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‘Fifty people in six states were accused by the Justice Department on Tuesday of taking part in a major college admission scandal. They include Hollywood actresses, business leaders and elite college coaches’.

New York Times, 12 March 2019[1]

The arrests of actresses and business leaders as part of the so-called ‘college admissions scandal’ sent shockwaves around the world, but to those in the know it came as no surprise; the university system is rigged in favour of the wealthy. Gary Roth, author of The Educated Underclass: Students and the Promise of Social Mobility, a study of  the way universities are restructuring society, writes on the uneven and elitist university system. 

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The perpetrators knew every nook and cranny, every loophole and weakness, that exists in the admissions process at the most elite of educational institutions. It could only have been an inside job, a scheme audacious, brilliant in scope and functioning, and ever so cunning, although when examined closely, it turns out that the wrongdoers merely pushed to an extreme practices that are quite common within the world of great wealth.

These were people whose reputations were based on their expertise and professionalism, part of the cohort of experts from whom institutions of higher education draw their vice presidents for enrollment services, associate deans for student services, and chief athletic directors. They scammed the system that provided their own livelihoods. Among them were well-respected educational counselors, public school teachers and private school directors, athletic coaches at prestigious universities, proctors who guaranteed the veracity of nationwide testing processes, accountants, and, it seems, medical personnel who fabricated learning disabilities.[1]

Rather than just bend rules to get the system to function more smoothly, more fairly, more favorably, they broke rules, and in the process crossed barriers that have since embarrassed wide sectors of the elite by drawing scrutiny to not just these scams but to the everyday manipulations of the educational system from which the wealthy benefit. These consummate insiders became part of a vast conspiracy that helped parents evade the strictures that protect and isolate the highly competitive and also complex world that characterizes elite education.

Moral and professional standards were jettisoned along the way, often for quite lucrative compensation. For $5000, standardized test proctors allowed substitutes to replace applicants. The test taker, a Harvard alum, received $10,000 per test. Other sums were paid to alter test results in order to substantially improve the applicant’s academic profile. To provide extra time to applicants who took the tests themselves, documentation regarding learning disabilities was fabricated by medical personnel. Parents paid anywhere from $15,000 to $75,000 for these interventions.

The athletic underbelly of elite institutions was key. Depending on the institution and the sport, an athletic coach receives a set number of admissions slots, for which they nominate applicants who they hope to recruit. While the admissions staff checks that the applicant’s academic credentials fit into an acceptable group, sometimes in special categories that permit lower standards, the nomination process begins with the coach. The $1.2 million paid for acceptance into Yale University, for instance, included a $400,000 payment to the Yale athletic coach (women’s soccer) who placed a special request with his colleagues in the admissions office. Other coaches at other institutions received anywhere from $350,000 to $2.7 million to fabricate athletic credentials for a few dozen applicants.

Many collegiate coaches are part-time employees. Some even volunteer, often with a limited ability to recover expenses or with inadequate budgets at their disposal. Some of the money was funneled through the privately-owned sports clubs and charities that provided them with their full-time salaries. This type of subterfuge, however, is easily deciphered by investigating prosecutors.

The bribes, though, were not always for personal use, a point missed both in the original indictment and in the press accounts that followed. Considerable sums were deposited into university athletic accounts. There is no indication that these particular funds were used improperly, nor is it clear that the prosecutors have moved to recover them.

Due to the chronic state of underfunding within collegiate athletics, despite the enormous sums devoted to it, the inflow of donations provides coaches with the means to augment their staffing, purchase equipment, and continue the recruitment process. The latter in particular is very costly and includes scouting trips and airfare, lodging, meals, and entertainment for the high school athletes (and sometimes their parents and high school coaches) who are brought to campus. Fundraising also greatly enhances a coach’s stature within the institution, since an institution’s ranking is partly measured by its fundraising prowess.

What propelled the cheating scandal was the fetishistic attachment that parents and children had to particular institutions. If they had been satisfied with decent liberal arts colleges, admission would neither have been difficult, nor so costly. Many schools, especially small liberal arts colleges, are ‘need-aware’, rather than ‘need-based’. In other words, the greater the ability to fully pay for tuition, fees, room, board, and other expenses, the more favorably the application is reviewed. In these places, the financial aid office works in tandem with the admissions (and athletic) departments. The families involved in the scandal, though, were set on specific schools; the indictment mentions Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, UCLA, University of San Diego, University of Southern California, University of Texas at Austin, and Wake Forest.

Nothing was guaranteed. Parents paid varying fees, depending on the school chosen and the level of fabrication needed to improve an application. No one within the criminal enterprise had the ability to admit students carte blanche, thus the need for an elaborate scheme to make applicants competitive. In the examples publicized so far, academic and athletic credentials were either enhanced or fabricated altogether. Letters of recommendation and proof of participation were needed for anyone lacking a history of athletic participation. The conspirators knew precisely how to construct a paper trail that would be reviewed most favorably by admissions office personnel. Large sums were spent to increase the chances for success, although in one situation, the parents asked for, and received, a money back guarantee in case the application was rejected.

The history of higher education is also a history of repeated attempts to close loopholes and eliminate abuses in the application process. Previous scams regarding the academic credentials of applicants have been dealt with successfully, and no doubt this one will be too. Applicants, for instance, self-report scores on standardized tests, but these are now matched against the official results that come directly from the testing agencies. Thus, this one area of false reporting has been eliminated in college admissions. Discrepancies between self-reported scores and the official ones become a reason for additional (and negative) scrutiny.

Similarly, personal statements, the essays that accompany applications, are either no longer required or have become optional at many schools, not only because the volume of applications has risen astronomically and institutions do not have the staff (and do not want to make the investment in staff) to read them. But also, as is well-known, parents and coaches (some of the same ones caught up in the recent scandal) often outline, edit, partially write, and even ghost write entirely applicant essays.

Good personal statements are formulaic, in any case. The current emphasis is on personal statements that stress the ability to overcome obstacles. At other points in time, the emphasis was on accomplishment. During one phase, it was dreams for the future; during another, the desire to perform good deeds. In the very distant past, an applicant would emphasize their pedigree, that is, the occupations and accomplishments of parents and grandparents. Because personal statements have evolved into a genre highly predictable and often not genuine (especially at the upper tiers of colleges), the tendency has been to eliminate them from the process. No doubt too, the recent scandal will engender a new round of reforms, and ultimately, the application process will function a bit more tightly, with fewer opportunities for certain types of manipulation.

As is often the case with ‘insider’ crime, the culprits have presented themselves as ‘good people gone astray’ rather than ‘bad people doing bad things’. This, too, is the distinction applied to so-named white-collar crime, itself a euphemism for middle- and upper-class criminality. In some cases, not just parents, but also their adolescent children participated in the scam.

For the parents employed in the entertainment industry, the best possible outcome would be probation with a requirement of community service. This actually would be a blessing in disguise, a reward almost, since community service is also a mode of self-promotion. Felicity Huffman, the Emmy winner, Oscar nominee, and indicted parent, for instance, taught acting workshops and helped organize a fundraiser for the Los Angeles high school where one of her daughters attended, besides also donating a substantial sum for its special programs.[2] These, so to speak, are examples of a public service that includes a private benefit, good deeds that are not quite the selfless dedication traditionally associated with community service.

The wealthy dominate elite education in the United States. Some of the most prestigious schools admit more applicants from the top one percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom sixty percent. Seventy percent of the students at the ‘most competitive’ schools hail from the top twenty-five percent.[3] Within a hierarchical system of education, disadvantage remains all-present even when there is no discrimination. At its core the educational system presupposes that only a minority will rise to the top. Inequality is endemic to how the system is structured. To do away with that inequality would mean a massive reorganization of society and education.

The families caught in the admissions scandal all hailed from the upper reaches of the income ladder. Who else could afford the huge sums needed to bribe middle-income professionals and manipulate a system that controls access to the upper reaches of society? This was a corruption among the elite themselves, and despite the widespread consternation, has nothing at all to do with the rest of the population. Most everyone is excluded, even if the exclusion might be done more ‘fairly’ and without using gender, race, ethnicity, or ability to pay as disqualifying parameters.

The wholesale contempt of process, procedure, tradition, and society in general is now endemic, not only at the highest levels of government and lowest levels of business, but also among substantial portions of the public. The cheating scandal at elite educational institutions is another exemplar of the Trump era, in which utter cynicism about the existing world is combined with an utter lack of an alternative ethics from which wider sections of the population might benefit. Cynicism and contempt are not to be confused with protest, but are more akin to the mindset that accompanies brazen plundering operations, whereby the few benefit at the ongoing expense of the many.

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Gary Roth is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Rutgers University, Newark. He is the author of The Educated Underclass (Pluto, 2019) and Marxism in a Lost Century: A Biography of Paul Mattick (Brill/Haymarket Books, 2015).

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The Educated Underclass: Students and the Promise of Social Mobility by Gary Roth
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[1] Indictment, U.S. v. Ernst, et al., No. 19-CR-10081 (D.Mass. Mar. 5, 2019), https://int.nyt.com/data/documenthelper/656-college-admissions-and-testing/a01f87291e255a5f7c80/optimized/full.pdf#page=1.

[2] Cara Buckley and Adam Popescu, ‘Felicity Huffman: Desperate Housewife, Devoted Parent and Now a Defendant’, New York Times, 23 March 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/23/arts/television/felicity-huffman-admissions-scandal.html.

[3] Gregor Aisch, Larry Buchanan, Amanda Cox and Kevin Quealy, ‘Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60. Find Yours’, New York Times, 18 January 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/18/upshot/some-colleges-have-more-students-from-the-top-1-percent-than-the-bottom-60.html?module=inline; Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, “How Increasing College Access

Is Increasing Inequality, and What to Do about It,” in Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College, Richard D. Kahlenberg, ed. (Century Foundation Press, 2010), pp. 118–120, 137.