college admissions scandal

Not Even the Joneses Can Keep Up Anymore

Is life like sports, where winning is almost everything? Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The scandal over bribes given to grease admissions to elite colleges for the children of Hollywood figures and their social peers is shining a bright light on the morally dubious world of the very privileged. As Hunter Harris explains, the allegations being brought by federal prosecutors are extensive and serious:

Court documents unsealed Tuesday revealed a pricey scam to get students admitted to elite universities — namely Georgetown University, Stanford University, UCLA, the University of San Diego, USC, University of Texas, Wake Forest, and Yale — as recruited athletes, regardless of their athletic ability. The suspects paid bribes of a few thousand dollars up to $6 million, without the admitted students knowing …

The scam was allegedly run by a man in California who ran a college-counseling agency nicknamed “the Key.” The service would accept payments from parents and direct their money to an SAT or ACT administrator, or a college athletic coach. Coaches would fabricate the student’s athletic history, exam administrators would correct the student’s exam, or a proctor take the college admissions test instead.

So far 44 people — 33 of them parents of the students involved — have been charged, with the big Hollywood names being Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin (Huffman’s husband William H. Macy has been implicated but not yet charged). Others charged include CEOs and prominent attorneys.

Assuming the allegations are generally accurate (even if some of the accused are exonerated or escape conviction), the scandal is a reminder that even people on the tippy-top of the American social and economic pyramid are anxious about improving their families’ position. It seems that for their children, being “born on third base” (as Jim Hightower once memorably said of George H. W. Bush, adding that “he thinks he hit a triple”) isn’t enough; they need a push to score by attending the very best colleges, even if their expensive upbringing and pricey secondary education isn’t enough to qualify them without bribes. More surprisingly, these celebrity parents were willing to risk a stretch in the hoosegow to secure this privilege-on-top-of-privilege. Huffman has been charged with felony conspiracy to commit mail fraud.

Does the possibility that little Billy or little Lulu would have to attend Dartmouth rather than Yale, or UC-Berkeley rather than Stanford really justify the risk involved? It’s as big a mystery to me as the willingness of very wealthy people in the financial or legal professions, or very powerful people in politics or government, taking a chance that they will exchange their designer clothes for orange jumpsuits in order to add to their already fabulous wealth and power.

The dissatisfaction of our country’s rich with their riches is well-documented, as Joe Pinsker explained recently:

In a paper published earlier this year, [Harvard Business School’s Michael Norton] and his collaborators asked more than 2,000 people who have a net worth of at least $1 million (including many whose wealth far exceeded that threshold) how happy they were on a scale of one to 10, and then how much more money they would need to get to 10. “All the way up the income-wealth spectrum,” Norton told me, “basically everyone says [they’d need] two or three times as much” to be perfectly happy …

Another expert I consulted, Brooke Harrington, a professor at the Copenhagen Business School who has studied and written about the financial practices of the super-wealthy, says that the question many rich people ask themselves about their money is not Do I have enough to buy this expensive thing I want? but rather Do I have as much or more than these people I’m comparing myself with?

Anybody who’s been around parents consumed with the status of the kindergarten or even preschool their offspring attend can imagine that the desire to keep the next generation of the very privileged at the top might be intense enough to encourage corner-cutting and perhaps even law-breaking. And there’s not much question this is a by-product of a society, and an economic system, in which competition is deeply embedded by every instrument of culture — including education itself.

The historian and sociopolitical critic Garry Wills once observed that the reigning metaphor of American life was the footrace, in which some people felt disadvantaged by a poor position at the beginning of the race and others felt entitled to self-congratulation for finishing well. Some people in our country clearly think the reward for their own success is to guarantee it for children through a huge leap to the front of the pack before any real competition begins. And there’s an even darker side to this insistence on perpetual privilege: It involves treating those without privilege as losers without the power to insist on a fair shake.

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Not Even the Joneses Can Keep Up Anymore