Skip to content

A for Effort

Why the latest college admissions exposé will only make things worse

If you righteously oppose the idea that we live in anything resembling a meritocracy, the recent FBI bust of a vast college admissions cheating conspiracy probably brings some delight. The details are almost too perfect: the conspirators bribed SAT proctors; they photoshopped rich kids’ faces onto the bodies of varsity athletes to garner recruiting preference at schools like Yale and Stanford; they set up a phony charity so that wealthy parents’ bribes could also earn them tax breaks. Ensnared in the dragnet were actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, former Target fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, and Bill McGlashan, a private equity heavyweight in the field of social impact investing whose do-gooder fund uses Bono as a mascot.

All in all, it’s hard to imagine a clearer refutation of the idea that hard-won markers of prestige like Ivy League degrees launch people into the upper classes—and not the other way around. Of course, we already knew that the rich buy their kids’ way into elite institutions, whether through the legal means of private school tuition and admissions consultants, or, at the margins, criminal schemes like this one. But having spent the past couple of months interviewing college consultants for a forthcoming story in this publication, I can attest that whatever distrust of the elite education system you feel is vindicated by the current scandal, it is doubly or triply warranted in light of the rapidly expanding industry of high-priced experts-for-hire in the admissions process.

But here’s the depressing truth: this exposé will only make things worse. Any attempt to shed light on the absurdity and excess of the admissions scramble only breeds more scramble, as one admissions consultant, an advisor to clients including middle-eastern royalty and scions of name-brand multinational conglomerates, said. “Articles like this are part of the white noise vortex,” she told me at the outset of our interview. “They are consumed by these communities focused on this.”

In elite admissions, sunshine is more of a fertilizer than a disinfectant. In the early 2000s, then-Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden broke a string of stories chronicling corruption in admissions, from politicians pulling strings to billionaires like Charles Kushner bribing their kids through the storied gates of the Ivy League. Then he started getting calls. “Some of the Journal’s wealthier subscribers regarded my series not as investigative journalism but as a how-to guide,” Golden wrote in his 2006 book The Price of Admission (a point he returned to on Tuesday for ProPublica). One “high-tech tycoon” asked Golden for help getting his academically undistinguished daughter into an Ivy. Others offered him large sums to serve as an advisor.

Here’s the depressing truth: this exposé will only make things worse.

If elite education is mostly about status consciousness, galling tales of profligacy in college admissions will have the unintended effect of producing more of the same. Imagine the plight of a multimillionaire parent looking to land their kid in a top college. Whatever the motivation might be—class preservation, earnest belief in the power of education, shallow hunger for prestige—they know there’s a thousand other parents just like them angling for some kind of advantage that goes beyond the obvious educational expenditures, the tutors and prep schools and mission trips to Guatemala.

The first option is to hire someone to help their kid stand out among the rest. Thankfully, a burgeoning cottage industry of admissions consultants stands ready to shepherd well-heeled Ivy aspirants through the application gauntlet. At the baseline, their job is to aid in college selection, ease anxiety, strategize around course selection, and help revise essays. At the higher end of the market, there are consultants charging over $1,000 an hour to help kids set up resume-enhancing charity projects; others blatantly offer to punch up essays and leave no trace in the process. In any other context, we would call it PR.

But this is all just a way of getting in the front gates. Another suite of strategies exists to help usher privileged teens in through the back door of elite educational institutions. The most obvious is legacy preference, which colleges defend on the logic that it helps bring in donations. It also doesn’t hurt to play some country club sport like tennis or water polo (see, for instance, the well-meaning charities that teach low-income, inner-city kids squash to help their future educational prospects). Legal bribery in the form of donations provides a last-ditch option for the obscenely rich, though I was told that an opening bid of $10 million is required to even be taken seriously among the Ivies.

But at this point the front gates are already crowded with perfectly credentialed, consultant-polished applicants, while the back door is straining under the pressure of legacy cases and trustees’ nephews and plutocratic donors. What other option is there? Enter the side door. Here is William Singer, the mastermind behind the Edge College & Career Network, aka the Key, who was charged Tuesday for racketeering, money laundering, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice:

If I can make the comparison, there is a front door of getting in where a student just does it on their own, and then there’s a back door where people go to institutional advancement and make large donations, but they’re not guaranteed in . . . And then I created a side door that guaranteed families to get in. So that was what made it very attractive to so many families, is I created a guarantee.

It would be nice to believe that the recent bust would close forever the side door that Singer pried open for the criminal conspirators he called clients. But more realistically, status-conscious one-percenters reading the recent coverage aren’t going to be struck with a sudden bout of conscience. Instead, they’ll be googling “side door ivy league consultant” and looking for someone they can pay who isn’t staring at ten to twenty in federal prison.

Among ultra-wealthy parents, the current news cycle will only intensify the admissions anxiety (read: class anxiety).

This isn’t to say brazen schemes like Singer’s are all that common (though really, who knows). What matters more is the fine-tuned system of perfectly legal advantage-gaming that surrounds higher-end admissions. The latter will exist as long as the economic and social rewards to Ivy degrees tower so vertiginously above those of less elite competitors. All that is needed for the system of legal bribery to persist are three interrelated factors: social and financial networks that help usher alumni into the one percent; the dependence of elite colleges on private donations and alumni support; and admissions offices that are not perfectly insulated from the prerogatives of development offices and trustees, among other interested parties. So long as these realities remain, the rich will continue to exploit the elite education system by whatever (totally legal) means are available. Only the truly gauche will sink so low as bribe an SAT proctor.

For all the bile and spleen surrounding the admissions scandal, it’s hard to imagine any systematic overhaul coming anytime soon. Some of the embarrassed universities might tighten up their admissions practices, particularly the easily exploited athletic preference angle. But none of them are going to, say, ditch legacy admissions or lock trustees out of the decision process. And among ultra-wealthy parents, the current news cycle will only intensify the admissions anxiety (read: class anxiety). As the aforementioned high-end admissions consultant told me, “You and your gory stories keep me employed, but frankly I would rather have people be less stressed.”