This week the FBI arrested a bunch of wealthy people and their helpers for corrupting the admissions process of several elite colleges and universities. As the Washington Post put it, the alleged perps were “part of a long-running scheme to bribe and cheat to get their kids into big-name colleges and universities.” The investigation was code named Varsity Blues.
I’d like to share some thoughts about the story. You’ve probably seen multiple stories and think pieces already, so I’ll try not to repeat what’s already been said. Moreover, I’m not a lawyer, nor am I privy to the case’s details (although this will become a fine book someday), so I’ll refrain from amateur legal commentary. Instead this post will offer comments screened through my future of education lenses, based on what open source information has revealed so far.
(I do recommend reading into the affidavit, if you have time. It’s mostly account of each fraud case, which feels like a short story anthology. It’s fascinating to see the parents talk themselves into commitment, and to hear the point scammer’s enthusiasm and confidence.)
I don’t have a thesis today. All I see are multiple strands moving and connecting, sketching out potential futures:
College athletics Add this story to the ongoing string of American higher ed sports scandals. Already some coaches have been fired; more could well follow, along with their associates.
Yet college sports have proven massively resilient in the face of all kinds of scandal. As I’ve noted previously, American higher ed is willing to go a long way to supporting athletics, even in the face of scandals, crime, and money-draining finances. As an early, faint indicator of this possibility, while I refer to the story as being about admissions and athletics, consult other responses. They tend to drop the sports aspect. We could well see Varsity Blues leave varsity sports in the pink.
Inequality and education, 1 The parents allegedly involved in this scheme are all very wealthy: CEOs, other executives, business owners, owners of extensive properties, stars, lawyers. They were not able to leverage their already exalted positions to see their progeny into elite universities, or thought they didn’t have good odds thereof, so they used some of their wealth to fix the game. Those fixes didn’t come cheap. One story reports two parents paying nearly a half million to get their daughter into one university.
Many people have commented that this story is linked to other systems whereby wealth yields academic success, from the sociology of escalating inequality to the way the rich can try to influence decisions with well aimed gifts. Jason England argues that “The U.S. Department of Justice filings confirm what we already knew — or should have known: Elite-college admissions exists chiefly to replicate class privilege.”
A scandal about wealthy people paying for their children to get fake high scores on admissions tests distracts us from the (far more serious but less viscerally wrong) social problem of wealthy people paying for their children to get actual high scores.
— Jamal Greene (@jamalgreene) March 12, 2019
In a way this is just another iteration on those stories, one that’s clearly criminal. Perhaps this story just offers an accessible version of the normal state of affairs for a general audience, in which case Greene is incorrect, as the story illuminates the broader issue rather than distracts from it.
On the other hand, maybe Jamal Greene will be right…
The Madoff scenario In 2008 the United States financial sector collapsed. Amidst that titanic story one thread stood out in much of the early coverage: a Ponzi scheme, run by one Bernie Madoff (such a name!). His scam, nearly infinitesimal in comparison to the main event, nevertheless garnered attention partly because it was far simpler to understand. But it also featured celebrities, whose financial suffering became grist for our celebrity-addled media.
Madoff went to jail, yet the Obama administration declined to prosecute any bankers, nor even to set up a 21st century equivalent of the Great Depression’s Pecora Commission. Congress passed a reform law which, while adding irritating impositions upon Wall Street, left that sector not only intact, but allowed it to recover and grow even further. The financialization of the American economy proceeded.
Taking that history as a metaphor, it seems quite possible that while this week’s scandal throws a baleful light across all of higher education, the system could well persist unchanged even while the Varsity Blues crew is successfully prosecuted in full media cynosure.
Inequality and education, 2 I never tire of noticing how so many conversations about American higher ed conflate segments of that sector with the whole. While this scandal involves a vanishingly small percentage of this nation’s universities (of which there are more than 4,000), some commentators see it as indicting the whole system.
Let Matt Reed offer a corrective. He notes that the majority of American academic institutions are not uber-selective. Many are, in fact, open enrollment. This is a terrific success story for a democracy, and not at all the same as the existence of very selective universities whose identity is therefore based in part on how many would-be students they exclude.
Arizona State offered a cheerful comment on Twitter along these lines:
— Arizona State University (@ASU) March 13, 2019
In one sense, seen in the full context of American higher education, the FBI arrests remind us of the sector’s sheer institutional diversity. We offer open access institutions and some of the planet’s most exclusive campuses.
In other sense, the scandal points to the fact of American academic inequality, both in terms of institutional reality and public perception. The responses to it drive the theme home.
Celebrity culture This is, I admit, a huge blind spot for me. I don’t follow celebrities. I don’t get the whole ecosystem. So I have to take it as read that some media outlets are spinning this story as focused on two actresses (whose shows I never saw, but which serve as punch lines for jokes now). Incomprehensible TMZ, for example, apparently relishes this narrative.
Can we use celebrity culture as a tool to advance social change, as Doug Henwood and Elayne Tobin suggest? Might the celebrity hook drive this story into sufficient status to motivate universities, legislatures, and other actors to take steps?
Backlash against the rich While America has been getting richer and more unequal pretty steadily since around 1980, we generally have not expressed much dissatisfaction about that state of affairs. Indeed, we frequently admire the lives of the rich and famous, at times expecting to inhabit such domains ourselves. Lately there have been some peeps of resentment: the Occupy movement, the Bernie Sanders candidacy/movement, Trump’s ability to pose as a populist, the recent drop of left Democrats (Ocasio-Cortez and more).
This college admissions and athletics scandal has elicited a range of reactions, including outrage and laughter. Consider, for example, a 2016 tweet from one of the corruptly elevated students and how people react to it now:
college prep is the worst thing ever
— Olivia Jade (@oliviajadee) August 10, 2016
There are already many comic responses to sample. But perhaps this will go further. A Slate column claims that American “culture… increasingly likes to sneer at both rich people and influencers…” Think of popular dismay directed at nearly cartoonish wealthy folks like Martin Shkreli. We might add Varsity Blues as a datapoint to the rising curve of American economic anxiety and politics.
On a related note, the FBI charged these alleged perps with fraud and bribery. Perhaps this will add to a growing sense that the American economy is fixed for the rich, as one high school teacher argues.
Backlash against disability Some of the corruption involved fake claims of learning disability. For example, from the affidavit:
CW-1 [seems to be the scam’s leader, or at least point person] instructed clients of The Key to seek extended time for their children on college entrance exams if they had not done so already, including by having the children purport to have learning disabilities in order to obtain the medical documentation that ACT, Inc. and the College Board typically require before granting students extended time.
A key (ahem) part of this involved the scammers “controlling” their own test centers, through bribing officials there.
It’s possible that students with actual disabilities will have a harder time seeking and receiving support, as schools – both K-12 and post-secondary – become more skeptical of them.
More scrutiny all over the place The FBI’s case identifies many points of failure within the higher education ecosystem. College and university sports teams and admissions offices were bribed; presumably some adjacent staff were involved to a degree, even as slight as choosing to look the other way. A purportedly charitable foundation was the primary vehicle for channeling funds. The ACT and SAT testing systems were compromised, with test centers being “owned” by the scammers. High schools were taken advantage of.
It seems likely that we’ll see some if not all of these entities take steps to more carefully scrutinize students and their families. This could take the form of informal attention, new policies, or even governmental action.
The value of higher education What does this scandal tell us about how Americans view post-secondary education?
One of my students observed that we could obtain a good sense of market value for these elite universities by adding up the costs of bribery in addition to tuition (assuming full pay), fees, room, and board. Perhaps such education is worth even more than published prices indicate, at least to those who can afford them.
On the other hand, Bryan Caplan (a splendid Future Trends Forum guest) acidly argues that none of the parents involved in Varsity Blues was interested in learning.
Consider why these parents would even desire to fake their kids’ SAT scores. We can imagine them thinking, I desperately want my child to master mathematics, writing and history — and no one teaches math, writing and history like Yale does! But we all know this is fanciful. People don’t cheat because they want to learn more. They cheat to get a diploma from Yale or Stanford — modernity’s preferred passport to great careers and high society.
So did Varsity Blues adjust our sense of higher education’s value, emphasizing its signaling power and reducing its instructional role? Could this mark a watershed moment in how we generally acculturate the academy?
Or perhaps another values shift is under way, as some students sue Stanford over the scandal. Higher education’s reputation may have just taken a serious hit, with either its price or value seen as overinflated due to corruption.
The side door This sounds like a new entry to American slang and culture. Listen to a passage from the deposition, where one of the scheme’s leaders explains himself quite openly:
Okay, so, who we are– what we do is we help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school …. Every year there are– is a group of families, especially where I am right now in the Bay Area, Palo Alto, I just flew in. That they want guarantees, they want this thing done. They don’t want to be messing around with this thing. And so they want in at certain schools. So I did… what I would call, “side doors.” There is a front door which means you get in on your own. The back door is through institutional advancement, which is ten times as much money. And I’ve created this side door in.
Because the back door, when you go through institutional advancement, as you know, everybody’s got a friend of a friend, who knows somebody who knows somebody but there’s no guarantee, they’re just gonna give you a second look. My families want a guarantee. So, if you said to me ‘here’s our grades, here’s our scores, here’s our ability, and we want to go to X school’ and you give me one or two schools, and then I’ll go after those schools and try to get a guarantee done. So that, by the time, the summer of her senior year, before her senior year, hopefully we can have this thing done, so that in the fall, before December 15th, you already knows she’s in. Done. And you make a financial commitment. It depends on what school you want, may determine how much that actually is. But that’s kind of how the the side and back door work.
So there’s the front door of legit, open access. There’s the back door of legit influence-purchasing. And now there’s a side door of straight-up fraud and bribery. Let’s see if “side door” starts appearing in American language.
…overall, I can see this scandal fading quickly in the rear view mirror. We have many other distractions, of course. Many of the institutions we’ve discussed have already demonstrated resilience in the face of bad stories.
But perhaps Varsity Blues will combine with other trends to yield something bigger. Our anxieties about inequality, about the value of and access to college, even a rising unease about certain sports: each could grow with this story.
(thanks to multiple friends and a MetaFilter thread for conversation)