Operation Varsity Blues sounds and reads like an episode in a police drama. US authorities allege dozens of wealthy parents, including top executives and actors, paid a total of $25m to help their children win places at leading US universities including Yale and Stanford, through two schemes that involved paying bribes. The scandal is an extreme, and illegal, example of wealth being abused to game college admissions. It also highlights the extent to which the admissions process is skewed in favour of the rich and privileged.
A criminal complaint filed in Boston alleges the scam was run for seven years by William Singer, a former high school basketball coach. Parents had two options: the first was to have their children claim medical disabilities and take tests in facilities with bribed staff. Alternatively, university coaches were paid to designate children as student-athletes, increasing their odds of entry. Parents were charged up to $75,000.
The admissions scam is one of the largest ever uncovered. Its practices are indefensible. They not only enabled those with financial means to win places for offspring who might not otherwise qualify, they cheated potentially more able applicants out of those places. Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts, who announced the charges, is right to declare that “there can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy”.
Mr Lelling’s words disguise the fact that such a system has, de facto, long existed. While this week’s scandal involves patently illegal behaviour, the line between bribery and using wealth to secure other forms of advantage is more blurred than some might like to acknowledge. It can range from paying thousands of dollars for special coaching to spending millions on charitable donations in hope of currying favour.
As Mr Singer is said to have told a prospective parent, there is a “front door” for students who try to get into top colleges on their own efforts and merits. Then there is a “back door”, where parents engage in “institutional advancement and make large donations” — though this does not guarantee entry. His scheme created a “side door” that also provided a guarantee.
Philanthropic donations fall in a related category. They are welcomed as gratefully as they were two decades ago when, as ProPublica reported, Charles Kushner pledged a $2.5m gift to Harvard shortly before his son Jared, now son-in-law to president Donald Trump, started studying there. Having alumni parents also helps. Being a “legacy” boosts the chances of a mid-level student getting into a top college substantially. A 2017 survey by the Harvard Crimson found 30 per cent of freshmen were “legacy” students.
Some leading global universities such as Oxford and Cambridge turned their back on favouring children of alumni decades ago. But Oxbridge has no less a problem with students coming from privileged backgrounds; David Lammy, a British MP, last year highlighted the fact that over 80 per cent of Oxford students come from the top two social classes. Richly-endowed US Ivy League colleges far outstrip Oxbridge on racial and ethnic diversity. Top UK universities’ refusal to “trade” places for philanthropy leaves them much poorer than US counterparts.
Despite their wealth, years of above-inflation increases have pushed the fees of top US colleges beyond the reach of all but the rich. This is the crux of the problem. While poorer students may benefit from financial aid, the middle is squeezed. Bribery are abhorrent. But the issue of entrenched privilege in US education admissions runs far deeper than Operation Varsity Blues.