What some wealthy Singaporean parents do to get their kids into top US universities

Anna Maria Romero

May 20, 2019

Singapore—The recent US college admissions scandal, nicknamed Operation Varsity Blues, highlighted the actions of American families and the extent they go to to get their children admitted to ivy league institutions. Asian parents aren’t far behind with one Singaporean father paying an enormous sum of money to achieve this end.

The Straits Times (ST) published a story entitled “Donations or bribes: How rich Singapore-based parents get their kids into elite US unis” on May 19 (Sunday), with examples of what some Singaporean parent have done.

Money, it seems, can unlock many doors.

The ST article recounted the story of one young man who desired to study in a top US university. His parents asked Shaun Lim, a university admissions consultant with Quintessential Education, to emphasize a community service initiative in Tanzania that the young man had done along with two classmates, which aimed to grant microloans to locals.

However, in actual fact the parents only donated a capital of S$20,000 which did not even facilitate the loans to Tanzanians.

Mr Lim told the parents that highlighting the thwarted project would have been a falsehood.

This is just one example of what well-heeled Singaporean or expat parents do in stretching or even breaking the rules just to get their children into the best US universities.

Some of these methods include intensive coaching for the SAT, the standardized college-admission test that many universities rely on, padding resumes to make the students stand out, or writing the student’s application letter for him or her.

The ST report also showed how parents have used other “legal” ways of getting their children admitted to elite schools.

An example of this is development cases, wherein parents donate funds in efforts overseen by the development office of a university. In the United States, the sums involved in such cases are often between US$100 million to $200 million (S$ 137.6 million to $275.2 million).

According to Jason Lum, the president of US-based ScholarEdge College Consulting, would-be donors should donate an amount large enough to ensure that their names are put on a university building.

Alternatively, parents of students who make considerable donations on a regular basis as opposed to a one-time large donation are also considered as development case, since such one-off donations may be akin to a bribe, and could actually hurt a student’s chances of admission to a university.

Brian Taylor, who runs Ivy Coach, a college admissions consulting company in New York, says that several Singaporeans have attempted to offer such sizable one-time donations to American universities, with amounts that have not been greater than S$10 million. He added that his company has always declined these offers.

Mr Taylor also said that Singaporeans now comprise 15 percent of his clients, which can charge as much as US$1.5 million (S$2.06 million) for a five-year consultancy programme.

Mr Lum also said that there are legacy students who get into universities if at least one of the parents is an alumnus of the institution. He added that what some Singaporean parents have done is to enroll in master’s degree courses previous to their child’s application for admission in the school they wish to attend. These courses, he said, may cost upwards of US$50,000 (S$69,000).

Earlier this month, TISG reported that the family of Zhao Yusi paid US$6.5 million (S$8.86 million) to William Rick Singer, the central figure in Operation Varsity Blues, believing it was a charitable donation to Stanford that would help needy students.

The payment the Zhaos gave to Mr Singer was the highest amount he had received out of all the families he had helped to get into prestigious institutions. The list includes Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. Thirty-three families paid Mr Singer over $25 million between 2011 and 2018 to falsify test scores and admissions applications, as well as bribe college officials. At least 50 individuals are said to be involved in the scam, several of whom have pleaded guilty.

Ms Zhao is the daughter of Singaporean businessman Zhao Tao.

Though Ms Zhao has been expelled from Stanford, her family insists that the donation had been given in good faith, and had only been actually made after she had already been admitted to the university and that they had been defrauded by Mr. Singer.

Stanford University announced that it had never received the donation from the Zhao family.