When news broke that thirty-three wealthy and influential parents were busted for bribing their children’s way into some of the most elite American universities, the media instantly fixated on the story. The scandal had all the elements of great clickbait: it brought together discussions of Hollywood families, privilege in contemporary America, education reform, and influencer culture. It seemed to be relatively unpolitical, and therefore something that could entice and shock people on both ends of the political spectrum. But what really is shocking about this case? Perhaps it is not the extent of deception, but rather the selfishness of the parents involved that seems inconceivable.
The story began in March 2019, when fifty people—parents and college coaches—were charged by federal prosecutors. The parents involved were all clients of Rick Singer, whose college prep business, over the course of nearly three decades, has helped families navigate the college business, usually through morally sound and legal methods. The thirty-three parents accused included high-profile people in the fields of finance and law, as well as Full House star Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, and Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman. The prosecuted college coaches were also high-profile and worked for schools such as Yale, Georgetown, and Wake Forest. In order to circumvent the traditional college admissions process, parents found ways to cheat the process of standardized testing, athletic recruitment, or both. Some parents had people stand in to take the SAT or ACT tests for their children; others had the test proctor assist the students during the test; still others had the proctors correct students’ answers after they had already handed in their exams. Additionally, learning disability waivers were used to give children more time. According to the New York Times, these payments totaled to roughly “between $15,000 and $75,000 for higher test scores.” Parents then used false athletic achievements or even photoshopped stock photos to claim that their children had the athletic credentials to go to a top-tier school and then paid university coaches and administrators to make admissions possible. Americans—especially privileged Americans—like to assume that the United States college education system is a meritocracy, and this story has become a sensation because it goes against this notion.
Yet the college education system is far from meritocratic. When wealthy parents routinely donate large sums of money to their alma maters, their children gain an almost automatic acceptance to those universities whether they deserve it or not. Although donating a building or a scholarship is more expensive than paying for falsified SATs, the rich do have a means of “buying” their way into elite higher education. Beyond this direct parallel, wealthier students have access to many advantages. Standardized test preparation courses guarantee better test scores; private school educations can result in better student-teacher relationships due to smaller classes, often leading to good teacher recommendations; the wealthy can afford music lessons, sports team memberships and equipment, and community service time that are all valuable on a resume when applying to colleges that emphasize the ever-unattainable trait of “well-roundedness.”
What really is shocking in this scandal is the self-interested attitude of the parents involved. Their children certainly did not want to pursue an elite college education; in a now infamous YouTube clip, Olivia Jade, Lori Loughlin’s younger daughter, says, “I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know,” a quote which, even when not taken out of context, shows that she was always focused on her real – and lucrative – career of influencer. Even for those students who would have liked to pursue a career that required a college education, they could have gone to a college (albeit a less exclusive one) of their choosing to which they were fairly accepted, and they still could have had career opportunities through the legal advantages–the number of professional connections–that the wealthy have. These parents may claim that they sought to give their children access to a high-quality education, but these parents really just bought themselves the self-congratulatory satisfaction of knowing that they have sent their children to the best colleges.
Elite college education is a point of pride- pride that is often well-deserved; yet, when these parents had to pay tens of thousands of dollars to earn that pride on behalf of their children, one must wonder how proud they really feel. As disheartening as this selfishness is, it does point to the value of education on all levels of society. According to Olivia Jade, her parents Loughlin and Giannulli “made” her go to college because they never had the opportunity themselves. This may be a generous representation of them as parents; it appears that they wanted to give their daughter an experience and opportunity that had been restricted for them, and they wanted to provide whatever was necessary to allow Olivia Jade to accomplish her degree. However, the example of these two parents in particular shows that even those with no need for such an education want a prestigious degree. Education has weight no matter what circles one travels in- perhaps this is just one way that education is a kind of equalizer. The wealthiest and most privileged of parents still prioritize education, no matter the expense, as a point of pride.
As the saga continues, a few parents, like Los Angeles father Stephen Semprevivo, have pled guilty. It remains to be seen how the selfish decisions of the fifty people charged with involvement in this scandal will affect them, and perhaps some form of retributive justice will be served. Ultimately, given how important education is today in every echelon of society, the actions of these parents took away meaningful experiences from their children, both in the process of applying and legally gaining entrance to college and, now, from prohibiting them from continuing college. However, more importantly, these parents took away from deserving students who did not get the opportunity to pursue an elite education, and for that, these parents should face consequences.