By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scientist, Educational Policy Institute
Everybody’s talking about those celebrities and rich people taking advantage of the system by fraudulently getting their kids into the best schools in the world. We’re talking Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, USC, Wake Forest, and UT Austin. Leading the pack is Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives and Sports Night fame and Lori Loughlin from Full House. But there were dozens of other affluent people who paid to have their children admitted to these selective institutions. They did it through bribes, test fraud, and athletic fraud. And they knew they were doing it. The man behind this scheme reportedly collected over $25 million from his three dozen clients and, in the end, wore a wiretap to tape his clients. People are going to jail on these felonies.
However, let us be clear. This is nothing new. The celebrity may be new, the manor may be new. But affluent and popular people have been able to gain admissions at the most exclusive schools since “selective” became a thing in higher education. From legacies to money, there has always been a way to get into the best colleges, especially the private colleges. In this case, with the exception of UT Austin, all these colleges are high-priced and highly-selective schools. And they all have histories with donors and legacies with kids.
Most high-caliber schools have a blind admissions policy, where a student’s candidacy is based on their prior academic grades, extracurriculars, and even cover letters. They do not use race/ethnicity and other factors to weigh the determination of who gets in and who doesn’t. Affirmative action suits over the years have put pressure on institutions to consider race/ethnicity, while counterparts have argued that race should not be a determinant for fairness to all. Of course, fairness is relative to the position of the individual. The reality is that institutions have been playing games for years. Some of them to try and be more equitable; others just want to get the students they want.
This current issue only brings to light what has been going on in one form or another for a long, long time. Money and notoriety run much of the world’s economy and opportunity. Advantage begets advantage, through legacy, money, and fame. And, as in the opinion of the U.S. Attorney yesterday, the admission of these students means others who had worked hard and diligently did not gain admission. The advancement of one ultimately means the rejection of another.
I wrote about the legacy issue in November 2016:
“Higher education is about legacy. If a parent goes to a certain university, it is likely that their children will go to college. If the parent graduated from an Ivy-League or very selective institution, it is more likely that their kids will attend that institution. A 2005 study of 180,000 students who attended selective institutions, that legacies chance of admissions was 20 percent higher than non-legacy students when SAT scores were held equal.”
The people who are being talked about today were able to get by the rules because they were rich. Not necessarily powerful, perhaps, but money is always the great equalizer. Actress Lori Loughlin, someone who arguably got everything in life due to good looks and hopefully acting prowess, paid over $500,000 to get her daughters into the University of Southern California. They did this through a fraudulent effort to have them placed on the USC rowing team, no less, even though they had never rowed and never have. Still, they gained admittance through the athletic department.
Lori Loughlin has now become the pinup girl for this type of advantage. She never went to college. She did her first print ads at age 11 and was on a soap by 15. By age 24 she was on one of the biggest hits on TV, Full House. The same year, she married the Vice Chairman of Lionsgate Films. When that relationship ended, she married popular fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli of the “Mossimo” brand, which is in every Target store in the world. By the time she was 15 years of age, she never had to look back. She had money. And then she married money. Twice. And she decided to use whatever influence she could muster for her kids, because it always worked in one way or another for her. She may be a wonderful person. But if so, she is now a wonderful person who broke the law to gain additional advantage for her children. Thus, not that wonderful to take advantage of others. In some small, seemingly innocuous way, we have all done this to some level, but likely not remotely close to this example. We all want whatever advantage we can get for our kids, and for ourselves, to be fair. The question remains where we draw the line of appropriateness, let alone legality.
At a time when people are arguing whether Kylie Jenner is the first “self-made” billionaire in the world, we have to understand that very few people are self made. It could be argued that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are self made, but they also came from affluent parents and both went to Harvard. Are they smart? You bet. Would they have made it if they didn’t have the opportunity put in place by their parents? Not likely by any stretch of the imagination. It is likely that Gates would not have been in a position to create Microsoft. And, if you remember, Zuckerberg created Facebook largely on the back of the Winklevoss Brothers’ HarvardConnections.com idea. If you don’t know the full story you must live in a box. Watch Aaron Sorkin’s 2010 film, The Social Network, nominated for Best Picture in 2011. If Zuckerberg doesn’t go to Harvard he doesn’t create Facebook. It’s that simple.
Last week I posted about an economist who made an odd crack about the “dumbest kids in the richest area” having more college opportunity than the smartest kid in the poorest area. Of course they did. Because affluent families have influence, send their kids to the best schools, have the best teachers, live in the best houses, go on the best vacations, get the best Christmas and birthday gifts, and so on. Opportunity begets opportunity in every fathomable manner.
We only have to look at the White House to gain some perspective on this issue. The President of the United States went to the Wharton School undergrad program at the University of Pennsylvania. Today, the entering SAT is approximately 1500 on the 1600 scale. Somehow, Donald Trump was able to transfer into Wharton after two years at Fordham. I don’t know what Trump’s SAT score is. I’ll take a wild guess that it wasn’t over 1500. Or close. Mine isn’t, I’ll admit that much. Important to note is that Trump’s Wharton admissions officer was a high school classmate of his older brother. Furthermore, it was not lost on Penn that Mr. Trump was from one of New York’s wealthiest families. Institutions understand these financial issues very clearly because they are always looking for their next best alumni donor. Apparently, Donald J. Trump did not disappoint. According to Wharton School records, Trump donated five times between 1996 and 2001 when Donald Jr. and Ivanka attended Wharton. Based on tax filings, Trump may have donated over $1.5 million to Wharton over the years. His daughter Tiffany graduated from Penn in 2016. 
Near Ivanka in the West Wing sits Jared Kushner, Ivanka’s husband and the President’s son-in-law. The year that Jared entered Harvard, his father, Charles, donated $2.5 million to the school. When Jared went to the NYU law school, his father gifted $3 million. Jared graduated with a JD/MBA from NYU. He never took the bar exam.
The uncovering of this unethical and illegal admissions scheme is outrageous. But it is only outrageous because it is now public. Underneath the covers, there has always been a quid pro quo system in play at the elite institutions. There will be many more stories that may be uncovered due to this situation, but even more that will never see the light of day.
In our society, the age-old adage still holds: choose your parents wisely.