By Christianna Silva
A group of about 50 people — including wealthy parents coaches, college prep executives, and Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives fame and Lori Loughlin from Full House — were charged in connection to a nationwide fraud scheme to get their children and students into elite universities, according to a federal indictment unsealed on Tuesday, March 12. The parents allegedly paid a college prep organization run by a consultant named William Singer to take tests on behalf of students or to correct their answers after the fact. Singer also allegedly helped the parents bribe college coaches to lie and say that the students were athletes in order to help admit the students as required athletes.
Of the scheme, FBI special agent Joseph R. Bonvolonta said it was “a sham that strikes at the core of the college admissions process.” The core, though, was already rotten.
That “sham,” otherwise known as Operation Varsity Blues, was also illegal, unlike a myriad of other ways rich families can give their college-bound children of all achievement levels a leg up. Seemingly buying children a slot in elite universities is nothing new; for years, we’ve heard of conveniently-timed donations made to key schools by wealthy families whose children happen to enroll in their programs. A prime example is Jared Kushner’s father, who pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998; according to Kushner’s high school administrators, he would likely not have been accepted purely in on his own merit. Kushner’s story is common: A recent lawsuit concerning Harvard’s admissions policies shows that the school views incoming students as revenue generators as much as they do actual students.
Anand Giridharadas, a journalist who wrote the book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, tweeted that the crux of the rigging scandal is simple: “Many rich Americans are no longer content with the generalized rigging of America in their favor. They want extra, private, bottle-service, bespoke rigging, over and above the unfair advantages they’re forced to share with other rich people.”
“I think one thing, just kind of keep in mind around this narrative, [is that] this scandal is about folks who got caught cheating,” Tiffany Jones, the policy director of The Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income students and students of color, told MTV News. “But thinking about the ways in which our existing system already cheats so many students and who those students are: disproportionately low income, black and brown. The way that the system already operates in terms of exclusion leads the most disadvantaged students with the least choice.”
This is what some of what Giridharadas calls “generalized rigging” and Jones plainly calls cheating looks like:
A recent investigation into Harvard University found that children of Harvard alumni, or “legacy” students, were five times more likely to get in than similarly qualified applicants with no prior connections. A 2011 study of 30 elite colleges found that legacy students were 45 percent more likely to get into elite colleges than non-legacy students. Research also shows that being a legacy student was roughly equivalent to scoring 160 points higher on the SATs, when admissions officers weighed a student’s application. Harvard University did not immediately respond to a request for comment from MTV News.
“Legacy is one of those points that people often point to because of who has historically been excluded from higher education,” Jones told MTV News. “That means those who are likely to have, you know, parents, grandparents, great grandparents who have attended a particular college or university and are likely to be white, wealthy, privileged, or of means because of the history of our system. And so keeping a legacy part of that admissions process helps perpetuate that.”
A recent investigation into Harvard University found that children of Harvard donors were more likely to be accepted than their peers who didn’t donate. The school even kept a secret list of all of the applicants who are the relatives of major donors, and the students on that list had a 42 percent acceptance rate, according to the Harvard Crimson, in comparison to the overall 4.6 percent acceptance rate Harvard boasts.
And it isn’t just Harvard: This happens in schools across the country. Donald Trump cumulatively donated about $1,480,500 to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, the business school he attended before his daughter Ivanka and son Don Jr. — notably, donations coincided with Ivanka and Don Jr.’s enrollment in the school, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian.
Studies show that students who receive private tutoring perform better on standardized tests. One recent study showed that the average student jumped from the 34th percentile to the 42nd percentile after tutoring. But that same study showed that private tutors cost about $3,800 per student per year – which is often an insurmountable amount of money for lower-income families.
Lower-income students can access other options, like Khan Academy and the Purdue Online Writing Lab — free online resources that offer test-prep, writing help, and course discussion. Advocacy groups are attempting to make these and other programs more available to students, according to Annie Reznik, the executive director of Coalition for College, a group of elite colleges and universities that are working to make college more accessible for low-income and diverse students.
According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, the median annual household income for the parents of first-generation college students is about $37,565, while the median annual household income for their peers whose parents did go to college tends to be around $100,000 a year. This creates a cycle for success in ways the students and parents might not even realize: Because your parents went to college, you are more likely to be able to afford college, and to have the resources necessary to succeed at any scholastic level.
First-generation college students also face more barriers to success than their peers once they are accepted to these universities, according to research. First-generation students are more likely to work jobs while in university and are more likely to need at least one remedial course while in college as a result of not having access to those same courses at a high school level.
Promising athletes with lower grades and test scores are more likely to be admitted to colleges than their non-athletic counterparts, according to the New York Times. And wealthy kids are more likely to fit the bill: They’re from families who could afford to support years of sports, The Atlantic reported.
It’s a double-edged sword: For many lower-income students, sports can feel like the only way out of poverty, but studies show that they are getting shut out of sports more and more each year. Not only can extracurricular sports be prohibitively expensive, but parents of many low-income students may not be able to take time off of work to support their children in the way that higher-income parents might. And as school budgets across the country become tighter and tighter, athletic programs are often negatively impacted, despite the myriad ways sports programs benefit young people.
According to a 2015 study, health care is one way to explain the gap in reading and math ability between children from lower-income families versus higher-income families. And a 2012 Health Affairs study showed that the wealthiest fifth of Americans received 43 percent more healthcare than the poorest fifth of Americans. Healthy students are less likely to miss school and have a higher chance of success in classes, especially math, according to research, thereby setting them up to achieve the grades necessary to be accepted into better schools.
According to the Scripps Howards Foundation Wire, there is a shortage of guidance counselors in the U.S. that is only getting worse each year. One of the main job descriptors of these counselors is to advise students on college and advocate for them – something that particularly affects students whose parents aren’t pushing them at home to pursue higher education.
“There is a shortage of counselors available to advise students, a disparity of that advocacy is greater in low-income areas,” Reznik told MTV News, adding that because of this shortage, there’s information that some people might perceive as obvious that is actually privileged information, and add an additional barrier to lower-income students.
Take, for example, the fact that lower-income students are more likely to have to work a job or take care of their siblings instead of attending Key Club or other extra-curricular activities, which are often an important aspect of the college application. But speaking openly about responsibilities not related to school can actually boost a student’s college application, something that Reznik says is often unknown information — which can pose an additional barrier for students.
“We know that students who spend time working at a pancake house or a student who gets home from school and watches with their younger sibling is gaining certain qualities and values that really matter to the colleges and universities in the coalition,” Reznik told MTV News. “And so trying to help signal the students that their experiences, although they may be sort of out of the mainstream media or not talked about in school are really valuable and important to share.”
According to the New York Times, while AP courses are growing to districts across the country, they are still primarily taught in wealthier school districts, which can leave students in lower-income districts struggling to compete with their peers by the time college applications roll around.
“Wealthy students, privileged students, had another leg up in the admissions process through bonus points that they were given based on them taking courses that they had access to – those being honors courses or advanced placement or also known as AP courses,” Jones told MTV News. “Often low-income students [or] students of color attended lower resource schools that did not offer any or as many of those courses.”
Jones said that colleges and universities recalculate GPAs to include these advanced placement courses, which can raise some students GPAs almost a full point. However, students who didn’t have access to those courses would see their GPA stay stagnant, with no indication that they are being graded against an unfair curve.
The price of college is skyrocketing and is increasing almost eight times faster than wages are, according to Forbes. If a lower-income student defies all the odds and does make it into an elite college, often times they still can’t attend because needs-based resources don’t always stretch far enough, Jones told MTV News.
“We also have to think about investing more in a need-based aid or financial aid for the lowest income students so that they have choices about where they can attend,” Jones said. “And it's not necessarily just default to what resources elite colleges can provide.”
It’s clear that the entire business of admitting students to elite universities is broken at best and corrupt at worst. Groups like the Coalition for College and The Education Trust are working to combat this and level the playing field through advocacy, legislation, and changing how we think about elite colleges and universities.
“I think one of the most important things we can do as advocates and push policymakers is to redefine prestige and excellent,” Jones told MTV News. “So if you're a college or university that excludes students that looks like America, which now the majority of public school children are low income [and] are people of color, and you're excluding these communities, you're not excellent.”