Varsity Blues

Currently working its way through the courts in the United States are the various cases connected under what has been nicknamed Operation Varsity Blues. This investigation became public in March of 2019 and involves 53 people who used bribery and fraud to get their children admitted to prestigious colleges and universities. Media coverage has focused on a couple of movie or TV stars who are facing jail time, often to the exclusion of the organizer and prime mover behind the scheme, a man named William Rick Singer. Singer provided payments to coaches to get students admitted as athletes in sports they had never played, contracted with surrogates to take entrance exams for students who otherwise would not have earned adequate scores, and otherwise made arrangements to keep all of these activities hidden from view. But my purpose here is not to repeat the already extensive media coverage nor to further denigrate the parents or their children or Mr. Singer. Most of the defendants will receive (mild) punishments in the form of fines and public shaming, to include, possibly, even small amounts of time in jail.

The fact is that the Varsity Blues defendants are victims themselves. They are individuals who succumbed to the pressures created by our national system of irrational employment and status criteria that connect success not just to a college degree or excellent grades, but to credentials provided by a small number of preferred universities. For them, it simply wasn’t acceptable for their children to go to an “ordinary” state university or college—it had to be Harvard or Stanford or a similar school, and those prestige colleges accept only a small proportion of their applicants. That means, of course, that if these parents are victims, they were in large part victimized by their own desire for social status or for unearned advantages, but they were victims nonetheless and were encouraged in their folly by William Singer.

These defendants are also victims of inequality, in relative terms. Most of them are certainly not poor, as indicated by the fact that the amounts they forwarded to Mr. Singer were often in six figures. They do not, however, fit either of the two categories that would have provided them with guaranteed access to the schools they preferred.

For one, they are not favored alumni. If the parents of a child had attended a prestigious university, and if they had followed that by maintaining a multi-year record of generous alumni donations to strengthen their favored status (i.e., perfectly legal bribes), there would have been no need to funnel illegal bribes through someone like Mr. Singer. The children of favored alumni regularly gain “legacy” entry, bypassing the usual application processes.

There are also some non-alumni families whose children get automatic entry. These are the biggest donors, those who are able to give multi-million-dollar gifts. You can often find out who these families are by looking at the names on buildings on any campus. These are the ultimate bribes, and they, too, are perfectly legal. Also legal is the form of guaranteed affirmative action that such donations provide to a family’s offspring. Unfortunately, the Varsity Blues defendants did not have the financial resources to provide a new lecture hall or weight room to the university of their choice. Yet they knew about the options that were not available to them and some have complained about what they view as injustice. Some also complained about the supposed unfair advantage that affirmative action provides for disadvantaged minorities, but that form of favoritism is hardly comparable to the benefit afforded to the children of big donors.

That doesn’t mean that we should feel any form of empathy for those who are being prosecuted. Like most other families, they did have applied to a wide selection of good universities and had access to the types of legal tools that many other families are using to increase the odds that their sons and daughters can get into the school of their choice. In fact, there are many legal options available to them that aren’t available to less wealthy parents. There are a wide variety of test-prep classes and even individual tutors to help applicants pump up their ACT or SAT scores. College application counselors, for a fee, will help students enhance their resumé and tailor it for specific colleges and will even fill out applications and handle all the paperwork. Students who don’t have to work while they are in high school can volunteer for community service projects and other extracurricular activities that are known to improve an applicant’s standing.

Of course, none of these widely available and legitimate services can provide an absolute guarantee that your child will get into the specific prestigious university that you, or they, want. They merely improve your chances. The Varsity Blues defendants were apparently not willing to ask their children to put in the extra effort that so many others use to strengthen their resumé. They didn’t want to compete on a fair and equitable basis. They wanted certainty and felt they could assure it with a targeted financial contribution. Not only that, they felt they deserved to bypass the system that, while it was indeed biased in favor of the very wealthy, was also weighted in favor of families like theirs.

In the meantime there are true victims whose names we will never know; a number of applicants who followed the rules and were denied the limited number of slots that the children of Varsity Blues occupied. Whatever the outcome of this investigation and the resulting prosecutions, there will be no justice for them.

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