The recent bust in Boston of an organized, professionalized, high-stakes college admissions fraud operation reveals much more than the amoral conduct of the participants. The parents, who included actor Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives television fame and Oscar nominee, and William H. Macy, veteran of dozens of movies, were willing to pay into the millions of dollars for ringers to take standardized tests for their children or to gin up false evidence of athletic potential.
The federal indictment alleges a massive scheme of bribes that extended from exam proctors to Ivy League coaches. This was not amateur night. The mastermind has already flipped on his clients, who donated funds through a charity whose cover, ironically, was assisting the disadvantaged. His guilty plea could not be more clear. The prosecutor has declared, “There will not be a separate admissions system for the wealth. And there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”
The perpetrators in what is being called the biggest scam in college admissions history ever are not only rich and famous but also brazen and shameless — the title of Macy’s hit show. Their progeny already enjoy extraordinary privilege without having to cheat. The success of the parents is not sufficiently satisfying though. They want the next generation to inherit their status at the top of a social hierarchy. But they are not confident enough of their skill raising kids to allow their progeny to earn their own place in the world or at least on campus. Huffman and Macy’s daughter, who was the beneficiary, has been mocked already for her social media posts indicating she cares about college more to party than to learn. Her parents now are being ridiculed by their peers.
Frank H. Wu
What is worse, however, is that observers are unlikely to assign guilt by association. A conspiracy among white Americans is not attributed to a character flaw shared within a community. The same generosity is not practiced with others who face collective blame. Chinese foreign nationals are an example.
Over the past decade, organized efforts by Chinese, primarily visitors or immigrants, to do more or less what the Hollywood ring has admitted to doing on a vast scale, have been disrupted by law enforcement. A handful of students have been expelled or deported. Higher education administrators report concerns of widespread identity fraud. Among those who are enrolled, it is said, are more than a few who are not the taker of the SAT or TOEFL in their name. When these misdeeds are detected, the stereotyping is explicit. Unlike with Whites who have committed the same crime, the Asians are said to have done what they did because of their background. It is as if to say, well, what can you expect; that’s how those people are. Imagine if a group of African-American and Latino elders put together a systematic means to rip off respected institutions — except, oh, people regularly speculate about so-called “welfare queens.”
The other disparity this scandal confirms is in access to services from test preparation to career counseling and the social network that knows or claims to know how to game the system. The outright cheating, including taking advantage of legitimate disability accommodation rules for illegitimate benefit, cannot be condoned of course. But perhaps it is less the obvious wrongdoing than the subtle norms in the background that are the real problem.
We accept that some folks start off with enormous advantages in the competitive process. Others cannot afford a ghostwriter for their admissions essay, who is not right to hire anyway, or cram classes, which are recommended with enthusiasm. Yet everyone is assured these decisions are based on “merit.” That is hardly the case. Private schools typically accord preferential treatment based on irrelevant characteristics, and not for the sake of diversity. Legacies, the children of alumni, receive a plus for accident of birth.
The truth is that all of us are complicit. We celebrate celebrity. We are obsessed with college rankings. These are not unrelated. The sentiments are about the allure of the superficial. That is why we laugh and shake our heads. We realize these culprits are merely the fools who were exposed for their folly today, the better to warn those who might be tempted about tomorrow.
Almost all of the institutions of higher education that are prestigious are elite; these concepts are virtually identical. We want what we cannot have. If the schools that we aspired to admitted all of us, few would accept the offer to attend. The corruption runs deeper than we care to acknowledge.
Punishment for Huffman, Macy, and their cohort will be deserved. Reform of college admissions would be better.
Frank H. Wu is the William L. Prosser Distinguished Professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. You can follow him on Twitter @Frankhwu