It’s funny, kind of, that Felicity Huffman allegedly broke the law to get her child into the University of Southern California. The humor has nothing to do with USC, a fine school, and everything to do with Huffman, a world-famous actress who has so much and who, for want of one thing, is now in federal custody. A federal indictment released on Tuesday, which follows an FBI investigation called Operation Varsity Blues, accuses Huffman of hiring a scam artist to proctor her daughter’s SAT exam and falsify the results.
The Feds say that dozens of people knowingly participated in a college admission cheating ring. Nearly 50 other people also face charges, including Rick Singer, the man who allegedly ran the scam, and the parents who sought his services. Singer and his associates are accused of helping parents falsify their children’s ethnicities; urging them to fake learning disabilities, so their children could receive accommodations for extra time on tests; and telling parents that the fees they paid for this guidance would show up as donations to a foundation for disadvantaged students.
Some of Singer’s clients are celebrities, like Huffman. Others roamed the halls of finance, like a former CEO of Pimco, a prominent investment management firm. All had the means to create what one fraudster called a “side door,” which opened up onto the campuses of their dreams. It appears that they used that power to benefit their own families at the direct expense of students from less privileged backgrounds. Somebody else could have taken that spot at USC. An underprivileged student with real talent might have dreamed of it. According to the indictment, when the parents of Varsity Blues did think of the disadvantaged, it was explicitly to steal and co-opt the few protections upon which they can rely. “It’s just, to be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here,” a parent told one of Singer’s conspirators.
It’s not news, of course, that selective colleges tend to cater to the elite. But it would be a mistake to narrow the college admissions scandal to a simple story about rich people buying places at Yale and USC. We’d miss the theft, and the gross inequalities that facilitated the crime.
Like the way to Narnia, the side door to these elite schools is not visible to everyone. Wealth is the force that pushes it open. In this way, the Varsity Blues scandal simply makes explicit what many people have known for a long time. Access to the Ivy League, or to any selective university, is a luxury parents can purchase. They can go the route of Jared Kushner’s parents and donate an obscene sum to a school like Harvard University; an acceptance letter is likely to appear, despite their offspring’s academic deficiencies. Or parents can lean on the strength of their own ties to an institution, and get a child admitted as a legacy applicant. That option too, though, is usually only available to families who are already well-off.
Documents filed in an ongoing suit over affirmative action admissions at Harvard reveal that legacy admits at that school are disproportionately likely to be white, and nationwide, legacy applicants tend to be relatively wealthy. While legacy students flourish, disadvantaged students struggle to catch up with them. As Alexandria Walton Radford, the author of Top Student, Top School? How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go to College, wrote in The Atlantic, high-achieving students from lower-income backgrounds often don’t apply to elite colleges at all. Without adequate guidance counseling or familial experience, many students aren’t even aware that they have a real chance of admission to selective institutions. College costs can also dissuade qualified applicants, even though many top schools provide enough financial aid to cover tuition for less privileged students. “Many valedictorians from lower socioeconomic backgrounds took one look at a college’s price tag and were immediately scared away from even applying,” Walton Radford explained.
There are ways for elite schools to try to equalize the admissions process, if they wanted. Harvard, for example, could stop legacy admissions and begin to refuse donations from the parents of prospective applicants. Schools could make it optional for applicants to submit standardized test scores, which consistently reflect massive achievement gaps that fall along racial and socioeconomic lines. According to one study, schools that became test-optional increased the diversity of their student bodies — and students who opted against submitting test were no less likely to graduate. At some institutions, students who didn’t submit test scores actually had higher graduation rates in contrast to their SAT-taking peers, InsideHigherEd.com reported. Schools could also end early-decision admissions, which commit students to a college before they’ve received financial aid letters, and thus favor students who aren’t reliant on scholarship funds. Proposals for free public college, like Senator Bernie Sanders’s College for All Act, would also help even the scales.
These reparative measures could help equalize college admissions, but the fraud alleged in the Varsity Blues indictment is a symptom of a deeper disease, one that Ivy League admissions officials cannot cure on their own. For college admissions to become truly fair, we’d have to fundamentally reorder our national priorities instead of leaning on individual institutions to fix the problem (and law enforcement to catch especially egregious scams).
Wealthy parents don’t usually have to resort to rigging college admissions through fraud, or even through charitable giving. They don’t need to. Their advantages are broad. In the United States, people with millions in the bank can always afford a side door — to private high schools or wealthy neighborhoods with better public schools, to test prep and tutors. They can afford to visit doctors when their children are sick and pay professionals to treat learning disabilities. Their children don’t need to work on top of going to school. They have such an edge, in so many different categories, that it is often impossible to catch up with them at all. If we laugh at Felicity Huffman, maybe it’s with relief. She’s put it all out in the open.