Earlier today, federal authorities charged over four dozen people—including Full House actress Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives—in what the Justice Department is calling the largest college admissions scandal it has ever prosecuted. The sprawling investigation uncovered about $25 million paid via a California-based college preparation business to test proctors, sports coaches, and administrators to procure admittance to schools like Yale, Stanford, UCLA, Georgetown, the University of Southern California, and others.
In some cases, wealthy parents allegedly paid for crooked proctors to facilitate cheating on the SAT and ACT “by providing students with answers during the exams or by correcting their answers after they had completed the exams,” according to the criminal complaint. Some even allegedly arranged for their children to be diagnosed with learning disabilities so that they could get extra time on the test and then used the disability accommodation as pretext to set up separate testing rooms. In others, parents allegedly bribed coaches into recruiting their children as athletes for minor sports they didn’t play, going so far as to Photoshop their children’s heads onto the bodies of actual athletes in pictures submitted to schools.
As we marvel over the absurd expense and effort these parents undertook to ensure their child’s placement at a certain university, it’s worth remembering that there exists a humdrum set of entirely legal “hacks” that the rich have used for decades to buy their offspring’s way into elite colleges. According to Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Daniel Golden in his 2006 book The Price of Admission, the children of influential and wealthy power brokers like former Vice President Al Gore or New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner often appear to receive preferential treatment from prestigious schools because of a combination of their families’ influence and sizeable donations. In the case of Kushner—father to Trump advisor Jared—that donation was to the tune of a $2.5 million pledge to Harvard, tendered not long before his son’s admittance letter arrived in the mail—a result that Golden reports surprised administrators at Jared’s high school. (Kushner’s representatives have denied any connection.)
This method of sustaining aristocracy through “charitable donations” or cashing in on influence is in fact so wholly understood and sanctioned that it appeared as a reference point in a statement that a U.S. attorney gave on Tuesday describing the Huffman/Loughlin cheating scandal: “We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter,” he said. “We’re talking about deception and fraud.” And while forking over millions of dollars in pursuit of an admissions letter is one of the crasser examples of rich people trying to buy their children’s futures, there are other myriad ways the wealthy can make sure little Roland Cashworth III has every chance of getting into Princeton, such as paying $42,000 for a “college consultant” or funding a childhood full of private tutors and expensive extracurriculars.
None of that even touches the affirmative action program of “legacy admissions” that bakes inequality into the college-admission process, negating any attempt to paint that process as equitable. But hey, at least it’s not like low-income students and students of color who attend these same universities have to prove day after day that they didn’t get in because of an unearned handout.