Admissions scandal: When 'hard work' (plus $8.9 million) gets you into Stanford University

William "Rick" Singer leaves the federal courthouse after facing charges in a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme in Boston, Massachusetts, US, on March 12, 2019.
William "Rick" Singer leaves the federal courthouse after facing charges in a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme in Boston, Massachusetts, US, on March 12, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

CAMBRIDGE, MASACHUSETTS (NYTIMES) - Sitting in a plush chair and wearing a white blouse buttoned up to the neck, the young woman looks into the camera, smiles and offers advice about getting into a top American university.

"Some people think, 'Didn't you get into Stanford because your family is rich?'" the woman, Ms Yusi Zhao, says in a video posted on social media.

It wasn't like that, she says. The admissions officers "have no idea who you are".

She adds: "I tested into Stanford through my own hard work."

The video was recorded in the summer before Ms Zhao began her freshman year, in 2017.

It now stands in sharp contrast with recent news: that her parents paid US$6.5 million (S$8.9 million) to a college consultant at the centre of an international college admissions scheme, according to a person with direct knowledge of the investigation.

Prosecutors say that the consultant, William Singer, tried to get Ms Zhao recruited to the Stanford sailing team, providing a fake list of sailing accomplishments and making a US$500,000 donation to the sailing programme after she was admitted.

The payment to Singer was by far the largest known in the case, and the disclosure immediately added Ms Zhao and her family, pharmaceutical billionaires from China, to a cast of powerful figures swept up in the scandal, including two Hollywood actresses and prominent names from the US legal and business worlds.

The new turns in the investigation, including reports that another Chinese family paid US$1.2 million in connection with their daughter's application to Yale, have illuminated the global reach of Singer's operation and the wealthy Chinese families eager to get their children into prestigious US universities.

Singer was far from alone in trying to profit from soaring demand in China for the elite American college experience. Many Chinese families turn to middlemen, whose fees can be tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, like some of their counterparts in the college consulting industry in the United States.

In China, a dizzying array of companies offer advisory services that range from the legitimate to the openly dishonest - promising, as Singer did with some of his clients, guaranteed admission to certain schools in exchange for payments.

A private club down the street from the Zhao family home outside Beijing was lined with advertisements for admissions consulting and SAT test-prep services.

One company, called Capstone, offered "100 per cent university clients accepted into 40 Top US Universities".

Across the street were several businesses offering university consulting and tutoring; one had posted a list of the colleges and boarding schools where its clients had been admitted: Yale, Brown, Andover, Groton.

Businesses like these have boomed in China as the number of Chinese international students steadily grew in the US.

In 2017, there were more than 363,000 Chinese students enrolled in US universities, more than a third of all international students, according to the Institute of International Education.

Mr Jack Chen, a marketing executive for the Institute of Chinese Language and Culture, which offers college consulting and tutoring, said companies like his help students get reference letters, write essays and prepare for interviews.

They also advise children on how to build up their resumes to include charity work and competitions that separate them from their peers, he said.

Mr Chen said he knew of consulting companies that could find back doors into top universities in the US, but he declined to disclose their names.

He added that there used to be more of these services, but that US universities had cracked down after several cases of cheating by Chinese students on standardised exams and college applications.

But it was perhaps the college consultants in the United States who had greater sway with Ms Zhao's parents, and the parents of the student in the Yale case, Ms Sherry Guo.

Both families pursued Singer's services after meeting him through financial services companies in California, where he had formed relationships.

Ms Zhao's family was introduced to him by an adviser at Morgan Stanley named Mr Michael Wu, whom the company said had been terminated.

Federal prosecutors have so far charged 50 people in the admissions case, in which wealthy families are accused of cheating on college entrance exams and bribing college coaches to designate students as athletic recruits.

Singer has pleaded guilty to racketeering and other charges, and has cooperated with the government in gathering evidence against his clients and others he is said to have worked with.

 
 
 

Prosecutors have not brought any charges against Ms Zhao or her parents, nor against Ms Guo or her parents.

Both Ms Zhao, who was a sophomore at Stanford, and Ms Guo, who was a freshman at Yale, were expelled from their schools.

A statement sent on behalf of Ms Zhao's mother by her lawyer, Mr Vincent Law, said that she and her daughter were victims of Singer's scheme, and that the mother had believed the US$6.5 million was a legitimate donation to Stanford.

"This generous act was not only done for the good of the school and its students, but also done out of the love and support of Yusi by a caring mother," the statement said.

It added that Singer had not offered guaranteed admission to any school and that her daughter had applied to and was accepted by a number of colleges "through ordinary channels".

A visit to the Zhao family home outside Beijing and a review of online records pointed to the world of luxury and privilege that Ms Zhao had grown up in. But the family also publicly espoused an ethic of hard work and not falling back on inherited wealth.

A Ferrari, Tesla, Bentley and Land Rover sat parked outside the house, a California-style mansion surrounded by trees and a large hedge, in a gated development called Yosemite Villas.

Ms Zhao's father, Mr Zhao Tao, said in a 2015 profile of the family in a Chinese magazine that his children did not have their own fancy cars.

"If they want to drive, they have to borrow one from me," he said.

"I really look down on those kids who don't rely on their own abilities," he added. "If I come across one, I give them a dressing down right away. I just can't stand that type."

Ms Yusi Zhao's older sister, Ms Zhao Yuchen, said in the same profile: "From early on we've been taught that the family's money is the family's and is none of our business. We can get the best education available, but if we want to live better off, we have to earn it ourselves. When we travelled, the adults went first class, for sure, but we kids had to ride economy in the back."

Mr Zhao Tao is the president and co-founder of Shandong Buchang Pharmaceuticals, a drug company that specialises in traditional Chinese medicines and health supplements.

He started the company with his father in 1993, and it has become a family enterprise, employing Mr Zhao Tao's brother, wife and elder daughter.

A profile in Forbes lists Mr Zhao's net worth as US$1.8 billion, describes him as a citizen of Singapore, and says he received an MBA from Fordham University.

Mr Zhao Tao's father, Mr Zhao Buchang, was himself at one point accused of bribery: He was found by prosecutors to have paid US$10,000 in 2002 to a senior official in China's food and drug administration who was sentenced to death for corruption in 2007.

Mr Zhao Tao is also on the board of a group, called Wisdom Valley in English, which says it provides support and advice for Chinese family businesses.

Through that group, Mr Zhao met and posed for a photograph with President Donald Trump and Melania Trump in 2017.

His daughter Yusi Zhao went to elementary school in Beijing before going to England for the latter part of middle school and for high school, where she attended a prestigious boarding school.

As a freshman at Stanford, Ms  Zhao was part of a selective academic-and-residential programme called Structured Liberal Education, a year-long intensive course in Western literature and culture and the history of ideas, according to professor of political science Rob Reich, who has given lectures in the programme.

The 90 freshmen in Structured Liberal Education live together and attend lectures by humanities scholars from across the university.

According to its website, the programme "encourages students to live a life of ideas in an atmosphere that emphasises critical thinking and interpretation".

She also belonged to an organisation called the Stanford Speakers Bureau, which brings high-profile speakers like Jennifer Lopez and Ban Ki-moon to campus.

"She was very friendly - and very dedicated," Ms Alexa Ramachandran, 18, a freshman member, said of Ms Zhao. "She would go around to the dorms, asking if there was anything more she could do for the club."

In the video Ms Zhao made about getting into Stanford, which is over 90 minutes long, Ms Zhao said that she rode horses in her spare time, and that she planned to take sociology classes at Stanford and return to China after graduating.

Ms Zhao repeatedly exhorted her viewers to work hard and believe in themselves, using her own journey as a lesson.

She said that she had been a mediocre student in elementary school and that her first ACT score had been unimpressive.

"A lot of people told me, 'You still want to get into Stanford, but, look, the entry rate for it is just 4 per cent - just forget it,' " she said.

After a year of strenuous study, she said, she took the test again and got a score of 33 out of 36.

"Based on my experience of study, I want to tell you that really anyone can do it," she went on.

"I'm not the kind who was born with a very high IQ or who can score 33 or 36 in an exam just like that. But I made my way up step by step through my hard work."

She decided to aim for US universities, she said, because they evaluated students not just based on test scores, but also on their extracurricular activities and personal statements.

"It demands not only that you're a good student, but also that you have personality," she said. "You need to have a special skill."