The college admissions fraud scandal that erupted last week captivated the country—given how it hit straight at the heart of intersecting debates about class, wealth and privilege, and how thoroughly it seemed to lay waste to myths about American academia.
Dozens of people were charged in a scheme that involved wealthy parents paying bribes to get their children into elite universities, like Wake Forest, Yale, Stanford, USC and UCLA.
Also accused were top coaches and university sports officials whom federal prosecutors said accepted millions of dollars in exchange for help getting the students “recruited” as athletes, even if they didn’t play sports.
The actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, as well as Ms. Loughlin’s husband, designer Mossimo Giannulli, were among the 32 parents accused. So were financiers from ritzy Bay Area suburbs, a vineyard, owner from San Francisco and executives from coastal Orange County.
And the man at the center of it all, William “Rick” Singer, ran his entrepreneurial business from Newport Beach, after working as a basketball coach and college counselor in Sacramento.
So what is it about the Golden State that allegedly fueled this kind of scheme?
Jerome Karabel, a UC Berkeley sociologist who has written extensively about college admissions, said: “On a broader level, the case reveals a fundamental ‘crisis’ in American society.
“As America has become more and more unequal, affluent parents have become increasingly desperate to pass on their advantages to their children and to avoid downward mobility at all costs. Elite colleges are seen as insurance against downward mobility.
“California is an epicenter of enormous wealth; and, basically, where you have major concentrations of wealth, you have the possibility of corruption.”
Mr. Karabel said that the alleged scheme appeared to stem less from the parents’ desire to make sure their children learn than from “parental anxiety” in a society where being rich is the best way to stay rich; and if you fail, there’s less of a safety net.
The parents of affluent children commonly hire private college admissions counselors who sometimes edit or rewrite—or even write—student essays for them and coach them intensively through the process. These techniques are not illegal. In 2016, Jia Tolentino wrote about her years supporting herself by charging wealthy families $150 an hour to write or rewrite their teens’ essays. In a more extreme example, the counseling company Ivy Coach charged one woman $1.5 million to smooth her daughter’s path to an Ivy League college.
The admissions advantage given to athletes also helps rich kids nab coveted spots at elite schools. “The popular notion that recruited athletes tend to come from minority and indigent families turns out to be just false; at least among the highly selective institutions, the vast bulk of recruited athletes are in sports that are rarely available to low-income, particularly urban applicants.” Football and basketball players are far outnumbered by those in sports that aren’t found in most urban public schools; fencing, crew, equestrian events and the like. Once admitted, the report said, these students underperform.
Wealthier parents have also gamed the part of the college application in which students show that they have engaged in meaningful community service, often by sending their children on high-priced trips to villages in developing countries, where they help build playgrounds or coach kids’ soccer in between their recreational tourist activities. At the more ambitious end, Richard Weissbourd, lead author of a Harvard University report on problematic college-admissions policies, said he knows of wealthy parents who shelled out money to start a nonprofit school in Botswana just so their daughter could claim on her college application that she had created it; another family did the same with a clinic in Bali.
But colleges cannot claim to be the hapless victims of parental manipulation of the admissions process. Despite their supposed belief in a system of merit-based admissions, the reality is that they have created and tolerated a lopsided system that, despite some efforts to the contrary, continues to benefit the rich over potentially more deserving students with lesser means.
Colleges could start fixing this by eliminating the admissions preference for children of alumni, by demanding strong academic performance from all applicants, including athletes, and by forbidding students to use paid professional help to complete their applications. Students in better-funded schools would still have advantages, but not by as much as they do when they hire private outside counselors. Applicants should have to sign a statement that their essays represent solely their work and that they understand their admission will be revoked it it’s found otherwise. Applicants would still lie here and there, and it is not clear what meaningful enforcement there could be. But at least students—and their desperate parents—might hesitate if they knew they’d be committing fraud.
The most interesting facts in this fiasco to me is that since 1988, when the college population crossed the 10 million mark, college attendance has risen about 40%–about the same increase as college applicant have risen.
The competition is focused on the elite schools. In our generation, almost any school was acceptable and provided a decent education.
The second fact, and the irony of it, is the comment by David Marcus, a Pulitzer Prize education writer, who said, “The CEOs of Fortune 500 companies come mostly from state universities, not the so-called ‘elite’ schools.”
Morality is in alarming decline everywhere.