Desperate! Shameless!

The recent headlines surrounding the college admissions scandal that ensnared over 50 individuals, including Desperate Housewives actress Felicity Huffman (and, by implication, her husband, Shameless actor William H. Macy), deserves comment here.

I advocate for education on a regular basis in my books and on this blog. It’s the one, sure, true path to enlightenment, understanding, an improved standard of living, and an elevated quality of life. To that end, being admitted to a top-tier college–especially for students from middle or lower income backgrounds–is a keen, admirable aspiration, and a life changing event for those that achieve it and maximize the opportunity.

To read about already-privileged children of movie stars and business leaders being given an additional (and illegal) advantage is at once beyond the pale and not surprising.

This time, however, it’s different: they got caught. The nauseating part is, of course, that these parents couldn’t be content to let their children just have a little advantage: being the offspring of rich, prominent parents who can afford to attend any college; to have the money for tutors to help them with high school classes and SAT tests; to have the money to donate to a college or university just prior to their children’s application to that same institution, just to get the attention of the president and the admissions board.

One would think that would be enough. But no. These parents who were indicted on felony charges this week wanted a ‘guarantee’ that their kids would get into a prestigious university. And it appears that, in many instances, they got it.

In doing so, they eliminated other hardworking and honest students from a seat at the table. And that is where the real scandal lies. (Expect lawsuits from those same students who didn’t make the cut at the implicated universities, and expect settlements in the millions of dollars.)

One of the most challenging issues in American society right now is income inequality. If we’re going to effectively address that, we need to address educational inequality. While the college admissions system may never be perfect, it can be tweaked into a more just process.

College administrators could require in-person interviews with, and video footage of, athletes being recruited to attend and play collegiate sports on scholarship. (When I was a senior in high school and was offered a full scholarship to play basketball at Brown University, it was not because of who my parents were. It was because they’d actually seen me play ball.)

Testing conditions and identity checks could be (and should be) more tightly regulated and enforced.

Universities or state legislatures could implement regulations that prohibit donations from a student’s family members five years prior to a student’s application and five years after a student’s graduation. This would prevent dim and dull but well-connected students from having a parent donate money to a school a year prior to a student’s application in order to ensure admission. (I won’t name any names here, but you know who you are.)

If you want to donate money to your alma mater because you just love your school, knock yourself out. If you want to donate to grease the admission wheels, forget about it. 

This could put a host of Ivy League schools in a very awkward position, as many depend on alumni donations for funding. Good. Let some hungry and deserving students take their place in your hallowed halls.  Let’s see how much genuine affection there really is out there when the quid pro quo is off the table.

Finally, it’s important to know that this kind of behavior–which has gone on for years and will continue in some form–is what chaps the butts of less-well-connected people who want a shot at a quality education. With all the wailing about the injustice of affirmative action, which will not be debated here or in comments, (and I will use the delete button) this illegality on top of advantage smacks of something much worse.

It is desperate. And it is shameless.

Now, it will be interesting to see if the inequality in our educational institutions extends to our judicial institutions. Note that, in 2011, Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar was sentenced to 10 days in jail and three years probation for falsifying her home address so her children could attend better schools. (The school they were attending apparently passed only 4 of 26 state standards for performance. Hell, I’d move my kids, too. Governor Kasich pardoned her, citing the punishment as excessive, but noted that it was not a pass, just a second chance.)

If a single, working class mother gets ten days in jail for lying about her address to send her child to a better public school, what do these parents, with every advantage in life, indicted on felony charges, get as punishment?

3 months? 6 months? A year in prison? Or do they walk with probation, community service, and a fine, which they can easily pay?

Boston is notorious for being unimpressed by Hollywood celebrity. And they are notorious for placing a great deal of importance on education.

We’ll see how this plays out, if what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and if laws are enacted to make sure this kind of injustice doesn’t happen again.

  • BGT




17 thoughts on “Desperate! Shameless!

  1. Of course this type of thing has been going on. Of course it will continue. Some people will always place value in a name brand whether it actually offers better quality or not, and the academic elites need the money to continue their lifestyles regardless of whatever social justice they preach. I’d just like to offer my family’s happenstance practice as a potential solution. Over many generations the people in my family have simply gone to different universities, even local public ones, for a host of different reasons. Scholarships opportunities, sports opportunities, quality of the desired program, family situation, illnesses etc…After all these years we’ve not really created any allegiance or expectation as a family for a specific school. Its odd because we generally value tradition highly, but I think there is also great value in the diversity of experience too. Maybe a rich prep school grad can learn something invaluable to his future endeavors by attending a public university with the common man… People in my family have attended all types of schools for undergrad and graduate school, from schools like The University of New Orleans, LSU, and Tulane to schools like Villanova, Tufts, and Penn. As long as the education is high quality, choose based on the program you desire. Hell, one of our lowly public university alumns was easily the most accomplished student academically coming out of prep school and has probably been the most successful thus far in adult life. Even surpassing our expensive Ivy League educated. If your kid hasn’t earned a spot in an elite university, let them try to make up that ground from a “regular” one, rather than steal a spot from a more qualified, but not wealthy kid. It will probably help them in the long run. I will note, though, that we all seem to place a much higher value on early childhood education, grammar school, and prep school quality. Can’t skimp on the fundamentals.

    Thanks Byron

  2. Thank you, Byron, for this thoughtful and insightful post. Once again, I am profoundly grateful to my parents for their straightforward, sensible advice to me about education. My parents were blue collar workers who placed great importance on education for my sisters and me. When I was a junior in high school, my father sat down with me and asked me about my plans after graduation. I very much wanted to attend college, and there was (and is) an excellent private, liberal arts college in my hometown. My parents explained that they would be happy to help me out financially, but I would have to contribute in two ways: one, by working summers to help defray expenses, and two, most importantly, I would have to study hard, apply myself to my classes, and make the most of this opportunity. I applied to college, was accepted, and was extremely fortunate to be awarded a generous scholarship/financial aid package. The next four years were remarkable both for the knowledge I gained and the friendships I made. I honestly pity these children who will never know the feeling of getting an A on a hard biology test or getting a C in a class they never thought they would even finish. For me, college was not an easy time, but rather a tough, demanding period that tested me in ways I never thought possible. Thanks to my education, I work in a job that I truly love and that affords me a decent lifestyle. My education taught me what is important in life – a lesson these people have yet to learn (and, frankly, probably never will.)

  3. “The Crafts which require the most time in training or most Ingenuity and industry must necessarily be the best paid.”
    Richard Cantillon

  4. What happened was despicable. How many future doctors or diplomats didn’t get accepted because a valuable spot was taken. These kids need something they’re parents never experienced, a learning moment. The degree’s of the kids should be revoked, tuition refunded and transcripts wiped clean. My wife went to an Ivy, and her ability to solve problems as well as her focus astounds me. It pains me to think there may be 18 year old kids with that kind of mind that was rejected because of the scandal.

    1. Upon further reflection I hope that this isn’t the tip of the iceberg. It’s true that admissions do have development lists of people who made donations which enable the University to offer educational outreach programs as well as scholarships. Maybe too much emphasis is placed on higher education and more of an emphasis needs to be made on self cultivation through extensive and varied reading as well as reading a good daily newspaper. A source of inspiration for me was in a book called Computer Dream machines by Ted Nelson, the name of the paragraph was How to learn anything. Professors know this; when I was doing a masters my advisor had a book on a new technology he knew nothing about and he told me he is teaching a course in the topic so he had to teach it to himself. I took the course and WOW was I impressed what he what he accomplished. I figured if he could do so could I.

  5. We all have friends, relatives and acquaintances who’ve given their kids advantages that enabled them to get into top colleges and universities.

    However, the amount of criminal, financial and reputational risk these parents assumed to get their kids into better colleges is astonishing.

  6. Hello Byron, just read the comments.

    What will be especially telling are the consequences. Will they be able to get away with a slap on the wrist (?)

    What is more worrisome to me is: were the children of these individuals’ aware of these plots ? If they were, and participated, they were complicit. Will the Feds charge them with this complicity? It gets worse. If they were, or became aware of this racket involving themselves will they perpetuate it with their own children ? After all, they learned from their parents. Herein lies a bigger danger.

    And even bigger than that is this is just what they’ve found out now. This has probably been going on for ages but in other ‘forms’ for want of a better word. Some of our esteemed leaders are not the sharpest tools in the carpenters box. How did they get in ? No wonder governments are in such a state.

    Society needs to fix their ‘Broken Windows’.


    1. I too was not surprised at the college admissions scandal. Children from wealthy well-connected families are often able to get into better colleges and get better jobs on graduation regardless of ability or application. Where I come from wealthy parents send their children to “grind schools” which employ the best teachers who drill them to pass their high school exams and get into the top colleges. It’s up to them after that but they still get every chance. I work in the university sector so I know. As I said before, graduates from well-connected families often get the best jobs anyway. It is frightening in my country how the system props up dumb but well-connected people while bright people from working class families struggle to find jobs because they have no contacts. The bright working class people leave if they can. However I think it is the same the world over in varying degrees. I hope the Ivy League colleges set an example and penalise the offenders but I won’t hold my breath. I apologise for my cynicism. These days many universities run on external funding as opposed to ideas, intellectual stimulation and new discoveries. Whoever pays the piper calls the tune.

    2. Well said, David. I think that we’ll make uneven progress after this episode, just as we do on many fronts. Whether it’s permanent or not, only time will tell. Thanks. – BGT

  7. The practice is widespread and of all times. Some do it subtly, others do whatever it takes. Ethically, it’s nearly the same.

    Perhaps the solution lies not only in regulation, but in a more inclusive working environment. In many companies a degree from a prestigious university is a prerequisite. Such selection is legal, but is it right?

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