When news broke in the middle of March about a college admissions bribery scandal that involved, among other people, well-off celebrities like “Desperate Housewives” actress Felicity Huffman and former “Full House” star Lori Loughlin, many Americans heaved a collective groan at another incidence in which the rich play by different rules, if they play by any rules at all. But maybe it was a lack of collective outrage among the less-privileged middle and lower classes that was the most damning evidence of a system that purports to be merit-based while it enables those with means and intent to subvert it.
Operation Varsity Blues
Code-named “Operation Varsity Blues” the FBI and the Department of Justice revealed an expansive scheme of bribes and cheating on standardized tests by wealthy parents to finagle their children’s way into elite universities. Implicated in the scandal were a number of college coaches and even an exam proctor. After the initial sticker shock of what it costs to bribe your child into college these days wore off, issues remained at the forefront of a debate that has been simmering within the higher educational system for years.
In case you were wondering, the average bribe worked out to anywhere from $250,000 - $400,000, while some totaled into the millions. The colleges involved were mostly private institutions such as Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, and USC. However, a couple of public universities such as UCLA and the University of Texas were also implicated.
While the amount of money and the people involved seemed mind-boggling at first, what it revealed about our parents and our higher educational system has much deeper implications than the misguided actions of a few privileged celebrities and other wealthy individuals.
A Rigged System
The notion that the system has long been rigged against poorer individuals without access to a decent education is nothing new. However, in the past, wealthy individuals were mostly content to make a healthy donation to a prestigious university as their child was nearing his college years (see Jared Kushner).
Nevertheless, these parents went a step further by bribing a private college admissions counselor, William “Rick” Singer, for a guarantee of admission. Many parents, such as Lori Loughlin, disguised their bribes as donations to his foundation, his go-to method for accepting bribes. Other parents bribed athletic coaches to fake their child’s athletic prowess in order to be one of the coach’s picks for admission.
Clearly, it’s not enough to have access to the best test prep tutors, costly private secondary school educations, and varied extracurriculars such as piano or horseback riding lessons. These parents want an ironclad guarantee of their child’s admission to an elite institution. On the other hand, these parents failed to grasp the implicit irony involved in cheating to gain entry for their children to universities that are supposed to encourage original thought and the eagerness to follow the truth wherever it may lead.
Many Were Not Surprised
Maybe the most disturbing part of the revelation was the relative lack of surprise among people of less-privileged backgrounds. To people who are accustomed to stories of the wealthy cutting corners, this type of chicanery didn’t seem to faze them. Could it be because the idea of attending one of these pricey institutions is unfathomable to them at almost any price?
For working class families, the idea of paying even a part of college tuition keeps so many out of higher education and its accompanying advantages that bribing your way in is just one more insult from a system that never gave them a chance in the first place; their children never aspired to getting the kind of valuable education that could propel them and their families toward better circumstances.
Ironically, these wealthy parents were willing to skirt the rules in order to gain admission for their offspring who neither needed nor really wanted the kind of education that leads to a brighter future.
A Lasting Message
The message it sends about this generation of helicopter parents seems to be one of “do your best in school. But even if you don’t, we’ll bend the rules anyway so that we can still hold our head high when our peers ask about you.” In other words, neither the adults nor their children appeared to truly value the education in and of itself. Their parents only wanted the marking of a brand name school to validate what a wonderful job they did raising their privileged child. If it was on offer, would they have purchased a Harvard degree in order to avoid the hassle of having their child attend the school?
How can young people possible be expected to follow rules or to put faith in the value of higher education when their parents are only too eager to flout the rules ostensibly for bragging rights among their peers?
A Bit of Wisdom From The Less Fortunate
Maybe some of these parents could learn a lesson about priorities from a recent story about Dylan Chidick, a formerly homeless youth from New Jersey who was accepted to 18 colleges. The video shows the teen’s unbridled joy at being accepted to his eighteenth and top choice, The College of New Jersey. While TCNJ would probably not figure into any wealthy parent’s bribery scheme, for this young man it must have seemed like a utopian dream. His college admissions certainly didn’t benefit from the machinations of wealthy parents and conspiratorial college coaches. However, nothing can simulate the pride he felt at his acceptance, and the passion he showed for pursuing higher education. And, he used a method that no longer seems to be vogue, he earned it all by himself.