Imagine you’re a rich parent whose kid lacks the grades or test scores to get into the University of Texas. Money is no object. What should you do?
If you’re thinking you should get that kid some tutoring or enroll him in a test-prep course, you’re wrong! The obvious solution is to pay a surrogate test-taker to pump up his SAT scores. Then bribe a tennis coach to sponsor the kid for some kind of loophole student-athlete admission. You might end up paying 10 times the regular tuition in bribes and fees, but it’s worth it to set junior up for a lifetime of success.
For those unschooled in the wiles of the wealthy, this is the remarkable scheme revealed by a federal indictment charging a cabal of conniving parents, university coaches and Machiavellian fixers to get rich kids into colleges they wouldn’t otherwise qualify for. There seem to have been two parts to the fraud. The first was making sure the kids had adequate SAT or ACT scores, which required the hiring of a professional test-cheater from Florida, for fees ranging from $15,000 to $75,000. One cheating tactic: Ask for extra time when taking the test, on account of phony learning disabilities.
With inflated SAT or ACT scores, the college-bound kids still needed a backdoor way into schools they weren’t qualified for. So: sports. Fraudsters running the scheme bribed coaches at at least 8 prominent schools, including Georgetown, Stanford, UCLA, USC, the University of San Diego, Yale and Wake Forest, in addition to UT. The coach would find a way for the substandard kid to apply as an athlete, therefore enjoying relaxed admission standards. But most of the kids weren’t athletes and didn’t even play the sport they were signing up for. In one instance cited by the indictment, a middleman lays out instructions for creating a fake soccer profile for a girl applying to Yale. Among the tips: “need a soccer pic probably Asian girl.”
In addition to the masterminds of the scheme and the coaches they allegedly bribed, legal documents name more than 30 parents charged with mail fraud for trying to cheat and bribe their kids’ way into school. As widely reported, they include the actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.
There are also some prominent business and finance names, including Doug Hodge, the former CEO of investing giant Pimco, William McGlashan of investing firm TPG, and Gordon Caplan of law firm Wilkie Farr. The suit also charges fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, who is Loughlin’s husband. But it does not name the actor William H. Macy, who is married to Huffman.
The bribes in many cases were disguised as payments to a California college-prep service known as The Edge College & Career Network, and as donations to a California nonprofit known as The Key Worldwide Foundation. A man named William Singer ran both and was the alleged mastermind. Families typically made five- or six-figure payments to place their kids, with Singer bribing coaches as needed. He earned $25 million in this manner from 2011 to 2019, according to the indictment. One set of parents paid him $1.2 million to get their kid into Yale.
Outrage flooded social media as the news of the cheating scandal broke. But responsible parents can take some pride in playing by the rules and raising their kids to succeed on merit rather than bribes. Opening every door for kids is horrible parenting, because it makes kids dependent on outside intervention to succeed. They never learn to be self-sufficient and can become fragile and needy.
I researched the science of resilience for my 2012 book “Rebounders,” and discovered that kids who learn to surmount challenges on their own and even fail (in safe ways) learn how to excel in the real world. Shrewd parents help their kids develop the skills needed to open doors for themselves. It might not be illegal, but it’s a crime against your kids to carry them across every obstacle and prevent them from learning needed survival skills. Some parents do this to feed their own vanity, because kids are a kind of life accessory that must be as impressive as fancy jewelry or a vacation estate.
Some commentary regarding Admission-gate characterizes it as an appalling microcosm of a new gilded age in which the rich are richer than ever and the rest can only look in from outside. But that’s not quite right. The perps in Admission-gate will suffer, if it turns out they actually committed crimes. The worst crimes, as the saying goes, are the ones that are legal.
The wealthy enjoy the privilege of opportunity: they have access to all the education, financial resources and support systems needed to succeed. The biggest failure of American society at the moment is a shortage of opportunity. Too many Americans are stuck in lousy schools and limiting circumstances, without the resources to succeed. We should punish criminals, if that’s what they turn out to be. But we should provide more people the opportunities that would allow them to get ahead, on their own, without bribes or special treatment or pathologically overwrought parents.