When people say “college is a scam,” rarely is it meant to describe actual fraud. Instead, the phrase is used to question the value of higher education: Is the price tag to attend a four-year university (and the debt that comes with it) worth your salary? The average sticker price for a public or private college can range anywhere between $14,000 to $33,000 a year—not including housing, meal plans, or books—and, somehow, this isn’t even the scandalous part. Whether it’s stories of bribery or money laundering, college’s scamminess has nothing to do with the average student, but has everything to do with how institutions ensure that the rich stay rich and the privileged stay privileged.
Over the weekend, Jaime Petrone-Codrington, a former employee of the Yale School of Medicine, was charged with mail fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering for stealing and reselling up to $30 million dollars of computer hardware using funds from the school. Reported to the police by the school, Petrone-Codrington is accused of using her position as a director of finance and administration to purchase bulk orders of equipment like iPads and Surface Pros, reselling them to an out-of-state business, and pocketing the profit. By keeping the orders under $10,000, she didn’t need approval for the purchases, allowing the scheme to go under the radar. According to the Hartford Courant, Petrone-Codrington admitted to the authorities that she had been reselling “for several years, possibly as many as ten years,” and that “approximately 90%” of her purchases were unauthorized.
News of Petrone-Codrington’s scam comes at an interesting time for higher education in America. In Boston this week, the first trial began after the “Varsity Blues” sting, which ensnared a group of 33 wealthy parents in 2019, accusing them of bribing middlemen to gain admission for their children at elite colleges across the country. Only six parents have decided to take their chances at trial—most pleaded guilty, accepting sentences of no more than a few months in prison. According to court documents obtained by Al Jazeera, the parents on trial—Gamal Abdelaziz, a casino exec, and John Wilson, a private investor—claim that they were made to believe that paying a school was a “widely accepted” method to gain access, even referencing a USC spreadsheet of “VIP” students whose families had made donations.
Whether the practice was widely acceptable or not doesn’t change the fact that these students weren’t being selected based on merit—and unfortunately for the prosecution, the ringleader of the admissions scheme, Rick Singer, could be called to the stand as their key witness. A former basketball coach, Singer ran an organization called The Key, which took money from parents in exchange for a “side door,” as he called it, that guaranteed their kids admission to a college of their choice. For around $300,000—the fraction of a typical endowment given directly to a school, which wouldn’t ensure admission anyway—Singer turned their children into star candidates. He falsified standardized test scores (a perfect score alone came with a $75,000 price tag) and, on paper, turned students into promising athletes in an overlooked sport, like water polo or rowing—even if they had no experience.
The privilege associated with class and race is so powerful that those who didn’t need to fight for it couldn’t stand the thought of not having a leg up. “When you look at it in light of the scandal, you have predominantly rich families who had every advantage that said they should be fine on the SAT,” said test prep expert Akil Bello on Netflix’s documentary Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admission Scandal. “They’re going to score high in the demographic. They had all the prep that they wanted, and yet, they still cheated.”
You may remember the name Tyrone Hankerson Jr., and if it doesn’t ring bells, some of his elaborate photos might trigger a memory. A former student employee at Howard University, he had posted up next to Range Rovers, worn knee-length furs, and even defied gravity before becoming the laughing stock of Twitter after a post on Medium revealed that Howard University staffers were mismanaging school funds.
The post, published in 2018 and since deleted, alleged that workers had been pocketing university grants for nearly a decade, and that Hankerson, in particular, had received over $400,000. Hankerson, who’d attended Howard as an undergraduate and law student, instantly became a meme, and his flashy public image made him a relatively easy target. When people sifted through his social media accounts, they found captions like “Another semester down, another bag secured,” and the jokes wrote themselves. Although he maintained his innocence, and ultimately was not charged with any wrongdoing, the students on campus wanted retribution. They requested thousands of dollars from him on CashApp and Venmo and even got Rihanna’s attention after singing “Bitch Better Have My Money” at a protest. And although Hankerson is reportedly suing the university for $10 million, he has become the unofficial scapegoat for the workers who allegedly embezzled $1 million of financial aid money. As The Washington Post put it, “Hankerson has gone from symbolizing Howard’s success to being a scapegoat for the university’s struggles, and one of the most vilified students in America.”
None of these scams are excusable offenses, but the differences between what happened with Yale, Varsity Blues, and Howard tell a clear story about the institutions and the communities they serve. When scandals hit Yale or Stanford, it doesn’t tarnish those legacies, it actually does the opposite, with big dollar figures and peoples’ desperation to enroll only raising the school’s aura of exclusivity. When a mismanagement of funds happens at a place like Howard—at an HBCU that is supposed to level the playing field—it is used by critics as a reason to deem predominantly Black spaces inferior. It suggests that corruption happens because of a lack of structure, knowledge, or worse, morality.
We may never know whether Hankerson dispersed Howard’s funds himself, or took what was given to him, but we do know that the chances of him building a reputable career in the wake of the controversy are slim. The true measure of privilege is for Olivia Jade, daughter of the actress Lori Loughlin and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli who pled guilty in the college admission scandal, to be announced as a contestant on the new season of Dancing With the Stars. She considers it a “second chance,” as she said this week at a press conference. The irony is that her family never needed to cheat at her first chance.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.