There are some decisions I’ve never had the privilege of making. To spend my vacation luxuriating in Turks and Caicos or in Musha Cay? Whether I should get the kind of plastic surgery that might subject me to a public skewering? Or whether or not to bribe a college with $500,000 to help secure admission for my kid?
At the heart of this scandal is the growing gap between the top one percent and the rest of us.
Because I don’t condone cheating or bribery and am unburdened with discretionary cash, I’ve been relieved of the ethical quandary involving collegiate admissions—the kind we’re hearing about in the news right now as part of Operation Varsity Blues—though I can’t claim that I don’t lust after expensive “work” and playgrounds. Still, I’m not sure I wouldn’t be tempted by what’s been termed a “side door” college admission scheme. What parent wouldn’t be? I’ve traveled through the front, back, and side doors and received both the benefits and the slap downs of the high cost of higher education in America.
In the late 1970s, I desperately wanted to attend Northwestern’s Cherub Program, a high school summer institute for theater studies. Upon learning that I wasn’t accepted, my father promised to donate a significant amount of money to the school. Voila, I was accepted. Had Northwestern done their due diligence, they would have known that my dad had a track record of bankruptcies and shady deals. There was never any money to fulfill that side-door commitment. So, in a sense, what was intended to be an institutional advancement admission was really a back-door scheme.
What was intended to be an institutional advancement admission was really a back-door scheme.
Still, I received the advantage of admission. That summer was transformational. I forged my most enduring lifelong friendship and my course was set for a career in the arts. Two years later, I entered NYU through the front door, on my merit, although with the distinct leg up of having attended Northwestern’s summer institute. After a year of attending NYU, my parents were in bankruptcy (once again) and refused to share their tax returns, having not filed tax returns for numerous years. This made me ineligible for financial aid.
I dropped out of school, thus disadvantaged by my family’s finances. It’s worth noting, I had no idea of the promise my father made to Northwestern until decades later, only when a letter from Northwestern found its way to me. School officials asked if wanted to make good on my father’s bribe. If we are to believe the initial reports in the news right now, the offspring of celebrities like Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli were in the dark about their parents’ machinations. The children can be the last to know.
Leveling the Playing Field?
The deep scars left by my experiences explain why, when I was recruited six years ago to volunteer to mentor local high school students on their college essays, I leapt at the chance. Many are the children of immigrants and are hoping to be the first in their families to attend college. These students must navigate entrance on their own merit, through that front door, and, for many, we are the only adults in their lives who provide encouragement and guidance. The program is a small, but meaningful, local attempt to level the playing field. It’s scandalous and heartbreaking that these kids are competing for spots taken through fraud.
No fraud was committed, but it could be argued that we gamed the system to the level we could afford.
Yet when my own son, who also attended public school, was applying for college, my husband and I bit the bullet and raided our dwindling savings to hire a test tutor and college counselor. Our kid put in the hours, wrote exemplary essays, and improved his test scores. And, yes, he gained admission to his first choice. No fraud was committed, but it could be argued that we gamed the system to the level we could afford.
Perhaps that’s why I am suspect of my own fascination and outrage as well as what I see sweeping through social media. How many of the outraged were legacies at college? How many of the outraged send their kids to pricey private high schools? Friends are posting queries: “How much did you bribe your kid’s college to gain admission for them?” It’s a way of instigating gleeful relish over each and every admittedly lurid aspect of the scheme. “I spent about $8,000, how about you?” has been my response.
A Sliding Door?
This scandal appears to be about privileged wealthy people committing crimes, but at the heart of this story is the growing gap between the top one percent and the rest of us. No doubt, the parents who committed fraud want to secure their offsprings’ position in the top tier of society because the middle has almost completely disappeared.
Inequality in American society is a driving reason behind the normalization of the dreaded helicopter parenting label. If you’re not managing every second of your kid’s high school career, she could end up never leaving home and working at the local big box store, instead of going off to college and then coming home and working at the local big box store.
A lot of research suggests that attending an elite school does make a difference, hence the wildly competitive environment.
In looking at the question, “does attending an elite school make a difference?” there’s a lot of research to suggest that, yes, it does, hence the wildly competitive environment. For example, a 2017 study found that lower-income students at an elite school such as Columbia University have a “much higher chance of reaching the [top one percent] of the earnings distribution” than those at an excellent public university, such as SUNY Stony Brook in Long Island. While this study in no way excuses the crimes committed by these elite families, it helps to put the Tibetan-Mastiff-eat-rat-terrier-mutt environment of the admission process in perspective. Not to mention the ever-rising cost of higher education.
Colleges have long accepted the largess of the very wealthy. While Jared Kushner was attending the Frisch School and starting to look at colleges, his father had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard, to be paid in annual installments of $250,000. Guess where the Clown Prince went to college? Beyond devouring the craven details of this fraudulent enterprise, let’s agree to engage in a substantive discussion, including one that includes the free college movement, advanced by Senator Bernie Sanders and endorsed by Senator Chuck Schumer before we all became distracted by the current administration.
Oh, wait, they Photoshopped the heads of their children onto other student athletes? Well, I’m certain I would never stoop that low. I don’t know how to use Photoshop.
Annabelle Gurwitch is the author of the New York Times bestseller I See You Made an Effort and most recently, Wherever You Go, There They Are: Stories About my Family You Might Relate To. She’s currently at work on a new memoir Vodka & Gelato: My Year of Empty Nesting. You can find her at annabellegurwitch.com