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.