Varsity Blues Scandal: An Insight

On March 12, 2019, the United States Department of Justice revealed the largest college admissions scandal prosecution ever in US history, filing charges against over 50 people as a part of the conspiracy. The scandal was proof of privilege gone wild wherein some students got in through pure merit, while others due to preferences that are skewed in favour of the rich and white. The mastermind behind the whole conspiracy was William Rick Singer, an admissions consultant and ex-athletic coach helping the most flush family kids to get into elite colleges. It was estimated that over $25 million was paid to Singer for his services, which fell under the category of ‘charity.’

There were two distinct parts to the charges that explained the entire operation. First, the parents reportedly paid Singer to bribe coaches at schools to help recruit their kids into sports programs without having proven athletic ability. Second, the test preparation moderators were bribed by Singer to favourably evaluate students’ answers and extend the time limit on entrance tests. The investigation, code-named Operation Varsity Blues, disclosed that this unethical college admission process was followed for as many as 750 families!

Since the uncovering, several measures have been taken. Singer and parents involved have pleaded guilty, indicted coaches have been fired or suspended, and some of the schools have rescinded the admission offers to students who were unethically inducted. While lawsuits have been filed and committees have been set up to review the allegations, the larger question remains: Why did this happen? Is it the over-fixation with the elite colleges in society, skewed ownership of social assets, or the guarantee of a successful life ahead attached to these premier institutions? The answer is a mixture of all three factors.

Not The First Scandal

While the 2019 scandal may seem like a new breaking phenomenon, it was not the first. Scandals like this have occurred in the past and are not unheard of in universities across the United States. In July 2019, a Florida-based business executive, Philip Esformes, faced indictment for bribing a basketball coach at the University of Pennsylvania to help his son get admitted to Penn. Another such scandal was unearthed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was disclosed that the university officials had favoured the admission of over 800 students in the class of 2005-2009. Such instances are proof of a broken system, as the 800 students favoured meant that 800 deserving students were denied the opportunity to obtain education at the institution. Similarly, a lawsuit against Harvard’s admission processes revealed the maintenance of a secret list of applicants by the college who are the kin of major donors of the university. The students on this donor list have a 42% acceptance rate against the overall 4.6% acceptance rate at Harvard.

Parenting, Cultural Capital and College Admissions

At the heart of the scandal lies a complex relationship between parenting, admissions, and cultural capital. In an article about the scandal in the Los Angeles Times, the term "parenting on steroids" was used in the article describing the process, synonymous with terms like intensive mothering. The notion behind this term was to explain a family complex that upper and middle-class parents seem to be grappling with to achieve certain standards. 

The constant fixation on attending a prestigious institution regardless of the child’s interest, in the name of holding social and parental status, is troublesome. The other cause of worry is the lack of belief in the child’s ability to earn admission into a college on their own. The parent, therefore, ends up playing a role in shielding their kids from disappointments rather than assisting them to become independent. Hence, the college process is seemingly harder on parents as it is a relentless test on what it means to be a good parent in the present time.

It is no secret that the scheme worked because of an education system that is broken. The 2019 college admissions scandal and the past episodes are all a result of structural inequality too. The elite schools are designed to favour the well-heeled. The US political and economic elites enjoy several advantages in the admission process, most of them legal! The students coming from families donating millions to the school are more likely to be considered. Further, over half of the private colleges and universities and a fraction of the public ones consider legacy admissions.

There has also been a sharp rise in the number of private college counsellors, supporting the idea that higher education has become just another booming business where the wealthy have an upper hand. Similarly, SAT and ACT tutors are also common among those that are willing to pay. Therefore, even without the manipulation of test scores by people like Singer, the axis tilts heavily towards the affluent; as the students from this background can perform better in standardised tests in comparison to their peers. 

A result is colleges and universities, including Ivy Leagues, being disproportionately populated by students from wealthy families. According to a 2017 New York Times analysis, there are more students from the top 1% of families by income against the bottom 60% at 38 colleges, including Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania. Presumably, most of these admissions were bagged through years of leads that accrue from wealth: good education and test preparations, access to tutoring services, sports coaching and private lessons, and the absence of the tribulations that accompany poverty.

Thus, American higher education in its entirety is just one big pay-to-play scheme making equal opportunity seem impossible to achieve. What is needed on the part of these elite universities is a reimagination of their objectives and the admission practices where one’s acceptance is not determined by their wealth or status, but pure merit. Along with that, the ethical lapses on the part of the parents to provide their kids with everything is essentially robbing them of skills that count. If the parents keep on pursuing their fixation with these handful of selective schools, there are going to be more such scandals in future. American higher education is not only supposed to prepare the best and the brightest generation of leaders, it is also supposed to nurture a principled foundation as the basis for its own existence.


Rajsi Sah

A happy and curious person in love with art, music, and sunsets. Currently a student of Economics at Shri Ram College of Commerce, I have a profound interest in economics, finance, politics and policy-making. Also, a foodie at heart!

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