The College-Admissions Scandal and the Warped Fantasy of the American Scam

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One of the heavily populated tags on New York magazine’s website, its pieces collected on a page featuring a large and varied group of stories, is “Summer of Scam.” The tag—it derives from the nickname given to the scam-addled summer of 2018—includes stories about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, about the “unrivaled grifter Anna Delvey,” about the “Portofino pirate,” about a scheme thieves dreamed up to sell $40,000 worth of insects and lizards in an “extremely confusing heist.” (There’s also a story, published in November, acknowledging that “the summer of scam is bleeding into winter.”) What is not yet included on the page, at least so far, is New York’s collection of stories about the latest scam to become a national news event: the one involving a network, including business executives and celebrities, that reportedly used bribery and other methods to ensure that the power brokers’ children would secure admission to a collection of elite colleges and universities.

The alleged scam—on Tuesday it transitioned, as the FBI sent indictments and made arrests, into an alleged crime—has grabbed national attention for good reason: It’s a metaphor, for one thing, for the tangled impunities of celebrity and wealth and privilege, as they inflict themselves on American society. It’s also a deeply sad reminder, as my colleague Alia Wong pointed out, of how the college-admissions process, even in instances that aren’t explicitly implicated by the FBI, remains deeply biased toward the wealthy. It’s an object lesson, as well, in the myriad lies that the myth of meritocracy tells. (There is also, it must be said, the fact that the actor Lori Loughlin has been named as a co-conspirator in the scheme, which means that the “What ever happened to predictability?” jokes pretty much write themselves.) Because of all that—the familiarity of the celebrities alleged to have been involved, the familiarity of the colleges in question, the even broader familiarity of the assumed relationship between elite education and social capital that ostensibly led parents to take such a step in the first place—the whole thing has a feel of tragic intimacy. It’s the kind of scandal that, though it involves eye-popping details of alleged criminal grift, also manages, in its rougher contours, to implicate all of us.

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In The Confidence Game, her 2016 exploration of the workings of con artists, Maria Konnikova argues that scammers tend to emerge and thrive during times of broad transition. That is because con artists—con derives from the confidence such people attempt to engender in their marks—are particularly skilled, Konnikova writes, at “exploiting the sense of unease we feel when it appears that the world as we know it is about to change.” Con artists of the past thrived in cities, in particular: places populated by people who were largely strangers to one another—places where social commitments could shift and newcomers could easily become marks.

Today we are more familiar with one another. We are more exposed to one another. But the chaos of the present moment—economic, political, cultural—nonetheless has a way of making all of us potential marks. The logic of the con—the perversity of it—is becoming normalized. People talk about, and financially depend on, side hustles. An alleged grifter sits in the Oval Office, near a bust of Andrew Jackson and the nuclear codes. Fyre frauded as it fested. The disgraced blood-testing company Theranos—the name, in Greek, suggests both “tyrant” and “death”—was supported by people who had ostensibly reached the highest levels of American society: secretaries of state, Stanford professors, the keepers of gates and assumptions.

This is a time, in America, of deep inequality; it is also a time in which—in part because people and truths have been newly laid bare to each other by the workings of the internet—new injustices are revealed every day. To learn about the college-admissions scam is to be overcome with that distinctly modern feeling: simultaneous shock and unsurprise. Horror and numbness. Scams, after all, in the present moment, are atmospheric. They are miasmic, hovering in us and around us, their toxins trapped in human lungs and expelled into the warming air. The trickle-down logic of another alleged scam has its truths: The cheating at the top affects everyone, and becomes part of the status quo. Aunt Becky allegedly used her Full House money to cheat the system? It’s shocking. It is also deeply unsurprising.

And so, on top of all the other stories that inform this particular story of a scam, there is another one: the sadness of how familiar it all seems. How thoroughly the logic of the grift is inscribed into systems and institutions that simultaneously celebrate exceptionalism and make it profoundly hard for people to ever really achieve. Scams, in this environment, are certainly not justified, but they become, in a way, rationalized. They get consumed as entertainment. They work themselves into the assumptions people carry about what is accomplishable, and what will remain ever beyond their grasp. And the “summer of scam” becomes not a single season, but rather an expansive event, omnipresent and unavoidable. New York’s “summer of scam” page doesn’t include the college-admissions stories yet, but in another way, it didn’t have to: The latest entry in the publication’s growing collection of scam-related content was published … yesterday.