The allegations against Lori Laughlin, Felicity Huffman and more than 40 other people indicted in the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted in this country are serious and, if true, should result in serious legal penalties against them — but there is something seemingly arbitrary about saying that certain types of cheating by the ultrawealthy are wrong while other more open schemes are routine and acceptable. Why is it socially acceptable for rich people to pay for their mediocre kids to get into a good college, but not socially acceptable for rich people to pay for their mediocre kids to get into a good college?
"We're not talking about donating a building so a school is more likely to take your son or daughter," U.S. attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said during a statement on Monday, "we're talking about deception or fraud."
While legally those two practices diverge from one another, morally Lelling's observation is a distinction without a difference. If a mediocre rich kid gets into an elite college while a hard-working and more intelligent kid without comparable financial resources does not, an injustice has occurred and society winds up suffering just the same as a result.
Take the Trump family. It wasn't long before Donald Trump Jr., who owes the very fact that anyone knows he exists to his wealthy father, took to Twitter in order to insult "Hollywood" for the Operation Varsity Blues scandal.
Timothy L. O'Brien, a journalist and author best known for his 2005 book "TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald," quickly jumped in to draw attention to what nearly everyone who read that tweet was thinking. As O'Brien noted, the Trump children were able to get into elite colleges for reasons that may have had nothing to do with merit.
The future president began generously donating to the University of Pennsylvania right around the time that Donald Trump Jr. began classes there in 1996 and Ivanka Trump began doing so in 2000, although records are unclear as to the exact amount he gave during that period. In paying for his kids to get into the right school, Trump was following a precedent that had been used on his own behalf; Trump biographer Gwenda Blair wrote in 2001 that the future president was only able to obtain a transfer from Fordham University to Penn after being interviewed by an admissions officer who was friendly with Trump's wealthy older brother, Freddy.
Then there is Jared Kushner, who as Dan Golden's 2016 ProPublica expose laid out is a near perfect example of how the rich game the college admissions system for their children:
My book exposed a grubby secret of American higher education: that the rich buy their under-achieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations. It reported that New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998, not long before his son Jared was admitted to the prestigious Ivy League school. At the time, Harvard accepted about one of every nine applicants. (Nowadays, it only takes one out of twenty.)
Golden's article also quotes a former official at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey, where Kushner attended: "There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard. His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not."
To be clear: When rich families like the Trumps and Kushners donate lavishly to colleges so that their children can be enrolled, far more often than not the practice is perfectly legal. The effect on our society, though, is no less devastating than when they break the law like Huffman and Loughlin are alleged to have done.
First and foremost, children with less money who work harder and are smarter do not receive the opportunities that they deserve to advance in life. This is a double-injustice: The concept of socioeconomic opportunity that is the bedrock of the American dream is denied to an individual who is entitled to it, and a society that would benefit from having them use their gifts on its behalf is weaker as a result.
Just as bad, though, is the fact that there are a lot of mediocre rich people with far too much power. How many politicians and business leaders, influential entertainers and scientists and intellectuals, have only risen to their current stations because they are alumni of top-notch schools that make people assume they are among the best and brightest?