A major story that has recently been making the rounds is the so-called college admissions scandal that wealthy parents paid to get their unqualified children into schools that they would not have otherwise gotten into.
The scandal erupted on March 12 when Massachusetts District Attorney, Andrew Lelling, held a press conference announcing charges against coaches, parents, and college advisors accused of bribery, fraud and racketeering. This network, headed by William Singer, operated from 2011 to 2019 and reportedly assisted hundreds of wealthy families.
One of the reasons for the prominence of this story is the sheer audaciousness of the acts Singer and his clients allegedly committed. Singer set up a fake non-profit organization, The Key Worldwide Foundation (KWF), that purported to assist disadvantaged youth, however, the “donations” that parents gave to the KWF went into Singer’s pockets or were used to bribe officials. Singer paid out bribes to test proctors who looked the other when the KWF switched out results, sports coaches who accepted students onto their teams who never played the sport and a college administrator.
One wealthy couple caught up in the scandal is Lori Loughlin, star of Full House, and Mossimo Giannulli, a famous fashion designer. They allegedly paid around half a million dollars to Singer to gain their two daughters admission into the University of Southern California through the crew team even though neither had competitively rowed before.
The trail of bribery and corruption is truly massive, covering five states and bringing criminal charges against 50 people. These entitled parents cheated their children into schools in which they did not belong and took away spots from deserving students. However, to some extent, all of this outrage seems somewhat manufactured. Especially, when it comes from wealthy newscasters and celebrities that have more or less done the same thing.
If you are rich, you are going to get into a good college whether you deserve to based on merit or not. That is how the current system is designed. In America, education is a rationed commodity, to a large extent given out on the basis of wealth. The parents who gave to the KWF were certainly more brazen than other rich parents, but the result is the same whether they provide an endowment to a school or pay a bribe to an athletic coach; a wealthy student gets into college at the expense of their less privileged counterpart.
Additionally, the practice of legacy admissions is another way in which elite members of society can maintain their position. If a parent goes to a college that in no way means that their child should get a leg up, but that is how it works. The outrage that people are expressing over this scandal only makes sense if they believe that college admission is a meritocratic process in the first place. It isn’t.
Like everything else in America there are meritocratic elements to college admission, but due to generational wealth and social capital as well as historical inequality, there is no real equal opportunity. This is why it doesn’t make sense to single out the parents in this scandal. If Americans take a systemic approach to the issue, it becomes clear that the only just solution is to decommodify higher education, as part of a broader societal transformation to level the playing field. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not shedding a tear for these families, but I think Americans are misplacing their righteous outrage on symptoms of a much larger and fundamental problem.