The college admissions scandal: it’s a real-life “Drop Dead Gorgeous” (best mother-daughter movie ever). Only the promote-the-kids-at-all-costs parents aren’t small-town, lower-middle-class folk with accents Hollywood mocks. They’re fancy coastal types with glorious homes and impressive CVs. And their parental crime of choice isn’t murdering the competition as in the movie (as far as we know, anyway), but a litany that includes wire fraud, bribery and racketeering.
Any parent who has lived through the college application process at least in the last 15 years knows that it is hideous and unfair, its angst levels driven by entitled students and parents, particularly those of means, but especially by the institutional arrogance of the American higher education behemoth that makes groveling fools out of millions of otherwise intelligent adults. For decades, students and their parents have used any methods necessary — padded résumés, pricy tutors, the ridiculously exotic extracurricular or two and often, mega donations — to achieve advantage in the applications rat race. The price of back-door entry may be tainted, but it’s not illegal, and one could hardy call it secret.
Within that framework, the massive case laid out by the Justice Department on Tuesday still stuns. I feel a little private shame that my first reaction wasn’t outrage, but fascination and (perhaps perverse) amusement at this real-life, over-the-top satire. Actresses from “Full House” and “Desperate Housewives,” the latter married to a guy from “Shameless” — what titular perfection, on all counts. (Still, Lori Loughlin saddens; I’d bought into her Hallmark-ness, which ended formally yesterday when the channel dumped her.) In addition to entertainment, the scandal infiltrated various professions perceived as fancy: fashion, by way of Loughlin’s husband Mossimo Giannulli; finance, through, among others, ethical-investing proponent William McGlashan Jr., and the worlds of real estate, law, medicine, marketing and more.
So, wealthy-to-rich people engaging in immoral, illegal activity in the interest of helping their children while setting cartoonishly bad examples for those children. Behavior bizarre enough to offer fodder to both sides of the political divide — the AOC/DSA rich-bashing set and the right-wingers eager to call out the hypocrisy of liberal elites. Yet behavior some are shockingly willing to defend. David Mamet wrote an open letter supporting his longtime friends Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy, claiming that while “a parent’s zeal for her children’s future may have overcome her better judgment for a moment is not only unfortunate, it is, I know we parents would agree, a universal phenomenon.”
Maybe so, but most would draw the line well short of RICO territory, even for a child more interested in traditional education than Loughlin’s younger daughter Olivia Jade. She proudly told her 1.5 million YouTube followers that she wants the college partying experience but otherwise, “I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.” (Comments that have already lost her several of her collaboration deals.)
Olivia Jade’s honesty stings all the more because many kids care a great deal about school. Every fudged ACT, falsified crew photo and resultant “side-door” entry took a coveted spot away from a deserving, non-counselor-bribing student. Yet twisted parental entitlement manifests variously, and along the way, morals can go out the window. But what of concern for getting caught? Did none of these people consider that possibility, and the risk-reward ratio? These transgressions won’t be easily forgotten in the public psyche. This isn’t a leaked sex tape or a substance-abuse problem with fans rooting for the celebrity’s recovery. This is bribery and other major malfeasance for the purpose of indulging a child’s desires or, even worse, the right to say, “My kid goes to XYZ University.” Were even the faintest possibility of discovery and the inevitable social-pariah status that would follow — not to mention the legal fallout — worth the risk? Is one parents’ weekend all that more compelling than another?
That’s the parent side. Then there’s the institutional industrial aspect — and it is an industry — encompassing a network involving not only the schools and their top administration and admissions offices, but everyone within the college structure with cause to weigh in on prospective students, as well as numerous external parties, including all those involved in the college prep/counseling process. Enter the center point of this debacle, William “Rick” Singer of Edge College & Career Network, the company from which he orchestrated his $25 million fraud. There are many smart, dedicated college counselors out there. That they primarily service the upper-middle-class and above is an issue, but not a criminal one. But how many more of the Rick Singer ilk? Who knows?
Among Singer’s ploys: falsifying SAT and ACT scores. One assumes doing so when the test is administered in the typical way — Saturday morning, group setting — requires some degree of skill and on-site compliance. Conversely, whether a kid legitimately needs extra time or not, you don’t have be a major sociologist to see the potential problems with letting a kid take the test alone under the watch of a proctor chosen by his or her paid college counselor.
As for the kids, while some clearly knew of their parents’ machinations, most apparently didn’t. Which leads to the question, did they disengage from the process, and hand it off to the adults? Who hit “send” on the applications? Were they oblivious to oddities such as a 400-point leap in SAT scores, or to doctored sports pictures? One boy clearly had no clue; he corrected university reps who asked about his athletic prowess.
Those kids all know the truth now — in some cases, including how little their parents think of their natural abilities. One girl took the application process very seriously; she committed to keep retaking the ACT until she hit her goal score of 34. Along the way, she drove her mother “so f–king nuts” that a bribed shortcut to that goal made sense to the mom. But that’s not all. The fraud would have to be handled deftly because, the mother told Singer of the student, unlike her older sister, “she’s not stupid” and might ask questions. Perhaps tack on a long-term therapy tab to the bribery bill?
All of this went on outside the official academia-sanctioned admissions process, with bribes a key part of Singer’s operation. By definition, that’s a two-way street — briber and “bribe-ee.” So who were the “bribe-ees” at the college level? Why, athletic coaches — hardly a shocker. Again and again and again for years, documented cases — from the worst, the horrific sexual abuse scandals of Jerry Sandusky at Penn State and Larry Nassar at Michigan State, to academic fraud to booster shenanigans to all kinds of coaching malfeasance — have made it beyond clear that college sports are a cesspool of wanton graft, greed and corruption.
This is one more example in the litany, yet curious still. Everybody knows that superior athletic ability is a major advantage in the college application process, and that coaches (apparently, even in non-money-making sports) have a great deal of say in determining the worthiness of athletes. But how did this process work? So the tennis coach or the crew coach signs off on your kid’s face Photoshopped onto another kid’s body. Wouldn’t the admissions office expect references other than a picture — documented performance stats or a letter from a high school coach?
About the high schools, in at least two cases described in the court filings, high school counselors come off as heroes, or at least rationally thinking adults. They questioned the falsified athletic accomplishments listed on students’ applications, but somehow, Singer managed to deflect their queries. So many questions left unanswered.
Back to the colleges. Yale, Stanford, Wake Forest, Georgetown and USC are all cited in the court papers as institutions where coaches allegedly accepted bribes. The homepage of each school’s website touts the glories of the institution, and each has a newsy element, updated regularly. In several checks this week, only Stanford’s made any reference to its involvement in this scandal, posting, “Stanford statement on federal charges against sailing coach.” It notes that Stanford is cooperating with the DOJ, that the coach has been terminated and that neither of the two students involved enrolled at the university. Nevertheless, Stanford “is deeply concerned by the allegations in this case. The university and its athletics programs have the highest expectations of integrity and ethical conduct.”
Conversely, in a statement released by USC President Wanda Austin, she described the school as “a victim in a scheme perpetrated against the university by a longtime Athletics Department employee, one current coach and three former coaching staff.”
One would like to think that universities and colleges will make a grave mistake if they merely blame rogue employees for this scandal rather than acknowledge its roots in their own institutional egotism and their deliberate, gleeful feeding of the annual admissions frenzy. However, if entitled rich kids and their enabling parents continue the voracious pursuit of elite-school affiliation at all costs up to and including potential jail time, the admissions process will likely remain business as usual. Then again, one course might temper the madness: serious contemplation of elite-school return on investment versus that of the hundreds of other really good schools out there. Is it all really worth it — even without jail time?