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The Real Lesson of the Celebrity College Admission Scandal

March 12, 2019
The Real Lesson of the Celebrity College Admission Scandal
Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

America loves a good crime story. America loves salacious celebrity gossip. By these lights, Tuesday’s shock indictment of dozens of celebrity parents conspiring to commit fraud to get their kids into elite colleges might be the tabloid sensation of the year.

The conspiracy, prosecutors allege, was vast: Dozens of wealthy parents—names you’ve heard of! Felicity Huffman! Lori Loughlin!—teamed up with college prep professionals and athletic coaches at major colleges to gin up artificially attractive college applications for their kids in order to get them into top schools—from Yale on down to UCLA and USC.

“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” U.S. attorney Andrew Lelling told reporters. “There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”

In one sense, the story is ripe for one of our nation’s most cherished coming-together moments: Making fun of the antics of B-list celebrities. A Desperate Housewives star forking over a pile of cash to get her kid’s SAT score inflated? Aunt Becky from Full House trying to get her daughters to be considered as crew team recruits even though they … didn’t row?

But you can’t deny there’s a certain tragic pathos to the thing as well. The kids in question apparently didn’t know a thing was amiss; by all accounts, they were fully occupied with the ordinary pressures of running the college application gauntlet. Just take a look at one of the conversations transcribed in the document, between one of the indicted parents—Gordon Caplan, who co-chairs major law firm Willkie Farr—and one of the professional fixers, who wound up cooperating with the investigation. The fixer tells Caplan:

I mean, I’m sure I did 30 of them at different, you now, dates… They’re all families like yours, and they’re all kids that wouldn’t have performed as well, and then they did really well… and it was so funny ’cause the kids will call me and say, “Maybe I should do that again. I did pretty well and if I took it again, I’ll do better even.” Right? And they just have no idea that they didn’t even get the score that they thought they got.

That conversation took place in June of last year. It’s now March—right around the time America’s high-school seniors are figuring out whether their college dreams are coming true. For most kids, the worst case scenario is a rejection letter. Discovering that your parents had defrauded the college you hope to attend and that your whole application was fraudulent must be somewhat worse.

Maybe you roll your eyes at this sort of thing—“Won’t somebody think of the trust-fund babies?” And hey, it’s true: In the long run these kids will be just fine. So here’s maybe a better way to think of it. These parents—big time lawyers, successful actors, sundry celebrities—are among the most financially stable in America. Every parent worries that their kids will be okay; these have more reason than most to reassure themselves that they’re going to be.

And yet in the face of our great national sorting—the admissions ordeal that sifts 70 percent of America’s 18-year-olds into their appointed strata in our dog-eat-dog capitalist scramble—even these parents lived in enough fear of that ordeal that they were willing to commit major crimes to push their kids over the top. If even Hollywood’s finest feel the panicky need to cheat in order to secure a comfortable future for their offspring in our great meritocracy, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.