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13 March 2019

“I’m not worried about the moral issue”: what the college admissions scam tells us about the rich and meritocracy

A $25 million college admissions bribery scheme exposed by the FBI reveals the rot in America’s education system.

By Sophie McBain

As far as news stories go, the $25 million college admissions bribery scheme exposed by the FBI is near-perfect – a titillating tale of the scheming super-rich finally getting their come-uppance, and a tantalising combination of Hollywood glamour and grubbiness. The actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were among the 33 wealthy parents – who also included lawyers, entrepreneurs and fashion designers –  accused of paying tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and in some cases over a million, to a fixer who promised to get their children into top selective universities, including Yale, Stanford and the University of California. No wonder we’re all waiting for the definitive magazine long-read.

Court documents allege that the fixer, William “Rick” Singer, was paid to use two tactics to get privileged, underperforming children into their desired school. The first involved bribing college exam administrators to inflate the students’ SAT or ACT exam scores. The second involved faking the students’ sporting achievements and then bribing university sports coaches to admit them to college as athletes, because in the US the academic admissions requirements are often lower for athletes. 

One parent is accused of paying $1.2 million to secure their daughter’s admission into Yale as a top women’s soccer player, although she did not even play the sport. Sometimes this involved photoshopping the teenagers’ faces onto athletes playing American football or water polo or whatever sport they wanted to use to gain admission, as well as perhaps submitting a personal essay on their completely fabricated sporting achievements.

Singer has pleaded guilty to masterminding the scheme and could be sentenced to up to 65 years in jail.

Most of the money paid to Singer was disguised as charitable donations to a foundation that purported to provide enrichment and educational programmes for disadvantaged young people, which had the added benefit for the parents that their fraudulent payments were also tax deductible.

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This alone might offer a hint that what superficially seems like a captivating story, is also a grim and deeply depressing one. How morally bankrupt must one be to pretend to be giving money to a worthwhile cause – namely, efforts to combat America’s deeply unequal education system and appalling social mobility – while illegally pushing your own ultra-privileged children to the front of the queue, at the expense of other more deserving university applicants?

There are already plenty of legal and deeply unfair ways that wealthy Americans are able to ensure their children get into the most competitive universities – quite apart from the social, economic and educational inequalities that mean that poorer children are already handicapped when it comes to university admissions. There are exam preparation coaches and personal essay editors and any number of other trainers and counsellors who can help well-off teenagers gain a competitive edge.

Most top selective universities also give priority to the children of alumni, many of whom are wealthy and well-connected: 12 per cent of Harvard undergraduates are legacy students, for example.

Those with the means can also consider making a big, tax-deductible donation to the university they want their child to attend. The journalist Daniel Golden, whose book The Price of Admission chronicles this process, noted for example that Jared Kushner’s father pledged $2.5 million to Harvard shortly before his son was admitted to the university. A spokeswoman for Kushner Companies says these two events are entirely unconnected, but Kushner’s former school teachers told Golden they were certain that his exam results weren’t good enough for Harvard.

After the FBI caught Singer, he became a cooperating witness, hoping to reduce his sentence by agreeing to record some of his clients incriminating themselves (he was, however, subsequently charged with obstruction of justice for trying to warn a number of them).

The court documents made public on 12 March include transcripts of his telephone conversations with prospective clients, including this one in which he explains that his method for gaining university admission is cheaper than, say, donating a college building, and also comes with a 100 per cent success rate:

“What we do is help the wealthiest families in the US get their kids into school… They want guarantees, they want things done. They don’t want to be messing around with this thing. And so they want in at certain schools. So I did 761 what I call, “side doors”. There is a front door which means you get in on your own. The back door is through institutional advancement, which is ten times as much money. And I’ve created a side door in. Because the back door, when you go through institutional advancement, as you know, everybody’s got a friend of a friend, who knows somebody who knows somebody, but there’s no guarantee, they’re just gonna give you a second look. My families want a guarantee. So, if you said to me “here’s our grades, here’s our scores, here’s our ability, and we want to go to X school” and you give me one or two schools, then I’ll go after those schools and try and get a guarantee done.”

It may seem perverse to feel some pity for the students who benefited from going to some of the most prestigious universities in the country using the “side door”, but some of them literally had no idea that their parents had paid for someone to fake their SAT or ACT scores. They sat their admissions test and were amazed they had done so well – not knowing that one of Singer’s associates had subsequently corrected their paper or forged their handwriting to fill out a completely different test sheet.

They are by no means the biggest victims in this sordid affair, but how depressing it must be to realise that perhaps your greatest-ever achievement was a sham – and that your parents even joked about this. Here’s what Singer said to Gordon Caplan, a lawyer accused of paying $75,000 to fake his daughter’s ACT scores:

“I did 30 of them [falsified exam scores] at different, you know, dates because there’s different dates, and they’re all families like yours, and they’re all kids that wouldn’t have perform[ed] as well, and they did really well, and it was like the kids thought, and it was so funny ‘cause the kids will call me and say, “Maybe I should do that again. I did pretty well and if I took it again, I’ll do better even.” Right? And they just have no idea that they didn’t even get the score they thought they got.”

Many of the recorded conversations between Singer and the parents are like that, jovial and joke-filled. One parent compares Singer’s efforts to get her child into the University of California to achieving peace in the Middle East. Any misgivings they express are to do with a fear of getting caught, rather than the ethics of the scheme.

“Keep in mind I am a lawyer,” Caplan says in one recorded conversation, according to the court filings. “Yes, you are!” one might think, wondering what comes next. 

“So I am sort of rules oriented,” he continues. What might a rules-oriented lawyer make of this scheme, one might wonder again?

“Doing this with you… there’s no way any trouble comes out of this, nothing like that?” he asks.

“I’m not worried about the moral issue here. I’m worried… if she gets caught, she’s finished,” he says at another point.

Despite the moments of levity provided by such farcical discussions as how to successfully mock-up a sporting photo, the court documents make for gloomy reading, in part because the parents appear to feel so little guilt or shame for what they are doing.

They seem reassured whenever Singer tells them that lots of parents do this, suggesting perhaps that many of those involved saw what they were doing as only slightly removed from all the other methods the wealthy employ to get their kids ahead: all those professional essay writers and coaches, the alumni networking events and the multi-million college donations.

Their actions suggest that if any of them have any belief in foundational American values such as equality of opportunity and meritocracy, they evidently believe that such rules ought not to apply to their own family.

What might seem baffling, however, is why a top university place is worth so much to the super-rich. The biggest bribe paid amounted to $6.5 million, and all of the parents must have known that there was some possibility of getting caught. With such moneyed, sharp-elbowed and well-connected parents, aren’t their offspring almost guaranteed to thrive even if they don’t make it into a highly selective university?

One possibility is that prestige was a fundamental motivator – Kushner seems to have been destined to join his father’s business regardless, but his Harvard degree no doubt helped burnish his image in some circles, for instance. In today’s environment of ultra-competitive parenting, were they mostly paying for bragging rights?

Or perhaps the very wealthy are just as aware as everybody else that America is increasingly becoming a winner-takes-all economy. Competition for well-paid, stable work has rarely been fiercer, and the social and economic costs of failure have rarely been steeper.

America’s richest one per cent now control almost 40 per cent of the country’s wealth – more than the bottom 90 per cent combined, and the highest proportion in over sixty years. While pay at the very top keeps rising, worker wages have stagnated and in the past ten years almost all the new jobs created in the US have been part-time, temporary or seasonal. 

Perhaps the greed and fraudulence demonstrated in the college admissions scam are motived by the same anxieties that animate so many other American parents to participate in the so-called “rug rat race”, the stiff competition in education that in some parts of the country begins at kindergarten.

In that case, the FBI’s “Operation Varsity Blues” sting, as it has been dubbed, sheds light not only on the rot in America’s elite education system, but also on the country’s broader economic malaise.

The participating parents may not have engaged so readily in fraud had they not understood that America’s education system is already rigged in their favour, had they not believed that what they were doing was not entirely different from the other, legal ways in which their high-rolling peers get their kids ahead.

But equally, none of the effort, expense and risk would be worth it without a belief that a top university degree might be the best ticket to success in a lopsided, unequal and cut-throat economy in which failure is not an option.