Fallout continues over a massive college admissions cheating scandal that has involved 50 people, including several well-known executives and two Hollywood actresses.
The case, which U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling called “Operation Varsity Blues,” is the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice. The case involves several high profile universities, including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown and the University of Southern California, among others.
Reaction to the case has been harsh and widespread. Beyond the dark humor and memes skewering actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, who are both charged with felony conspiracy to commit mail fraud and “honest services” fraud, it has also further charged the debate over deeply entrenched wealth and racial disparities in the U.S.
“The case really picks up two themes that I think define public life at the moment: One is a pervasive distrust of elite institutions and the second is a belief, whether people endorse it or not, that money is kind of the universal solvent,” said Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor Julian Jonker. “If you look at the kind of commentary that we’ve seen in the news media and on social media over past day or two, this is really sparking a conversation about whether this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
The parents trying to get their kids into these schools are accused of paying college admissions adviser William Singer around $25 million over seven years starting in 2011. He used some of the money to pay off coaches and standardized-testing officials to rig the process. Singer this week pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges for racketeering and money laundering, as well as obstruction of justice. Several coaches have been fired or put on leave for allegedly taking part in the scams.
Although this mostly involved lower-profile sports such as water polo and crew, the NCAA now says it is also investigating how recruitment was done. Critics are pointing at how wealthy people have for years gamed the system legally to get their kids into elite schools through legacy admissions and large donations.
“There’s a front door through which students come: They show their test scores, they show their ability in other fields of life. There’s a back door through which some wealthy students have been able to come by making a donation to the colleges,” Jonker said, paraphrasing a metaphor used by Singer in his conversations with clients. “Singer was providing a side door for them. The conversation at the moment is really about whether the existence of that side door shows something about the front door.”
“If you look at the kind of commentary that we’ve seen in the news media and on social media over past day or two, this is really sparking a conversation about whether this is just the tip of the iceberg.” –Julian Jonker
Will this case spur changes in the system? Jonker and Shaun Harper, a professor at the University of Southern California’s schools of education and business, who is also executive director of USC’s Race and Equity Center, appeared on the Knowledge@Wharton show on SiriusXM to discuss the intense reactions and potential fallout from the scandal.
Both Jonker and Harper said the scandal is distinctive in that it rolled together so many different legal and ethical violations.
“This particular scandal is really a cocktail of things we have seen happening in other places as perhaps one-offs or we’ve seen one dimension of it — just cheating on tests or gaming the system to admit student-athletes or taking bribes and so on,” said Harper, who is also the co-author of the book Scandals in College Sports. “This one really seems to have brought many of those scandals together in one.”
Jonker added that the case brings up questions about what is the best way for colleges to equitably screen prospective students.
“This raises an interesting conversation about whether standardized test scores are a good heuristic for judging the raw potential of students,” he said. “The pervasive use of tutoring, the ability of wealthy students to take the test repeatedly means they are able to get coached through the system in a way poorer students do not.”
In addition to questions about how to change the admissions process, the case also puts the impacted colleges in the position of figuring out what to do about the students who were admitted on false pretenses, some of whom have since earned their degrees.
“When someone plagiarizes in a thesis or a doctoral dissertation, their degree is rescinded; I think that same standard has to be held for someone who cheated to gain admission,” Harper said. “So for those who have graduated, I feel very strongly their degrees should be rescinded and for those who are currently students, they should be expelled.”
A Crime Against Public Confidence
Both Jonker and Harper felt this was the appropriate action for the universities to take even though it appears that many of the impacted students were unaware of the actions their parents are accused of taking to get them admitted. Officials from two of the affected universities, USC and UCLA, said they plan to review admission decisions in light of the case.
“There’s a certain amount of talk about whether the students are innocent and whether they were complicit in this case, and it does seem for a large number of them, they were simply unknowing,” Jonker said. “This, by the way, might for some people highlight another feature of the more systematic way that the wealthy are able to gain entitlements in the admission process, which is that often students are unaware of the ways in which their background gives them a leg up.”
“There is a way that whiteness becomes systematic in gaming the system like college admissions.” –Shaun Harper
Jonker added that being unaware of how one got into college doesn’t “change the fact that they are undeserving” and that the colleges need to take steps to show that they are admitting students based on their merits – something that is already coming into question as populism grows across the country and in many parts of the world.
“There has been a certain amount of talk about who is the victim of this scam,” he said. “In the first instance, the victims are the students who would have gotten places but for the scam. But really the next victim is public confidence…. What we as people in universities need to do is to really fight for this idea that what we reward is raw talent, perseverance, grit and character, and we do that both at the admissions level and also once the students are here.”
Gaming the System
Another piece to the case that Harper thinks isn’t getting enough attention is that the majority of the key players – both those charged with participating in the scam and those involved generally with the college admissions and athletics recruiting process – are white.
“It is the way that wealth and race co-mingle in America and the disproportionate way in which wealth falls along racial lines. There is a way that whiteness becomes systematic in gaming the system like college admissions,” Harper said. He noted that the problem begins long before children start the college admissions process.
“Our K-12 schools in the U.S. are just about as racially segregated now as they were before the passage of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which was supposed to integrate schools,” Harper said. “It’s the way in which, again, race and wealth tend to co-mingle in our country. In other words, wealthy white people get to send their kids to very elite private preparatory schools with lots of resources…. That then becomes a pathway to elite higher education. So it’s a system that continually feeds itself.”
‘Money Will Find a Way’
Harper and Jonker noted that the level of entitlement reflected in the actions of the parents charged in the case – all of whom had the means to put considerable legal resources behind helping their children improve their grades or test scores — sends a damaging message to students struggling to get into college solely on their merits.
“There are thousands of community colleges and thousands of regional state universities that are fairly open access opportunities for folks who want a shot at higher education,” Harper said. “It seems to me that the participating parents didn’t see those as suitable fits for their children; they felt a sense of entitlement to the so-called best institutions. I think there is something about that that is frankly, incredibly racist. I’m not calling the individual people racist, but they do participate in a form of structural racism that is wrapped in white entitlement.”
“Money will find a way. No matter how we set up the system, money will find its way through. How does one begin to prevent that?” –Julian Jonker
Jonker pointed a recent New York Times story that focused on the reactions to the case from a group of students at a predominantly black charter high school in Kansas City, Mo. “You see the sense of despair, given the amount of work and given the obstacles they already face, and seeing people getting a free ride.”
Although the case points to a need for colleges or test prep centers to put certain safeguards in pace, Jonker said it also points to a larger, more systemic problem that’s much harder to tackle.
“Money will find a way. No matter how we set up the system, money will find its way through. How does one begin to prevent that?” Jonker asked. “What we really need is a change in our cultural ethos; as a society we need to see that what’s really important at the end of the day … is that you work for your achievements, and through your achievements show good character.”
Instead, the parents implicated sent the message that “it doesn’t matter what you do, it doesn’t matter how you behave, it doesn’t matter what your goals are. What really matters is what’s in the bank account and we’ll get you whatever you desire,” Jonker said.
Paying the Price
Although the accused also include CEOs and other moguls, Loughlin and Huffman’s acting careers have made them the most public faces of the case. And any attempt at repairing their reputations will take a very long time, noted Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed in a separate interview with Knowledge@Wharton.
“There’s no point in trying to lie or nuance your way out if it,” he said, noting that Singer cooperated with the Justice Department’s investigation and implicated the parents. “They need to validate concerns, show action and control the narrative. Unfortunately, they have probably lawyered up, and the suits are telling them to stay quiet and have their day in court.”
But in this day and age, when consumers are using their smartphones to follow every detail of the case on Twitter, the actresses’ current silence speaks volumes, Reed said.
“You do not have days and weeks to respond to personal brand crises; you have hours,” he said, noting that the actresses could have come out with public apologies, donated the equivalent of the money they are said to have paid out to Singer or presented a concrete plan to right the wrong. “Right now, the media is filling in their silence, and they are being further branded as rich, evil people who carelessly stole from those who didn’t have access to the same resources and privileges.”
“You do not have days and weeks to respond to personal brand crises; you have hours.” –Americus Reed
In an interview following the Sirius XM segment, Jonker said making an effective apology will be tough in this case, in part because it would be difficult — if not impossible — to find and repair the harm done against the students who would have gained admission to the colleges if not for the scam. He noted that it would also be tricky to make amends for the general harm done to the public’s faith in the college admissions system.
“A good apology requires acknowledgment of why exactly the thing one did was wrong and a commitment not to behave in the same way again,” he said. “To be believed, the person making it must be sincere, and that often requires some sort of sacrifice or acceptance of punishment. But the kind of wrongdoing involved here actually makes it difficult to apologize, since it involves insincerity on the part of the wrongdoers.”
Huffman and Loughlin have upcoming TV projects with Netflix and Hallmark Channel, respectively. Huffman had started a parenting website, and Loughlin’s daughter, a social media influencer, had endorsement deals with companies including Amazon, Sephora, Dolce & Gabbana and others, some of which promoted the fact that she was a college student.
“Look for brands to quickly drop these two actresses like hot potatoes,” Reed said. “Because of what I mention above, the two actresses are now radioactive. The brands who drop them will be OK because the news cycle is so fast and currently super chaotic.”
Jonker said the accused parents will need to be at least as convincing in their remorse as former Trump attorney and fixer Michael Cohen, who was recently sentenced to jail time for campaign finance violations, tax fraud, bank fraud and lying to a Senate committee.
“To the extent that people believed his apology, it was because he seemed to undergo a very public conversion and accept the punishment he was receiving,” Jonker said. “So it will be interesting to see what these parents will do to make themselves appear sincere to the watching nation. Unfortunately for them, this time it is not something they can buy.”