Story at a glance

  • Federal prosecutors have charged more than 50 people with participating in a nationwide scheme to get their children into prestigious four-year schools using bribery and cheating on entrance exams.
  • Among those already charged and those awaiting trial are high-profile celebrities such as Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman.
  • Former real estate exec Toby MacFarlane is the latest to be hit with a prison sentence for his participation in the scandal.
  • The scandal has sparked a national conversation about education, wealth and race.

It was 2018 when former real estate executive Toby MacFarlane’s daughter graduated from USC, a prestigious private university in Los Angeles. She was admitted to the school as a star soccer recruit and graduated four years later, that is, without having ever played any soccer during her time there. 

"My parents have a hard time attending my soccer matches because our opponent's parents are always making rude remarks about that number 8 player who plays without a care for her body or anyone else's on the field. It is true that I can be a bit intense out there on the field,” she wrote in her 2013 application to USC.

It wasn’t her soccer skills that gained her admission to the school but a $200,000 payment sent by her father to William “Rick” Singer, the mastermind behind the college admissions bribery scandal that has rocked the world of higher education since being unveiled earlier this year. It was the Justice Department’s largest-ever college admissions prosecution, leading to dozens of indictments that implicated celebrity parents such as Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, as well as actress Felicity Huffman. Huffman was released from prison on Oct. 25 after serving 11 days of a 14-day prison sentence for her crimes that included paying $15,000 to Singer to boost her daughter’s SAT test scores.

Macfarlane’s sentence, in contrast to Huffman’s less than two weeks, is the longest ever to be handed down thus far — six months in prison. U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton also sentenced MacFarlane to two years of supervised release, 200 hours of community service and a $150,000 fine, calling him a “thief” for “not once, but twice” taking seats at USC away from more deserving prospective students.

The scandal has sparked an intensified discussion about how wealth and whiteness may be giving an advantage to a limited group of prospective students at the nation’s top schools, as well as calling attention to the recent judicial roadblocks faced by race-based affirmative action. For one, it illustrates the implicit inequality of today’s college admissions processes and serves as a clear reminder that low-income students and students of color are way less likely to benefit from inherited advantages such as wealth and legacy admissions. To illustrate, just 4 percent of undergraduate enrollees at the nation’s top 10 colleges are black, according to a 2015 analysis by the Brookings Institute — a direct contrast to the black students that make up 26 percent of those enrolled in bottom-ranked colleges.

“Higher education in this country aspires to be a meritocracy. Those who work the hardest or make the best grades rightfully get accepted into the best schools," Gorton said. "You had the audacity and the self-aggrandizing impudence to use your wealth to cheat and lie your way around the rules that apply to everyone else.”

Gorton’s comments are in reference to the second time Macfarlane paid $200,000 to Singer, years later in 2017 to get his son into USC. His son was admitted to the school as a star basketball recruit despite having never played basketball, with an application that listed his height as 6 feet, 1 inch when he was in fact 5 feet, 5 inches tall. MacFarlane also made a $50,000 payment to USC athletics, bringing his total to $450,000. 

MacFarlane, an alum of USC himself, apologized for setting “a terrible example” for his children and said that “it is heartbreaking” that he “brought a shadow” over the school that he loves. In a letter to the judge he cited a personal crisis that obstructed his judgement at the time, the disintegration of his marriage.

Judge Gorton’s strict sentencing could be a precursor for what’s to come from the upcoming trial of Loughlin and Giannulli, perhaps the highest profile case in the entire scandal. The couple currently face charges of mail and wire fraud, honest services mail and wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery for allegedly paying Singer $500,000 so that their daughters could attend USC.

Published on Nov 14, 2019