When I was a college undergraduate, my school (Yale) often battled labor unions. Yale was slow to share the wealth locked up in its huge endowment. It claimed that it was trying to save for a rainy day or financial depression.
Students smelled a false crisis. If Yale would raise its “endowment payout ratio,” just a bit — a math fix — it could fund pay hikes and even a few new professors.
Students periodically dreamed up an easy solution: why not just take, say, ten spaces out of 1,500 in next year’s freshman class and auction them off for, say, $250,000 and up. Plenty of parents would step up, anxious to fork over a wad of crisp Benjamins for their kids’ spots as Yalies. They’d even brag about it.
But those would be blatant bribes and would corrupt life among the hallowed halls.
Yet the pressure to clear a way into the nation’s most competitive schools didn’t just persist. It got worse. Let us count the ways.
You knock at the front door, offer yourself as a generous donor or alumnus and ask the price of admission. This is known as the “VIP Portal.” Rather than be scoffed at, you are thanked, honored even — and a note goes to the admissions committee reviewing your kid. VIP status is no guarantee, but for a figure of say, $10 million, you went from “forget it” to “odds on.” There’s no promise, just a wink.
If you’d gone to school there, your kid would be a “legacy.” This is part of how schools raise money, always on the prowl for scholarships and buildings.
Then there are “side entrances.” Coaches outwardly look for ringers, athletes and other jocks who could carry their teams to victory. At Ivy League schools where crew is a specialty, it takes years to develop good oars persons. The schools did not ignore such talent. Coaches, realizing this, might set up a little charity to help his/her own department beyond the university budget. This was perfectly legal, and you cheered it. Boola, boola!
You know the rest of this story. A scandal erupted last Tuesday, when the feds arrested some 60 people, including parents with pockets full of cash — Felicity Huffman, for one. And all this arose accidentally when the U.S. Attorney’s Boston office got a tip while working on an unrelated case. The new case involved one William Singer, who’d set himself up as an expert consultant on college admissions.
You start innocently enough, with the Stanley Kaplan company, a leader of test-prep courses for the SAT — the necessary common test for everyone. Kaplan made more money for the Washington Post Company than the Washington Post itself in the paper’s pre-Bezos days. The tests are given under intense time pressure. The prep classes could improve speed, and speed improved scores. You find you can pay to play.
Still, there were those left behind. The system was entirely created in a bowl full of mostly white, upper-middle-class players. So the test system soon included a provision where applicants could ask for more time, under “proctor” supervision. This was the next side door through the system.
Soon, for $5,000 and up, you find someone who’d succeeded in getting into a “name school” like one of the Ivies, or UCLA, USC, Stanford, or Wake Forest. These “coaches” would show applicants how to create a “brand,” how to craft the entrance essay — often ghost-written.
A special client service included a specialist taking the test in place of the applicant. You just passed from fair to foul territory and barely even noticed.
Cheating wasn’t called cheating. College admissions is a dog-eat-dog world, with the parents often doing the fighting for their kids. It’s brave work. You either win or you lose.
Get into a name school and your life’s course will be set. Just drop the name of your alma mater and untold job openings will suddenly pop out of the mahogany walls.
The bribery case last week seemed open and shut. The feds produced pages of revealing stories in their charging documents. They snared William Singer, an accomplished master consultant in the feds’ case, who became the government’s cooperating witness. The feds soon flipped others. Yale soccer coach Rudy Meredith, who just retired with a distinguished record, was named as the recipient of plump sums in order to OK prospective soccer stars. Some didn’t pan out later.
At USC, a similar scene unfolded. One parent was distressed that his daughter had been rejected. So he allegedly found a consultant. For a donation to an athletic department charity, the school might arrange to open up an athletic slot. Later, the school reconsidered, and opened another portal instead: the new recruit would be admitted as a transfer.
Exactly who knew they’d done wrong? Schools and consultants go out of their way to cover their tracks with charities. Though some parents knew exactly what was going on (and the feds had so taped them), others were pitched as making donations to a favorite coach’s department or charity. The consultants set up bogus charity fronts to cover themselves.
Bribery wasn’t bribery. It’s just a price to be paid. Today’s parents learned this as kids. To get ahead, you have to step up. We’re an accomplished species. We owe our kids chances some of us didn’t get.
Many kids caught up in Operation Varsity Blues did not know what their parents were doing. It is just parental duty.
Reforms will come. U.S. bribery laws may be revised to clarify when the perpetrators came to know they were participating in illegal activity, when it was well presented as charitable intent.
Finally, this is a good exercise in how people get “accidentally” caught up and named publicly for scandals they never saw coming. Reunion season is coming up at many schools. Some will consider skipping the festivities while they’re whispered about. Charged parents are now suspects.
What’s missing here is shame. Twenty years ago, the key items stopping criminal activity were reputation, conscience, and faith in the law. Today, there’s only one standard left: will I get caught?