean, it was almost childlike.
I thought one of the cleanest examples of what you were talking about before—that tension between these people who have money and access and choosing to go with the side door scheme—was Mossimo Giannulli. How did somebody like him go down this road even though he probably didn’t have to?
He’s an interesting individual in this, too, because he exemplifies the parents who didn’t attend either an Ivy League college or a so-called top-tier college or even college at all. And he’s interesting, too, because of his ties to USC, which played such a huge role in the scandal. But as I talk about in the book, he didn’t attend USC; he simply lived there and he kind of crashed at a fraternity house and took some classes, but never an official student at USC. He never graduated from USC, but he was very taken by the school. And I think he was very taken by the college experience and very taken by the idea of having a college degree because he didn’t have one. And he was just specifically obsessed with USC. The family flew a USC flag on their property, and, again, he never graduated.
There were other parents, too, involved in the scandal who never went to college. They’re almost confused, or they truly don’t understand the process of getting in, so there’s a huge naïveté there. And then it’s coupled with this intense desire to have their children sort of get what they didn’t or attain what they didn’t, and have the experience that they didn’t. So I do think that created a degree of blindness in him or at least made him very susceptible to Singer’s pushing.
His actions are just so egregious, and that all came out in court documents—where he storms into the guidance counselor’s office. I don’t want to imply that he was simply, you know, powerless in the face of Singer, but I do think he was the perfect setup in that way.
And you did not cover Robert Zangrillo.
No, I didn’t delve into his story. I used a lot of documents that came about because of what he’s been going through in court. He’s been fighting the charges, and he got USC to turn over all of these documents that show all the VIP status that they give to applicants.
He’s interesting now, of course, because he was just pardoned by Trump. Even when I was writing the book and thinking about what it meant beyond the scandal, I do think the Varsity Blues scandal is a portrait of an era, namely the Trump era, which was defined by our leader, i.e. a rich person who a lot of what he got was because he was rich.
He paid someone to take his SATs, or his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as the poster child of the “back door,” where his parents made a huge donation to Harvard, sort of paving the way for him to get in. And so I think in the backdrop of the Varsity Blues battle, you have the Trump era and all that it stood for.
You didn’t really go into that sort of backdrop, though, in the book. Why not?
I think what I was so focused on was telling the story of the scandal and helping people understand Rick Singer. Hopefully it’s implied. I feel almost like the first chapter should be titled “White-Privileged People Freaking Out.” So I hope it’s implied in there—that is, the era of white privilege, which hopefully is crashing down on us. I think 2020 shows that it’s certainly starting to.
When the book comes out [the official release date is February 23], it’ll almost be the two-year anniversary of the news breaking. What have the repercussions of this story been like in those communities that you described in the book?
So the biggest change is at the university level, where a lot of checks and balances were put in place to crack down on particularly the relationship between athletics and admissions. There was so much trust placed in coaches, and now there’s a lot of fact-checking and accountability where, you know, athletes are being researched more and it’s not just about a coach saying, “Hey, I want this person.” So I think at the university level, there’s been a lot of mechanisms put in place to help prevent this in the future.
With COVID, it almost became more pronounced. I talked to parents about how kids, because SAT and ACT centers were shutting down in California, so you couldn’t take the SAT, these kids were getting on planes and traveling to, in some cases, exotic vacation resorts to take the SAT there. Kids who don’t have those resources were forced just to not take it. So I don’t know how much it’s abated.
I think there was, to some degree, a feeling of shame about it all, but I also think more than anything, the thought was that those were rogue parents. Those were exceptions. You know, We want our child to get into the best school, and we’re going to do everything we can, but, I mean, my gosh, we would never go to those lengths. So I don’t know how much the culture has actually changed.
A friend of mine is an independent college counselor, and she’s working like crazy now because everything is such a Wild West with the SAT and ACT being optional for a lot of schools, and they dropped the subject test. And then also the enrollment’s down, especially at the public universities. So everyone just feels like, Oh, my God, like, maybe I could get into Yale this year.
What do you think the media generally or the public has misunderstood about this story?
I don’t know if this answers the question, but I think the scandal just underscored the idea that education in this country is not a meritocracy. People like to cling to the idea that it is, and cling to this idea that it is all fair and no matter how you grow up you can progress beyond your own situation and end up at the right school.
I think that this scandal just amplifies that that’s not entirely untrue, but there are many asterisks. There was such an uproar over this in terms of, Oh, my gosh. You know, rich people buying their way into college—that’s crazy. When in fact it’s kind of happening all the time, just in a slightly different way. It’s an extreme example of something that’s been going on for so long, and to think that it’s not, it’s just naive.
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