The True Scandal of the College Admissions Scam

A multimillion-dollar fraud involving Hollywood celebrities and major investors reveals the moral bankruptcy of elite colleges

A gate to Harvard Yard at Harvard University. Photo: Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe/Getty

The political journalist Michael Kinsley has a saying about Washington, D.C.: “The scandal isn’t what’s illegal. The scandal is what’s legal.” That truism is worth keeping in mind as the country digests, with a mix of hilarity and outrage, the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice.

The world of elite college admissions had its own Kinsley gaffe this week, and it was a doozy. A brief recap: According to the FBI, wealthy parents including celebrities, like Desperate Housewives actress Felicity Huffman, paid large sums of money to William Rick Singer, the founder of a for-profit college preparation business based in Newport Beach, California. Singer and his associates in turn did everything they could to ensure the children of their well-heeled clients were admitted into elite colleges like Yale and Stanford, including bribing SAT or ACT administrators to take the tests for the students or correct the answers after the students had taken the test themselves, and bribing college coaches to pretend the applicants were recruited athletes.

The true beauty of the story is in the details, which are nothing short of perfect. Some of the parents allegedly faked disabilities for their children so they could take the SAT or ACT alone with a prearranged proctor. Among the parents charged in the fraud case is one of Silicon Valley’s biggest proponents of socially conscious and ethical investing. One method Singer and his associates used to make it seem as if the applicants were recruitable athletes was to Photoshop the faces of the students onto the bodies of real athletes. The FBI’s case is code-named “Operation Varsity Blues”—which, yes, appears to be a reference to the 1999 film about high-school football players starring peak Dawson’s Creek-era James Van Der Beek and his best attempt at a Texas accent.

The feds announcing the charges put on a stern show: Andrew E. Lelling, the United States attorney for the District of Massachusetts, told reporters during a Tuesday news conference that “the parents are the prime movers of this fraud” and that “the real victims of in this case are the hardworking students” who missed out on spots at top colleges because of “far less qualified students and their families who simply bought their way in.” And the affected colleges—none of which seemed to be aware of what was going on—tried to portray themselves as victims of wealthy parents who apparently believed they could buy their kid’s way into a selective school. Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, a college and university trade group, told the New York Times: “If these allegations are true, they violate the essential premise of a fair and transparent college admissions process.”

The real scandal here is the idea that the American college admissions process — especially for the most selective schools — could ever be described as fair and transparent.

The feds aren’t wrong. If these applicants were admitted to selective colleges through fraudulent means—and your parents Photoshopping your head on someone else’s body probably qualifies as fraudulent—there are more deserving students who missed out. But the scam uncovered by Operation Varsity Blues involved at most a few dozen applicants over several years, not even enough to fill an Econ 101 lecture hall. The real scandal here is the idea that the American college admissions process, especially for the most selective schools, could ever be described as fair and transparent.

At least in those cases the students still need to earn their grades and take their SATs themselves. More pernicious are the less visible advantages that come with wealth. Athletics are one, though not for the reasons you might expect. While the common image of a college student-athlete might be a basketball or football player who is able to use their athletic talent to help earn admission or even a scholarship to a life-changing university, elite schools like Yale or Stanford also field—and provide significant admission boosts to—a number of sports teams that largely draw from the already well-off.

Take a look at some of the sports run by the coaches who were charged in Operation Varsity Blues: soccer, tennis, water polo, even sailing. These are, to put it simply, rich people sports—even soccer, which is largely suburban in the U.S. This doesn’t mean that a college applicant who is a legitimate talent in any of these sports hasn’t had to work extremely hard—you can’t Photoshop yourself onto a top-flight college team—but it does mean that they’re unlikely to have even been introduced to the sport without a certain level of family income. Success in these sports is one of the surest paths to get into highly selective colleges, and it’s a path that is largely closed to the poor.

A number of selective American schools, including at least a few cited in Operation Varsity Blues, also offer some kind of boost to the applications of the children of alums. The colleges themselves say that legacy preferences help tie alumni more closely to their alma maters, creating what Cornell President Martha Pollack has called a “family that goes on for generations.” But these policies really represent a double advantage for the already advantaged: first, whatever tip a legacy applicant may receive in the formal admissions process and, second, the economic advantages that generally come with having a parent who graduated from that same elite school.

Of course, the real reason that colleges use legacy preferences to create that multigenerational family is a more base one: money. This is the dirty secret of elite college admissions that really isn’t a secret. Schools like Yale, Princeton, and Harvard have endowments worth tens of billions of dollars, and they built those endowments chiefly through donations. Lots and lots and lots of donations.

The very, very rich can all but buy their children’s way into a top school if they’re willing to spend a few million — and it’s all above board.

Harvard University is currently fighting a lawsuit filed by a group of anonymous Asian-Americans who argue that the school unfairly discriminates against applicants of Asian descent. The question of race and college admissions is a knotty one and largely beyond the scope of today’s news, but the Harvard trial brought to light the existence of the “Dean’s Interest List,” a collection of applicants related to prominent people—largely, the very wealthy—that is put together by college’s fundraising arm. Applicants on the list are admitted at much higher rates than average students, and the plaintiffs in the trial argued that multimillion-dollar donations played a deciding role.

Though Harvard had its secrets dragged into the light by the lawsuit, the practice of all but trading spots at top colleges in exchange for major gifts is hardly confined to Cambridge, Massachusetts. But while conspiring with a college advisor and bribing SAT proctors and coaches is illegal—hence Operation Varsity Blues—donating $2.5 million to get your underachieving kid into a top Ivy League school is not. In fact, U.S. attorney Lelling specifically told reporters at Tuesday’s press conference: “We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter. We’re talking about deception and fraud.”

This is the state of elite U.S. college admissions in 2019. The very, very rich can all but buy their children’s way into a top school if they’re willing to spend a few million—and it’s all above board. The rich can provide all kinds of advantages to their children that will help boost a chance at admission—and it’s fine provided they don’t engage in outright deception and fraud. And the rest of us fight for what’s left and get angrier with every passing season.

Journalist, author, dad. Former TIME magazine editor and foreign correspondent. Author of END TIMES, a book about existential risk and the end of the world.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store