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Late Capitalism

The College Scam Is Exposing All the Legal Ways Rich People Game Society

The real question is what took so long for the country to start looking at this stuff more closely.

by Alex Norcia
Mar 13 2019, 7:54pm

Left Image: Bill McGlashan was implicated in the college scandal. Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images. Right Image: Actress Lori Loughlin was also charged in the scheme. Photo by Tommaso Boddi/AFP/Getty Images

Olivia Jade Giannulli didn't even care about school.

But now the 19-year-old influencer and daughter of Lori Loughlin, a.k.a. Aunt Becky in Full House, is one of at least 700 Americans facing pressure to explain (or at least avoid explaining) how they ended up there after a massive college scam spilled into the open Tuesday. She must come to the terms with the fact her mother, along with dozens of other members of the One Percent, may have criminally bribed people to get her child into a premier institution. In Giannulli's case, that meant inhabiting a University of Southern California dorm room she promptly decorated as part of a a paid sponsorship with Amazon Prime. Olivia Jade might have known nothing about it—prosecutors said many affected children did not, and she has apologized for her apparent indifference to higher education—but it's difficult to be deeply sympathetic given the egregious corruption at play.

Of course, it isn't particularly shocking that rich men and women would be brazen enough to manipulate the college admissions process for their offspring. But this whole thing was farcically illegal—so remarkably over-the-top that it was almost impossible not to laugh at the sheer audacity. Fake pictures of water polo. An alleged tennis pro mastermind who sounds like a character in a certain David Foster Wallace novel. Plop it in the context of our political moment—where corruption, even at the level of the presidency, is perceived as normal—and sprinkle in the crippling, widespread student debt crisis, the looming power of tech giants, our fascination with cons, and the apparent deterioration of centuries-old structure and institutions, and you've got a tale seemingly tailor-made for our world.

In some sense, the real question is what took so long for the country to start looking at this stuff more closely.



"I think this does pull back the curtain around some things that people intuitively know to be true—like, privilege tends to reproduce itself," Mark Huelsman, associate director of policy and research at left-wing think tank Demos, told me over the phone. "The parents," he continued, "seemed to be obsessed with ensuring that their kids, in some cases, felt that they were a part of the meritocracy."

This is a society in which it feels harder than ever for kids to be measurably, or at least financially, more successful than their mothers and fathers, and the American dream, if it ever existed, seems increasingly like a phantom from the past. The elite, however, are dead-set on trying to maintain the illusion that their children deserve even more than they do, without having to acknowledge enormous privilege. It's not enough, in other words, to simply be nepotistic any longer; now, you have to pretend your hands are clean.

Still, even if blatant favoritism is more embarrassing in the Instagram era than it might have been previously, it was hard to grasp why these parents didn't just donate a building, or give a bunch of money to have their last name engraved at the top of a library entrance. It remains a puzzling aspect to chew over, especially when you consider all the expensive ways in which you could potentially game the system. (There are a lot of those, by the way, as VICE News and the New York Times, among others, have documented. )

"One answer might be that buying a building is for the uber-wealthy, and that this the way to do it for the moderate or the super-wealthy," Julie Margetta Morgan, a fellow at the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute, told me on the phone. "Another answer might be, in a more perverse way, it feels a little more straightforward to cheat your way to a good SAT score, rather than to go to a college and buy your way in directly."

In fact, the most glaring conclusion that spilled out of this whole thing—in think pieces, in hot takes, and on social media—was that this was just the criminal tip of the iceberg of a larger, rarely criminal, problem. In other words, bagging a few celebs isn't going to make much of a dent in the status quo of rich people perpetuating privilege on behalf of adult sons.

Then again, if an absurd scam story involving an early 90s sitcom character was what it took to get the country to have this larger conversation, so be it.

"The thing is that no one questions wealthy students' admission to college," Anthony Jack, an assistant professor of education at Harvard and the author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, wrote in an email. "We know that the SAT is a classed test, yet we still believe in its efficacy because, somehow, it aligns with what we think is right: that there is something about wealthy people and smarts, despite all the evidence to the contrary."

Perhaps most importantly, every expert I spoke to about the scandal emphasized this is a systemic problem that does not only begin as a well-off white kid nears college age. It basically starts at birth—and it goes on to affect (rather poorly, of course) race discrimination, and the general difficulty in affording higher education for the lower and middle classes. Laura Perna, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out to me in email that one indicator of these sorts of distinct advantages are Pell Grants, a bedrock form of federal financial help for lower-income students that does not have to be repaid. She wrote that "in 2016, only 16 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates attending the nation’s most competitive colleges and universities received Pell Grants, compared with 59 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates attending public and private not-for-profit two-year institutions and 74 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates at for-profit institutions."

It's a rigged match that, clearly, we're only beginning to come to terms with.

"The advantages that wealthy people have in our college admissions system go so far beyond what we're seeing here," Morgan emphasized. "It's being able to put your kid in the best school system, fighting to have your kid in gifted and talented classes, or AP classes, at the exclusion of other kids who maybe deserve to be in those classes more than your child. It's about getting your kid into the best tutoring program, sending them to the best college counselor in the country for advice."

She continued, "It's just advantage stacked on top of advantage on top of advantage."

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