On March 12, 2019, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling announced the result of a nationwide probe into a massive bribery scheme that had enabled a range of wealthy people to get their children into elite colleges. Fifty people were indicted, including parents, coaches, standardized test administrators, and the alleged ringleader. They were charged with racketeering, money laundering, obstruction of justice, wire fraud, and other related crimes.The investigation was known internally as Operation Varsity Blues.
What do you know about how family wealth enables students to get into top-rated colleges? Take this quiz.
- True or false: Students with high enough grades have the same possibility of getting into the college of their choice—regardless of their family’s income.
- What percent of the top 100 colleges in the U.S. give preference in admission to relatives of alumni?
c. Virtually all
e. Most colleges deny that there is any preference.
- How much did it cost parents caught in the scandal to bribe athletic coaches?
a. between $5,000 and $10,000
b. between $10,000 and $30,0000
c. two tickets to the Super Bowl
d. between $100,000 and $6 million
- What is a “legacy admission?
a. a confession of wrongdoing given to a grandchild (or great grandchild)
b. tales parents tell children about the great colleges they got into
c. getting into a college because your parents went there
d. free tickets to Legacy movie theater
e. on the West Coast, it refers to historical crimes; in the Southeast to an heirloom worth at least $100,000
- Which of the following is illegal?
a. Donating money to a college and having a child admitted to that college
b. Donating money for the construction of a college building and demanding it be named after you
c. Studying very hard, getting great grades, perfect SAT scores, tons of excellent recommendations and extracurricular activities and not getting admitted to an elite college
d. Paying a college coach to request your child be admitted as a champion water polo player (when they’ve even played the sport)
e. All of the above
- What percent of the Harvard Class of 2021 has relatives who graduated from Harvard?
e. 50% to 55%
- What is the meaning of “meritocracy”?
a. a government in which there is equality of power among all the people
b. a creation of JRR Tolkien in which the overlords are called “Merrits”
c. a system in which people get ahead based on their talents and ability
d. a government or organization ruled by the wealthy
- False (Complete this lesson and see why it’s not True)
- d) According to a study by the Century Foundation
- d) Actually in one case the payment was $6.5 million
- c) in some cases, grandparents or other close relatives
- d) According to a survey by the Harvard Crimson
Reading: Operation Varsity Blues
Here’s how the college admissions scam worked, according to the federal charge: A man named William Singer formed a company called The Edge College & Career Network. He recruited a network of people in pivotal positions in the admissions process who were willing to lie and falsify documents, for money. Singer then found wealthy parents who just had to have their children attend the best universities in the country.
Using a variety of illegal means, Singer guaranteed the parents that their child would get into the school they wanted.
- Singer was able to arrange for the students to take their SATs/ACTs in specific locations so that his corrupted test proctor could administer the exam—and change the answers to achieve a specified grade. Singer also helped parents obtain (fake) disability accommodations for the students so they could take the exam alone and with extra time.
- Singer arranged bribes for a handful of athletic coaches at select colleges who would then recruit the students to their teams. In order to create a plausible soccer or tennis or swimming history, they invented participation in teams and competitions and even altered photographs to make the application appear convincing. They were not actually expected to join the team or compete once they were admitted.
- The bribes were substantial. Parents paid at least $10,000 for falsified tests and from $100,000 to $6 million for a sports admittance.
- The payments to Singer were channeled through a phony non-profit organization, which allow the parents to make the bribes and then claim a tax deduction.
Legal ways that wealthy families game the admissions system
Coverage of this criminal conspiracy has prompted some public discussion of the many legal ways that wealthy or well-connected parents ensure that their children attend prestigious universities, and so continue to uphold the family’s high status and social connections.
The bribery scandal is making it difficult for colleges to maintain the fiction that students are admitted solely on the basis of merit. Critics point to the many successful high school students who are not admitted to the most selective schools because their families are unable to provide the costly (illegal or legal) boost to their college applications.
A note that despite the unfairness and outright corruption that makes it easier for rich or even middle class students to get into elite colleges, some lower-income students are accepted, and those who aspire to go to elite schools should not be discouraged from trying. Further, there is growing awareness and opposition to these unfair policies, and with continued pressure, these policy may change, at least somewhat. (More about that opposition later in the reading.)
That said, the legal advantages that come with membership in a wealthy family are pervasive and are largely taken for granted in our society. They can be thought of as affirmative action for the already advantaged. When it comes to college admissions, wealth benefits families in several ways.
- Legacy Admissions. Some families maintain a relationship with elite schools over many years and multiple generations. As alumni (and expected to be generous alumni), wealthy individuals count on “legacy admissions” for their children. Most of the top universities give preference to legacy students. Harvard, for example, admits about 33 percent of legacy applicants while admitting only about 6 percent of non-legacy students. A sociologist at Princeton found that being a legacy applicant is the admissions equivalent of adding 160 points to a student’s SAT.
- Development Cases. For even more consideration from a college admissions office, simply donate $10 or $20 million for a new building or department. President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner had unexceptional grades in high school but was admitted to Harvard nevertheless, after his father donated several million dollars in 1998.
- Children of “well-connected” parents sometimes get into selective public universities with the help of state officials. When the chancellor of the University of Texas at Austin was found to be exerting influence in admissions, his response was that “Everybody does it.”
Even as they are getting their child into a top school, the wealthy are gaining an additional perk. Their donations to colleges are deductible on their income taxes. So people who are able to donate large amounts to colleges get double benefits: Their children get into elite schools and they pay less in taxes. For those families unable to afford large donations, the disadvantages are doubled: Their children have a lower chance of admittance and they pay some more in taxes to make up for the tax deductions of the wealthy.
In an article for Forbes Magazine, Josh Freeman wrote:
Elite education is predominantly for the rich. And because these institutions disproportionately serve as feeders for positions of wealth, power, and influence, they perpetuate existing social and income disparities. Yet these schools ardently try to claim that they are instead tools for social mobility and equalization.
Freeman’s article, titled "The Farce of Meritocracy: Why Legacy Admissions Might Actually Be A Good Thing," goes on to argue that maybe we should just let the elite schools do what they want, but remove the tax subsidies—including the tax deductions for donations, the schools’ non-profit tax status, and the federal aid the schools receive for students and federal research grants.
Middle Class Families Have Advantages Too
It’s not just rich families who can game the system. There are also advantages that students of middle class families may employ in their college pursuit.
- Test prep courses are often helpful in boosting SAT or ACT scores, but low-income families often can’t afford them. Free courses are not always available.
- College admissions consultants provide help in all aspects of the application process—from choosing the right schools to choosing the “right” classes and activities to perfect a student’s application essay. They generally cost about $200/hour.
- Early admissions policies sometimes make it difficult to maximize financial aid awards, making it riskier for low-income students.
- College recruiters are more active in affluent areas. According to a report from NPR, colleges don’t recruit much from rural areas. One reason is that students from rural areas are more likely to need a lot of financial aid.
The advantages that accrue to affluent families in helping their children get into the top schools don’t begin with the college application process. People living in prosperous suburbs or able to afford private education are already advantaged by having better-resourced schools. This is due to the way we finance education in America: through property taxes, which are based on the value of one’s home. So wealthy suburbs generate more money for schools because the property values are much higher. They are also more able to help their children build their college “resume” with summer and afternoon opportunities for enrichment.
The impact of non-merit admissions to Ivy League and other elite schools goes beyond the immediate consequence of some worthy students not being admitted because their families lacked proper wealth or connections. Graduation from a top school eases the entry into the top strata of graduate schools, government positions, and corporate leadership. A Yale or Harvard graduate has access to a social network and elite connections that will give them opportunities to make more money and increase their power for the rest of their lives. The admissions policies of these schools play a significant role in maintaining the continuity of a wealthy elite in the United States – a wealthy elite that is generally interested in maintaining a status quo that benefits them.
Activist Opposition is Growing
However, there is growing opposition to policies that maintain the stratified status quo and reduce the ability of low-income students to earn more than their parents. Students at highly ranked universities have organized to change admissions policies at their schools. Cornell First Generation Students Union, Socioeconomic Diversity Advocates at the University Chicago, and First-Gens@Brown (along with groups at Princeton, Yale, Columbia, and a host of other top schools) are planning referenda at their schools to demonstrate student opposition to legacy priority.
EdMobilizer Coalition is a national organization that includes representatives from over 30 colleges that advocates for low-income students. Their mission is to “to increase post-secondary opportunities for first-generation, low-income, and/or undocumented students through tackling systemic barriers, changing policy, and building coalitions for change.”
Over a year ago, they began a campaign for transparency around legacy admission policies. Other groups like Harvard College First Generation Student Union, and Hidden Minority Council at Princeton are working to make it easier for low-income students to stay in school after being admitted. IvyG, a coalition of first-generation student groups, has organized a campaign to eliminate application fees, making it easier for low-income students to apply to multiple schools.
- Do you think colleges should end legacy admissions?
- Colleges might lose large sums of money if they didn’t give preference to children of donors or alumni. How would you address this concern?
- Should the students who were admitted to college through bribery be expelled? What if they were unaware of the scheme?
- If you were designing a whole new system of education in the U.S., how would you make sure that students in all communities had the opportunity to attend quality schools?
- Elite colleges typically offer smaller classes and more attention and support for students. Do you think every college student should have these advantages -- perhaps particularly students who come from low-income or working class families?
- What can students do to help make the education system more fair?
- What can be done to increase the number of low-income students or students of color in college?