Why Los Angeles was the epicenter of the Varsity Blues scandal

Harvard-Westlake’s upper-school campus sits in the craggy foothills of Coldwater Canyon, a sylvan nook of the metropolis the place luxurious SUVs careen down winding, wooded roads that splinter off into cul-de-sacs dotted with midcentury architectural master- items wedged into the mountainside—or leaning towards it on terrifying one-hundred-foot stilts. Right here, nature and wealth seamlessly coexist in a sort of cussed concord. In the event you can dream it, you’ll be able to construct it, mudslides and gravity be damned. Located much less precariously, at the foot of the canyon, Harvard-Westlake brings an old-world vibe to those distinctly LA environs.

Harvard-Westlake initially functioned as a ending faculty for younger white Protestant males—who dined on lobster Newburg and caught glimpses of Clark Gable trotting throughout campus on horseback—however as we speak the faculty is way more ethnically if not economically various—and is taken into account a rocket launcher to twenty-first-century success. “It’s the final bumper-sticker faculty,” declared one LA mum or dad. Gettys, Fairbankses, and Gyllenhaals have all obtained diplomas from Harvard-Westlake, whose good-looking red-roofed campus has led some to dub it a “mini Stanford.”

Responsible Admissions: The Bribes, Favors, and Phonies behind the Faculty Dishonest Scandal by Nicole LaPorte

Some view it extra as a company than a spot of greater studying. The varsity’s prime administrator carries the title of president, together with the extra folksy “head of faculty” moniker adopted by different personal faculties in the space. College students slog via hours of homework an evening of their college-level literary principle and microeconomics programs, and scoff at extra progressive establishments throughout city, like Crossroads College, the place there aren’t any AP choices and academia is taken into account only one half of a holistic journey. Till not too long ago, a lunch break wasn’t necessary at Harvard-Westlake, that means many youngsters would eat on the run, in an effort to preserve grinding.

Throughout the faculty’s Faculty Evening in 2016, it tried to convey to oldsters that the expertise youngsters have wherever they wind up, to not point out their household and private relationships and the communities they contain themselves in, is way extra essential on the subject of crafting an identification and sense of self than a sweatshirt bearing the identify of a prestigious school.


There are locations the place this message could be embraced and celebrated, the place the concept of sending a toddler off to 1 of the “Faculties That Change Lives”—as former New York Instances schooling editor Loren Pope dubbed intellectually stimulating however obscure schools similar to Goucher and Hope—could be thought of sound recommendation. However Harvard-Westlake, which has an annual tuition of $39,700 and is populated by the offspring of the metropolis’s prime leisure executives, attorneys, and enterprise titans, isn’t one of them.

As one mum or dad who was in attendance that evening put it: “Everybody’s sitting there like, ‘I pay forty thousand a yr, and my child kills himself doing the work.’ No one desires to listen to that Wash U is a unbelievable place. It’s Harvard, Harvard, Harvard. Perhaps Princeton.”

This mind-set, which dominates the elite world of LA schooling, explains why the metropolis was the epicenter of the Varsity Blues scandal, which broke in March of 2019, and why mother and father right here have been so simply swindled by a con man. Dubbed “the largest school admissions fraud of all time,” the scandal was masterminded by William “Rick” Singer, an impartial school counselor based mostly simply south of Los Angeles, in Newport Seaside, California, who used bribery and faux athletic profiles to get college students admitted to such universities as Yale, Georgetown, and the College of Southern California. Felony expenses to this point have been introduced towards forty mother and father, together with actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin—the latter paid $500,000 to get her two daughters into USC as pretend crew recruits—and has reverberated nationwide ever since.

Nicole LaPorte [Photo: courtesy of Orit Harpaz]

Harvard-Westlake has not been implicated as half of Varsity Blues, however distinguished mother and father at the faculty employed Singer for his (professional) providers and really useful him to others. Certainly, the faculty, together with a handful of different prime personal academies in Southern California—the place greater than a dozen of the charged mother and father reside—supplies a lens via which to look at the tradition that exists surrounding school admissions in the wealthiest, most privileged pockets of the nation. By peeling again the layers of this tradition, one begins to understand why many of these mother and father went to the lengths they did, and why they risked a lot—together with jail phrases—in an effort to get their youngsters into the proper school.

Los Angeles, particularly, is a microcosm the place excessive wealth and ambition collide, undercut by a shamelessly transactional perspective towards enterprise—together with the enterprise of schooling. This can be a place, in any case, the place cash is freely allotted to acquire one more improve or VIP expertise and the place there’s at all times a strategy to grind out extra favorable deal factors. Certainly, “pay or play” is a extensively accepted contract stipulation. “LA appreciates the recreation of it,” stated one former private-school administrator. “Their complete tackle it’s, ‘Let’s simply attempt to finest the recreation. Let’s strive to determine the place the stress is.’ As a result of they do that on all the things. They do that after they negotiate movie contracts. They do it after they’re attempting so as to add on to their home that they’re attempting to indicate off. All the pieces is a deal.”

In prime LA personal excessive faculties, the recreation for fogeys is getting their youngsters right into a prime school. Mother and father sort out it the manner they do all the things else of their lives: by successful favor with Vital Individuals—like the head of faculty and the members of a college’s board. They throw round their checkbooks to realize affect. A sufficiently big donation, many consider, will put a toddler on the radar of the board, whose high-profile members will scour their contacts when it comes time to use to school and make calls on the youngster’s behalf. Even an affordable reward will procure an invite to a personal cocktail social gathering at the head of faculty’s home, a night that won’t be forgotten when school purposes are due. Costly presents are lavished on lecturers (iPads, journeys to Paris), and personal pitching coaches are employed to work with the faculty’s baseball group—all to make it clear which folks have VIP standing and which offspring want particular care come school utility time.

The elite faculties, in the meantime, play into this, all however demanding “donations” and different acts of “giving” as quickly as a toddler is accepted.


The apply of donating cash to colleges is a key consider the Varsity Blues case. In some circumstances Rick Singer informed mother and father to jot down checks to universities their youngsters have been making use of to as half of his scheme; the cash went to funds overseen by coaches and directors who’ve been charged in the crime. Mother and father who’re preventing the expenses declare that their funds have been simply that—a donation, not a bribe. One mum or dad informed me that when Singer introduced up the concept of making a donation, it didn’t appear unusual. “We’ve been writing checks to colleges since our children have been in elementary faculty.”

Copyright © 2021 by Nicole LaPorte
Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette E-book Group, New York, NY.
All Rights Reserved.