Read: A scandal fit for a win-at-all-costs society
When Singer’s operation was exposed, it was met with widespread shock and dismay. The frustrating realization that a different set of rules applied to the wealthy was only temporarily alleviated by the schadenfreude of watching those rich people, including famous actresses, get indicted for felonies.
But a week later, academia is already entrenching to defend its admissions practices, as the SMU president’s email exemplifies. For Turner and other leaders of elite colleges, the scandal is more than embarrassing; it is existential. If colleges such as USC and Stanford can’t prove that their admission process is uncompromised, then the value of that acceptance—and the credential that comes with it on graduation day—is put at risk. That risk trickles down too. SMU isn’t Stanford or Yale, but it has called USC, which was caught up in the scandal, an “aspirational peer”—that is, an institution whose reputation it longs to match.
Operation Varsity Blues is being called a “cheating scandal,” but that name lets the entire process off the hook, as if a few dozen bad actors had sullied an otherwise operative and noble system. In truth, the alleged criminals who swindled SAT scores, faked athletic records, and bribed university officials might actually show a better way forward, despite their ultimately corrupt approach. The only way to make college admissions equitable is to reject how the process is currently conducted. This scandal opens the door to that demand, but it’s up to students, parents, and educators to burst through.
College admissions have been a mess for a long time, but Operation Varsity Blues attached names and faces to the problem. It’s always easier to dole out blame to particular people rather than abstract groups such as one-percenters (or nine-percenters). Singer’s clients were real people, some of whom you probably already knew: They are lawyers, financiers, fashion designers, and, yes, famous Hollywood stars. It didn’t hurt that the law brought the hammer down on these transgressions of the wealthy. Some of the perpetrators were indicted for fraud. College employees lost jobs for allegedly taking bribes. Netflix dropped Lori Loughlin from the Full House reboot. When misdeeds finally catch up with rich folk, it’s easy to celebrate their downfall.
But criminal indictments might let the college-admissions racket off the hook too easily. It’s certainly more illegal to bribe and swindle your child’s way into USC or Yale by cheating on college-entrance exams or faking athletic prowess. But is it less moral to cheat brazenly like that than it is to donate millions to a target university, or to pay tens of thousands of dollars for preparatory private school each year, or to spend thousands of dollars on test-prep tutors, or to ferry your kids from soccer practice to orchestra lessons to bulk up their profiles as college-worthy? These are but a few common methods for the wealthy to help their children “earn” a place in elite universities. As Shamus Khan, the author of a book on the subject of elite scholastic privilege, put it after the scandal broke, “Rich parents spend millions on their children to make them ‘better’ than others.”