Ringleader of Admissions Scam Also Ran a College Counseling Firm For...

Higher Education

Ringleader of Admissions Scam Also Ran a College Counseling Firm For Families in China

By Jeffrey R. Young     Mar 15, 2019

Ringleader of Admissions Scam Also Ran a College Counseling Firm For Families in China
William "Rick" Singer, front, founder of the Edge College & Career Network, exits federal court in Boston on Tuesday, March 12, 2019, after he pleaded guilty to charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal.

William “Rick” Singer, the man at the center of the alleged college-admissions fraud plot detailed this week by federal investigators, had a big footprint—a global one, in fact.

The scale and audacity of the scheme described by prosecutors is unprecedented in U.S. higher education. Singer led a for-profit college counseling business called The Edge College & Career Network, LLC., also known as The Key, that allegedly created what he called a “side door” to college admissions by bribing athletics coaches at elite colleges to falsely designate applicants as high-performing athletes and push them through the admissions process. In some cases, the company also helped the applicants cheat on ACT or SAT tests, or took online classes for them to boost their applications. Some parents paid millions of dollars for the services. Singer has agreed to plead guilty and has cooperated with investigators.

Among Singer’s other ventures was a college counseling operation aimed at students in China applying to selective colleges in the U.S. The Los Angeles-based company, called USA-UES, listed Rick Singer as its co-chairman as of Thursday. Hours after the company and its top leaders were contacted by EdSurge, the company removed Rick Singer’s name and all staff member names from its site, though we grabbed a screenshot before they did (posted below). Officials for the company did not respond to our repeated requests for an interview.

Up until Thursday, the USA-UES website listed Rick Singer as co-chairman. It has since removed all employee names from its site.

To be clear, USA-UES does not appear in the indictment and is not mentioned in other documents released Tuesday by federal prosecutors, so it has not been named in the plot. It has not been accused of any wrongdoing as far as we know. (A spokesperson for the Department of Justice told EdSurge that they are unable to comment beyond the documents the department has released.) And plenty of companies offer legitimate counseling services to international students.

In fact, many college counselors in the U.S. focus specifically on helping families abroad, says Christine Chapman, a counselor at Personalized Educational Solutions who has worked with international students herself. Though she had not heard of USA-UES, she said there are a vast array of counseling companies serving the space, many of them following the law.

Serving such families, she says, “is harder because there are so many more hurdles international families might need to overcome. A lot of our Asian families [don’t understand] what the U.S. college process is like.”

USA-UES boasts an unusually high rate of success. Its website promises “100 percent success rate for college admission.” On its LinkedIn page is a more detailed guarantee: “Our efforts have resulted in 100% admission into the top 200 universities in the US, and ultimately successful careers in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Business Management,” it says.

“To guarantee is unethical,” says Whitney Laughlin, a college counselor in Victoria, in Canada, who has worked in college admissions for more than 30 years. She adds that the Independent Educational Consultants Association has clear ethical guidelines that she and her colleagues follow. “And we police each other,” she adds.

Chapman, of Personalized Educational Solutions, says that parents in China are often looking for assurance that any counseling they buy will be effective. She said that if USA-UES is picking its clients selectively, as its website suggests that it does, then its claim that it can help a student gain admission into a top-200 school is plausible, even when operating in a perfectly ethical manner.

“Anyone that tells you they can give you a guarantee is lying to you,” she says.

Has she ever offered a guarantee? “I guarantee that at the end of the process, that the child is going to feel empowered and that they feel they have integrity because what they showed is their own,” she says. “Beyond that, there are no guarantees.”

The USA-UES website also says that it has worked with children of executives at top Silicon Valley companies, stating: “We are the exclusive college guidance experts for families of executives at Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon.”

Admissions System Under a Microscope

This week colleges and college counselors struggled to distance themselves from the scandal, and the behavior of The Key.

Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education and former Under Secretary of Education at the U.S. Education Department under President Obama, said in a statement: “If these allegations are true, they violate the essential premise of a fair and transparent college admissions process. 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.”

It turns out that Mitchell knows Rick Singer personally, and was quoted in a favorable profile of Singer in the Sacramento Business Journal back in 2005. In the article, Singer was painted as a model college counselor, gaining the trust of kids he worked with and also running a business called TheCollegeSource that helped students abroad apply to colleges in the U.S.

In the article, Mitchell, who was then president of Occidental College, was quoted as saying that “Rick has an encyclopedic knowledge of colleges and universities in America... Far more important, Rick is really great at getting at the heart of what kids and families want—and finding the right match."

EdSurge reached out to Mitchell this week to ask what his relationship to Singer had been and what his personal reaction was.

“I have known Rick Singer for twenty years. I even served briefly nearly 15 years ago in an unpaid role on an advisory board of one of his previous ventures, ironically, aimed at providing college counseling to low-income students,” said Mitchell in an email response. “I am shocked, sad and angry that someone I thought I knew could perpetrate these crimes. Higher education remains one of America’s greatest treasures despite these efforts to cheapen it. All colleges should, and I hope will, carefully review their processes to ensure that this sort of behavior is impossible in the years ahead.”

College counselors like Christine Chapman are also working to communicate their integrity and distance themselves from The Key’s actions. She posted a video response on a Facebook group run by her company, and notes that it runs an effort to provide a lower-cost alternative to college counseling advice, called Education Station.

She describes her role as to “guide students through a process that has become increasingly and ridiculously difficult.” “At the end of every year I get phone calls from families and they say, ‘Thank you so much for getting my child into college,’” she says. But she says she pushes back against that way of thinking about her role. “I can confidently and comfortably say, ‘Excuse me, I did not get your child into college. He or she got him or herself into college by his or her achievements or hard work.’”

Parents have asked her to cross lines, she says, some even asking if there was some way they could bribe someone at a college. “It’s not something I do,” she stresses. “I don’t even know where I’d go to do it.” Laughlin, the college counselor in Vancouver, said that she doesn’t believe anyone working at a college’s admissions office would ever accept a bribe, and noted that no admissions officials have been named in the alleged scheme.

“It makes me ill,” she says of the alleged plot. “It’s like being a doctor and finding out somebody who is another doctor is harvesting body parts.”

Update 3/18: Since this story was published, USA-UES has taken down its website and Linkedin page completely.

Below two other screen shots of what the page looked like last week:

A screen shot of the USA-UES website from last week.
Opening screen of USA-UES website as of last week, before it was taken down.

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