The revelation by the FBI that more than 50 people are charged for fixing admissions decisions in elite colleges may be the “largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted,” but it’s a crime that’s indicative of the reality that America has never had a merit-based system for college attendance. American higher education has always been rigged for the wealthy. The folks charged in the “Operation Varsity Blues” FBI probe, including admission officials, athletic coaches and 33 wealthy parents, reflect the egregious lengths families will go to in order to maintain enclaves that reproduce inequality.
The high-flying corruption alleged in this recent case should put a spotlight on the current efforts to dismantle affirmative action. Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, a lawsuit filed in the Massachusetts District Court in 2014 against Harvard College’s admissions practices, was heard by the Supreme Court in February of this year. The lawsuit claims that the university practices a discriminatory quota system that unfairly penalizes students of Asian descent who have the highest test scores among the major racial categories. Harvard argues that it exercises its constitutional and moral right to set diversity goals and considers race in admissions decisions in order to reach them.
Rachel Kleinman, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told The New York Times that opposition to affirmative action plays to “this fear of white people that their privilege is being taken away from them and given to somebody else who they see as less deserving.”
Actually it’s wealthy parents who are robbing underrepresented groups opportunities to climb the social ladder.
The U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, remarked at the press conference outlining the Operation Varsity scheme that the indictment is “not talking about donating a building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter” but instead “talking about deception and fraud.”
But beyond the question of illegality, I honestly don’t know what’s worse — giving a donation for the sole purpose of getting your child admission to a university, or paying a bribe. The Operation Varsity Blues scandal has revived the sordid story of how top Trump aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner got into Harvard University: His father, Charles Kushner, made a $2.5 million donation, according to Pro Publica editor Daniel Golden in his 2006 book The Price of Admission. While elite parents have traditionally helped their children in the college admissions process through legal channels, the new investigation found evidence of fraudulent SAT scores, falsified athletic experience and fake diagnoses to secure testing accommodations. A fake athletic profile for one USC basketball recruit allegedly listed the 5’5’’ candidate as 6’1.”
As a former track and field coach, I know most people don’t realize that athletic departments are extensions of the admissions offices, often lacking the same restrictions as the central college office. Coaches have much more freedom in who they can recommend for acceptance at the institution. Especially at small, liberal arts institutions, coaches put “butts in seats,” as we used to say. From my experience, when general enrollment is down at a small college, the number of “athletes” often goes up.
Based on what we’ve learned from this probe, it is clear we need to shut down conversations about black athletes who are taking up spots. Typically, stories about athletics and admissions feed a narrative that black athletes are taking spots that would otherwise go to more academically deserving students. But according to the indictment, several students who had never even been in crew were admitted to rowing teams. Students were Photoshopped pole-vaulting and playing water polo. The student admitted for pole-vaulting allegedly didn’t even know he had been admitted as a track athlete, and became confused when his USC advisor asked him about track and field during the orientation.
It’s the wealthy people who are crowding out other students who would benefit from the alleged gateway to the middle class. In 2017, the New York Times reported the Equality of Opportunity Project’s findings on the income levels of students at various colleges. Enrollment at 38 colleges in America is comprised of more students from the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent. There are approximately 5,300 postsecondary institutions.
In a report for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, an organization which gives scholarships to students who demonstrate financial need, researchers Jennifer Giancola and Richard Kahlenberg found that “high-achieving students from the wealthiest families were three times as likely to enroll in a highly selective college as those [peers] from the poorest families (24 versus 8 percent).” (The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is one of the many funders of the Hechinger Report.) Low-income, high-achieving students are often discouraged from applying to selective colleges for reasons ranging from sticker price to culture shock.
Several CEOS were among the parents who were charged in Operation Varsity Blues, including Manuel Henriquez, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Hercules Technology Growth Capital, and Robert Flaxman, founder and CEO of the real estate development firm Crown Realty & Development, as were Hollywood stars such as Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. The 33 parents allegedly paid between several thousand and up to $6.5 million to an intermediary “fixer,” William Singer, CEO of The Key, a company that claimed to help students improve their standardized test scores, who then allegedly used bribery to secure their children’s admission. The indictment accuses current and former athletic coaches from Stanford, Yale, Georgetown, UCLA, USC, Wake Forest, and the University of Texas at Austin of accepting bribes to admit students. Three teachers and test administrators are also implicated.
The scions of the wealthy aren’t naturally smarter. Even when the rich don’t bribe college officials, they influence the composition of who can attend by paying for SAT prep, tutors and tuition in elite boarding schools that give some students more access to college prep courses and exposure to the requirements needed for admission to elite universities. When students still can’t make the grade, their parents will tilt the scales even further.
Elite colleges have always been finishing schools for the rich. From their inception, they prepared white men for society. Blacks and women had to fight to integrate colleges and universities. White elites who attended postsecondary institutions in the past, as many who attend them now, were not the smartest or the fastest. They did, however, come from families of upper-crust land owners who didn’t have to prove their merits on a level playing field.
In an earlier column about affirmative action, I wrote, “The historic denial of education to African-Americans, like other manifestations of racism, didn’t magically end when slavery was officially abolished, and black people today still carry the financial, social and political burden of the past. But while black students were being denied admittance to their choice of college, white people were being ushered in on the basis of privilege, not necessarily fairness or merit.”
The people named in the FBI probe are as wrong as the day is long. But as long as universities don’t make economic and racial diversity an essential goal of admissions, a so-called merit-based system will always create perverse incentives for rich people to cheat.
This story about Operation Varsity Blues was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.