Like any modern parent, I believe that my children are geniuses—but, hey, who knows. At the moment, my son’s passion is melting crayons all over the living room radiator. His sister tells me that when she grows up, she wants to be a unicorn. They’re truly delightful kids, and may indeed wind up changing the world. It’s also possible they’re not Ivy League material.
The last bit is no shame. I’ve never been Ivy League material myself. But this week, I learned that if I want my kids to go to an elite university—or even a not-so-elite university—all I have to do is find the right fraudsters, deliver a brown envelope of cash and be willing to cheat, cheat, cheat and lie, lie, lie.
I may also need—and I’m going to require a little help with this, if anyone has the necessary computer expertise—to photoshop my children’s faces atop the bodies of some random water polo players or maybe a football kicker. (Back to this in a minute.)
Has there been a more exquisite snapshot of contemporary American privilege than this week’s news of the federal prosecution into cheating and bribery in college admissions? Dozens of wealthy parents—some of them titans of business, a couple of them celebrities—are charged with allegedly steering money to fixers, scammers and (of course) more than a few allegedly wayward college sports coaches to secure their children’s dubious entry into the colleges of their dreams.
A side door, they called it.
A sewer pipe of entitlement is probably a better term of art.
If you or your children earned admission to college the hard way, I am sorry. Those chumps who stay up all night with calculus, or slog through Faulkner, or ride the bench for junior varsity field hockey—that sort of earnest commitment is apparently for suckers. Turns out, if your parents are rich and crooked enough, there’s no need to be yearbook copy editor, student body treasurer, co-chair of the reptile club or spend any time in the driveway honing your 3-pointer.
That summer internship at the vet’s office is probably a waste of time, too. To hell with those cats.
Federal prosecutors detailed a more than $25 million scam to help wealthy families bribe their way into elite colleges. The scheme allegedly involved bogus exam scores and falsified athletic achievements.
I am half-horrified and half-entertained by this scandal, because it is such a calamitous example of 21st century priorities gone amok. An allegedly rogue college consultant turned informant has provided the government an alleged blueprint of a multimillion-dollar world of secret parental payoffs and loopholes used to avoid the aggravating scut work of, you know, kids actually working hard in high school to get a slot in college.
The government’s named source—William Rick Singer, who ran a California-based consulting agency called Edge College and Career Network LLC, but known widely as (you can’t make this up) “The Key”—has detailed a web of alleged payoffs and ruses that allowed ordinary candidates passage into schools including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, USC, UCLA and Wake Forest.
In a few instances, the skulduggery was expensive but straightforward, like a parent allegedly paying $75,000 for a child to take the ACT exam privately, with a proctor on site to correct errors.
More often, college sports was the mechanism for the hustle. Singer allegedly built relationships with college coaches who allegedly agreed to push the candidacies of undeserving students—students who would later be admitted as full-paying athletic prospects, even if they lacked athletic talent. The coach allegedly got an envelope of cash. In return, a paying parent allegedly got a child admitted to a school he or she wouldn’t otherwise be admitted to. As soon as the kid showed up on campus, they could bail on the sport they couldn’t play, with no repercussion.
Hence a string of comical allegations: “rowers” who couldn’t row, allegedly drifting into USC. An alleged “soccer player” incapable of playing competitive soccer, allegedly rolling into Yale. A fake sailor allegedly trying to sail into Stanford; tennis hackers allegedly hacking into Georgetown and Texas, virtueless volleyball allegedly winding its way to Wake Forest.
And that kid’s face allegedly photoshopped atop the body of a random water polo player, to prove water polo prowess? That’s a real claim, too, allegedly submitted to USC. (Singer also allegedly doctored another student’s face onto the body of a football kicker—even though the student’s high school didn’t offer football.)
There’s no indication here that the children of these parents charged in this case were involved in the fraud.
But the parents who are alleged? Phew. Where to start?
These are not the first parents charged with buying their children’s way into college, of course; especially at the nation’s finest universities and colleges, there’s a hallowed tradition of admitting the mediocre spawn of the moneyed. On many campuses, you’ll find inspired buildings bankrolled by the families of uninspired brains.
Meanwhile, anyone who’s had a whiff of the contemporary college admissions process knows how parental money already greases the ritual, from the hiring of tutors and test-preppers to sports-video Scorseses who can edit a JV quarterback to resemble the next Brett Favre. Meritocracy is an illusion—long before an application shows up at a school, the system is legitimately stacked in favor of the wealthy. Kids who aren’t from privileged backgrounds are at a steep disadvantage, simply because they cannot afford the add-on accoutrements.
Now here, with the government’s case, comes a wave of high net-worth parents who allegedly aren’t even making a pretense of their children earning admission—Mom and Dad are just going to pay, and they’ll pay this underbelly of surrogates allegedly willing to make it happen, because the surrogates want the money, and they know the system is rigged.
There is something so entitled and 2019 about all of it—yet another example of the powerful endorsing cheating and lying, and rationalizing that the scammery doesn’t really matter, if the ends justify the means. Hard work, integrity, truth…those are increasingly quaint values to an entitlement culture conditioned to get what it wants, and believe what it wants to believe.
To the anxious parents and prospective applicants out there, a tip from a sports columnist who only scammed his way into college bars: None of this nonsense is worth it. College is college—some schools have more to offer than others, but in your life, you’re going to meet plenty of useless dingbats who went to the most distinguished colleges in the country. You’ll also encounter wizards who barely went to school at all.
Also this: Not everyone cheats. Not everyone cuts corners. There isn’t a diploma in the world that’s more valuable than your integrity—and you can’t buy your integrity back. These may be old-fashioned, naive notions, but I don’t care. This is what I’m telling my kids, after I remind them to stop melting crayons on the radiator, because it’s really a nightmare to clean.
Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com