They Bribed College Coaches. I Collected Cans for Cash.

For parents without great wealth, the higher-education system looks much different.

Lori Loughlin
Lori Loughlin (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)

When my husband and I sent our first son to college a decade ago, we collected aluminum cans to help pay for his textbooks. When the actor Felicity Huffman wanted to get her daughter into college, federal prosecutors say, she paid $15,000 to have someone “secretly correct” the teenager’s answers to the SAT.

Meanwhile, the actor Lori Loughlin and her husband, the fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, allegedly spent $500,000 to get their daughters listed as potential recruits for the University of Southern California crew team, even though the girls had never taken part in the sport.

Our family didn’t have an extra half a million dollars to throw around, so instead we had to rely on our own meager resources. When you are poor, these are the kinds of “lucky breaks” you get: Because picking up litter happened to be part of my husband’s job as a custodian, and because our house happens to be located along a busy highway, there was always a fresh supply of tossed-away cans that we could sell to recycling companies for pennies a pound. Hey, you work with what you’ve got.

Huffman, Loughlin, and Giannulli are among dozens of people charged Tuesday in a massive fraud ring that, according to the U.S. Justice Department, allowed the rich and famous to game the admissions process at some of the nation’s top educational institutions. The scheme involved bribes, fraudulent SAT scores, fake athletic profiles, and other shady tactics. For those of us who have struggled to pay a tuition check or have literally overdrawn our bank account to pay college bills, this was just official confirmation of something we already suspected: Wealthy parents can pull strings and make backroom deals to open doors that would remain firmly closed to kids like ours.

I come from a family where the only legacy is hardship—financial and otherwise. I grew up on welfare; we moved dozens of times; my father did time in prison before disappearing entirely. Many more Americans are in circumstances like mine—children of single parents, from families immersed in the criminal-justice system, reliant on the public safety net, or both—than in Huffman’s position of privilege. But the entire higher-education system in the United States is stacked in favor of people with the right connections and a wealth of resources—people who know how to work the angles—while the rest of us are forced to navigate it on our own.

Well-off families don’t have to pay bribes or fake athletic achievements to get their kids into good schools. Parents can just enroll them in the best private high schools, hire top-notch tutors, and get them one-on-one SAT coaching. Affluent high-school students can join as many clubs and teams as they like, with no thought to any expenses involved.

I was determined that my oldest son would be the first in my family to earn a college degree. To make that happen, my husband and I made the best decisions we could with the information we had. At the urging of his fifth-grade public-school teachers, we enrolled him the following year into a local college-prep school. That cost us money we didn’t really have—significant medical bills from our kids’ past health issues, coupled with our relatively modest incomes, meant we lived paycheck to paycheck, like many other people do. We cut down to the bare essentials, and my husband and I each took on extra part-time jobs.

We made these sacrifices because we wanted to give him a good foundation for college—and, we hoped, provide him with the opportunity for scholarships that we so desperately needed. Still, we couldn’t afford exam-prep programs. Our kids had after-school jobs, which limited their ability to join clubs or other activities. Which was just as well, since we didn’t have the money to pay for fees, uniforms, equipment, travel, and other costs these activities entailed.

Instead, our kids had to earn their way into college based on their academic record alone. But the struggle didn’t end there. Once the acceptance letters arrived, we felt the seemingly endless cycle of stress that each new tuition bill brought.

The financial-aid windfall we had prayed for failed to materialize. As we discovered the hard way, we fell into that middle ground of college economics: We earned a little too much to be considered really needy. (As one financial-aid officer told us, “You’re poor, but just not quite poor enough.”) And yet we had no college savings to finance this major expense. Plus, financial-aid eligibility is based on previous years’ tax returns. If you suddenly lose a job or incur a big medical bill, your child’s school might still expect you to contribute money you no longer have.

How can a working-class family fill these gaps? Not by collecting cans. At scrap yards in our area, a pound of aluminum cans will earn you 33 cents, about a penny a container.

The harsh reality is that the students at the center of this week’s scandal, whom federal prosecutors haven’t named, likely would have done just fine without any manipulations by their parents. Their station in life gave these kids valuable perks that boosted their odds of getting into a good school—and that part is all perfectly legal.

Yet it’s kids like ours who need college the most. A bachelor’s degree can change the trajectory of an entire family line. That is the ultimate cruelty: Kids who need this life-changing chance the most often find it dangling just out of their grasp.