Court Documents Reveal How Affirmative Action for the 1% Really Works

Scandalous new details about the University of Southern California's admission process came out as part of the ongoing 'Varsity Blues' trial.
A kiosk on the USC campus.
The University of Southern California allegedly favored applicants whose parents were wealthy. Photo by David McNew/Getty

The United States has never been the meritocracy it sometimes pretends to be. But this year's college admissions scandal brought that lie crashing down in a way few other news events have. Although the 51 people indicted in what the feds referred to as Operation Varsity Blues were charged with crimes, their story got people talking about all the completely legal ways that wealthy parents cheat got their undeserving offspring into the country's most elite schools. Now, 18 documents released this week as part of the discovery process in their ongoing trial have given us proof of a barely contained secret: Children of the elite play by completely different rules when it comes to obtaining a spot in coveted educational institutions.


Kids whose parents might be able to make donations to the University of Southern California were tracked as "special-interest" applicants through a color-coded spreadsheet system, according to the Wall Street Journal. Emails make it clear just how blatant admissions officials were about their preferences: "1 mil pledge," "father is a surgeon," and "VIP."

The case against the parents who were indicted hinges in large part upon whether making donations to a school crosses the legal line when there's a quid pro quo expected. Prosecutors argue that Photoshopping kids playing sports that they don't play and working with a fixer named Rick Singer constitutes fraud, while the parents' lawyers claim they were operating within a completely legal system which, in the case of USC, is encouraged by the university. The documents detailing how the "special-interest" applicant system works were introduced into the case as part of that argument.

The USC officials appeared to know that they were considering lackluster applicants in some cases, according to the emails. In one, they make fun of a kid's grammar but remark that he's "good enough to shag balls for the tennis team." Another email, from 2014, marked that a water polo recruit was a "high-level prospect with 1-5M potential," referring to how much money her parents might be good for.

Corruption, legal or not, appears to have infected the highest point of the admissions process, as the dean of that department appears in the emails as well. When a former athletic director asked him to admit a low-scoring applicant, he agreed to do so. Although he said in a court filing that most of the students with the "special-interest" tag aren't admitted, a lawyer for one of the indicted parents claims that more than 80 percent of them do, as opposed to 11 percent of overall applicants.

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