Category Archives: Inequality

Americans really pay a bribe for a good education? In Britain, we’ve got far subtler ways

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Emily Thornberry

“Dude, dude, what do you think, I’m a moron?” Thus, one of the parents accused of involvement in the US college bribery racket. He’d been warned – by a wiretapped conspirator – not to reveal that he paid $50,000 for his daughter’s fraudulent test results, part of a system the fixer calls “the side door”.

Appropriately soothed – “I’m not saying you’re a moron” – the accused father is recorded, by the FBI, assuring the scam’s organiser that he’ll deliver, if required, the agreed fiction. “I’m going to say that I’ve been inspired how you’re helping underprivileged kids get into college. Totally got it.”

Although many of the best bits of an FBI affidavit – presenting the case against the accused parents – have been widely circulated, this sublime page-turner deserves to be enjoyed in full, if not put up for literary awards pending film adaptation (Laura Dern has been suggested for Felicity Huffman), and made compulsory reading in all admission departments. It’s not just that extracts can’t convey the fathomless entitlement and mendacity exhibited by affluent, ostensibly respectable parents. They can’t begin to do justice to the affidavit’s entertainment value as savage social comedy, something productions of Molière often attempt, but rarely achieve.

Even the dramatis personae, in the investigation the FBI named “Operation Varsity Blues”, reads like an updated Tartuffe: “Todd Blake is an entrepreneur and investor. Diane Blake is an executive at a retail merchandising firm.” Here, too, cultivated, fluent people, many of whom also sound deluded, greedy and hypocritical, appear to be playing with their children’s lives for no reason beyond self-gratification. But the dialogue, when not jaw-dropping, races along (“And it works?” asks a defendant. “Every time.”), the plots and motives are horribly plausible, and the jeopardy is evidently real to the alleged conspirators, even if the all-encompassing irony of their alleged scheme is not. “She actually won’t really be part of the water polo team, right?”

And from a fellow future defendant, on the risks, if this status-enhancing, child-perfecting scam were to be discovered: “You know, the, the embarrassment to everyone in the communities. Oh my God, it would just be – yeah. Ugh.”

Are FBI affidavits regularly as good as the tale of Operation Varsity Blues? If so, the death of the novel should be easier to bear. Although this document has one overriding purpose – to show that accused parents and witnesses colluded in fraudulent applications – special thanks are due to special agent Laura Smith, the author, who never writes a dull page. Maybe the individual cases were fully as compelling as this edited evidence suggests. Or maybe agent Smith’s organisation of her material really does indicate considerable, dry artistry? Either way, you cherish the detail when an accused parent replies, following an allegedly fraudulently extracted college offer: “This is wonderful news! [high-five emoji].”

Actress Felicity Huffman

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Actress Felicity Huffman has been indicted in the university admissions scandal. Photograph: David McNew/AFP/Getty Images

Ditto Smith’s generous quotation from a statement provided for a girl who has been reinvented, apparently for scam purposes, as a “US Club Soccer All American”: “On the soccer or lacrosse etc I am the one who looks like a boy amongst girls with my hair tied up, arms sleeveless, and blood and bruises from head to toe.”

Not, of course, that’s there’s anything illegal, here or in the US, about reproducing personal statements from professional suppliers or collaborating with a teacher and/or parent – the latter, though risibly unfair, is routine. Another Varsity Blues alleged tactic, that of buying a diagnosis requiring extra exam time, may have no exact UK parallel but, according to a 2017 BBC report, one in five children in independent schools received extra time for GCSE and A-levels. David Kynaston and David Green, in a powerful critique of independent schools, recently pointed out various advantages, made possible by high fees: “Far greater resources are available for diagnosing special needs, challenging exam results and guiding university applications.”

If, mercifully, UK universities are low on dependable side doors, the shamelessness of some of the US defendants, as they appear to pursue their imagined birthright (Ivy League bragging rights) can still sound uncomfortably familiar. Many British parents, equally fearful of mediocrity, are similarly unabashed on local tricks and stratagems – not only private education, but house moves, music lessons (for reserved school places), intensive coaching, internships, resits, religious conversions, fake addresses, and, the Times now reports, FOI requests to Oxbridge, from disappointed parents – that will end up, added to financial and cultural capital, delivering much the same outcome as the US scandal. Legal or otherwise, the result is enhanced educational opportunities for the privileged and untalented, fewer for the talented but disadvantaged.

The pervasive cunning is hardly surprising given the official esteem for “sharp-elbowed” parental operators, who, David Laws once argued, set a fine example. It follows, as demonstrated by UK politicians on all sides, that extreme resourcefulness in, say, keeping places from less fortunate residents, is readily passed off as understandable dedication as opposed to insatiable self-interest. Don’t we all want [smiling face with halo emoji] the best for our kids?

Following some unspecified epiphany, David Cameron, of previously wavering faith, secured places at an oversubscribed church school, some distance from No 10, requiring proof of “Sunday worship in a church at least twice a month for 36 months before the closing applications date”. Equally instructively, my own, affluent MP, Emily Thornberry, had, earlier, hoovered up three of the few precious places at an outstanding, part-selective school in Hertfordshire, 13 miles from home, which tradition annually reserves for her Islington constituents. On Twitter, she has reminded critics: “All my children educated in the state sector.” There is no suggestion that either MP has broken any laws.

There must be, beyond legality, some ethically significant factor that makes non-paying wangling infinitely superior to the ugly, US variety. But you probably have to buy a place at Harvard to find out what it is.

Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

  • Guardian Pick

    You’ve completely missed the point.
    It isn’t elitism which is being shown to be fake, it is meritocracy. If the elite were indeed the best and brightest drawn from and measured from all sectors of society none of us would have an issue with it. If opportunity were for all and not a few, none of us would have an issue with it. It is the proof that meritocracy is a lie and that it is actually promoted by the elite to maintain their control over soc…

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The perfectly legal – but immoral – ways rich kids get into top colleges

The perfectly legal – but immoral – ways rich kids get into top colleges

When it comes to admissions to elite schools, money can all but guarantee access to those who can afford it

 

Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son in law and senior aide, was admitted to Harvard after his father made a $2.5m donation to the school, despite a ‘less than stellar’ high school academic record.
Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son in law and senior aide, was admitted to Harvard after his father made a $2.5m donation to the school, despite a ‘less than stellar’ high school academic record. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

The concept of parody can be understood most simply as the comic art of taking something familiar to such excess that it becomes farce.

In that sense, this week’s college admissions fraud scandal, which has ensnared dozens of wealthy and famous Americans, is an act of pure, if unintentional, parody. Because while the process was exaggerated to a comical extent, the reality is that when it comes to admissions to elite schools, money can all but guarantee access to those who can afford it.

“The bribing of coaches by wealthy individuals is really just a more blatant example of what goes on all the time,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive thinktank.

And while most wealthy Americans don’t pay fake charities for Photoshopped images of their children playing sports they have never tried, or bribe athletic coaches, as the dozens caught in the “Varsity Blues” investigation are accused of doing, legal pay for play in admissions is as routine as it is unfair, said Kahlenberg, who has spent years studying the issue of unequal opportunity in education.

“This was worse in the sense that individual coaches were lining their pockets, but broadly speaking, the same type of bribe goes on between wealthy individuals and institutions every day of the week,” Kahlenberg said.

That can hardly be surprising in a landscape where, at five different Ivy League schools, more students came from the top 1% of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60%.

Take Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior aide, who was admitted to Harvard – generally considered the nation’s most prestigious university – after his father made a $2.5m donation to the school, despite the younger Kushner’s “less than stellar” high school academic record.

Daniel Golden exposed Kushner’s path to Harvard in 2006 in his work The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges. In the book, Golden found that among a committee culled from Harvard’s 400 biggest givers, including some who were childless or too young to have college-bound children, fully half the big donors had a child enrolled at the school. Kushner, the scion of a real estate empire worth billions, has denied that his acceptance had anything to do with the donation.

Golden noted that in some cases the quid pro quo wasn’t always even consummated before a student was accepted at a school. Prestigious universities often privilege wealthy students on the assumption that once they’re in the university family, they will be more likely to give – a phenomenon he calls “development” admissions.

Kahlenberg says the economics of these decisions are really quite simple. “Colleges say: ‘We’ve got these really valuable slots, and we’re going to leverage it either through squeezing our alumni for donations or trying to get wealthy individuals who have no previous connection with the university to donate.’”

Another common practice is legacy admissions, whereby applicants with family ties to a university are given preferential treatment. A 2011 study of admissions decisions at 30 highly selective colleges and universities found that legacy status accounted for a more than threefold increase in acceptance.

Kahlenberg, who calls legacy admissions a form of “legalized bribery”, adds that universities especially extend those considerations to alumni who donate.

Absent any attempt to curry favor with a university with the promise of financial incentives, wealthy students already enjoy virtually every advantage in the admissions game – for example, the influence of athletics.

A 2002 study found that the advantage conferred by playing a sport actually exceeded that provided by legacy status or minority background, as it pertains to affirmative action programs. That’s probably why William Singer, the central figure behind the admissions scam, focused so much of his effort on fraudulent athletic profiles for students.

And despite impressions one might gather from the small percentage of college athletics who are shown on TV, sports are overwhelmingly an extracurricular of the rich.

“The time, effort and money involved in becoming a high level athlete actually requires a lot of resources,” said Kirsten Hextrum, an associate professor of education at the University of Oklahoma.

That’s especially true for sports like rowing crew, golf, water polo and fencing that have high financial barriers to entry as a teenager, and are disproportionately popular at Ivy League schools.

And then there’s the professional college preparation industry, where “for prices up to $1.5m, parents can buy a five-year, full-service package of college admissions consulting”, as the New York Times reported Wednesday.

“How do you treat this situation where some people can afford to have private tutors to prepare for standardized tests, private tutors to get people’s grades up, or they can afford to take a test three or four times and they can afford $5,000 to $10,000 prep courses?” said Richard Lempert, a professor of law and sociology emeritus at the University of Michigan. “It’s not corrupt – but it means that the ones who have the most position themselves to get even more.”

Lempert and Kahlenberg have both devoted large chunks of their careers to studying affirmative action and both expressed hope that the scandal and ensuing focus on the admissions process might spark a movement towards systemwide reforms.

“If you were fair, you would try to construct an admission system which recognized that certain kids had enormous advantages,” Kahlenberg. “Therefore, we should consider their academic record, their extracurriculars, even the strength of their teacher recommendations – in the context of disadvantage.”

Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin appear in court over admissions scam

Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin appear in court over admissions scam

Pair among others charged in scheme in which, authorities say, parents paid consultant to fake children’s college test scores

 

Felicity Huffman arrives at court in Boston on Wednesday.
Felicity Huffman arrives at court in Boston on Wednesday. Photograph: Charles Krupa/AP

Actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman appeared in court in Boston on Wednesday afternoon to face charges that they participated in a wide-ranging college admissions cheating scam that has rocked the US.

The actors, along with Loughlin’s fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli and dozens of others, were charged last month in a scheme in which authorities say parents paid an admissions consultant to bribe college coaches and rig test scores to get their children into elite universities.

Camera crews crowded the courthouse in anticipation of the arrival of the stars and 11 other wealthy parents accused of engaging in the schemes.

The two actors and Giannulli said little during the brief hearing in a packed federal courtroom and were not asked to enter a plea. They remain free on bail.

Neither Huffman nor Loughlin and Giannulli have publicly commented on the allegations. Huffman initially appeared in court in Los Angeles after the allegations emerged last month.

Loughlin, who played Aunt Becky on the sitcom Full House in the 1980s and 90s, and Giannulli are accused of paying $500,000 to have their two daughters labeled as recruits to the University of Southern California crew team, even though neither participated in the sport.

Giannulli, whose Mossimo clothing had long been a Target brand, is also scheduled to appear in court on Wednesday.

Lori Loughlin is accompanied to federal court in Boston, Massachusetts on 3 April.

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Lori Loughlin is accompanied to federal court in Boston, Massachusetts, on 3 April. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

The Hallmark Channel – where Loughlin starred in popular holiday movies and the series When Calls the Heart – cut ties with Loughlin a day after her arrest.

Loughlin and Giannulli’s daughter, the social media star Olivia Jade Giannulli, has also been dropped from advertising deals with the cosmetics retailer Sephora and hair products company Tresemmé.

Huffman, the Emmy-winning star of ABC’s Desperate Housewives, is accused of paying $15,000 that she disguised as a charitable donation to cheat on her daughter’s college entrance exam.

Among the other parents expected in the Boston court on Wednesday is Gordon Caplan, former co-chairman of the international law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher, based in New York.

Caplan is accused of paying $75,000 to get a test supervisor to correct the answers on his daughter’s ACT exam after she took it. Caplan’s firm said after his arrest that he has been placed on a leave of absence.

The consultant at the center of the scheme, Rick Singer, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with investigators. The former Yale women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith has also pleaded guilty.

Several coaches have pleaded not guilty, including tennis coach Gordon Ernst, who is accused of getting $2.7m in bribes to designate at least 12 applicants as recruits to Georgetown.

Prosecutors have been holding plea talks with 33 parents charged in the scheme. On Wednesday, packaged food entrepreneur Peter Sartorio became the first to reveal he plans to plead guilty.

Two others, California businessman Devin Sloane and marketing executive Jane Buckingham, were excused from attending Wednesday’s proceedings after disclosing they were in talks with prosecutors as well.