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Don’t Blame Rich Kids for the College Admission Scandal

Imagine figuring out, mid-semester, that your parents committed fraud to get you into your dream school. Not a great feeling.

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On Tuesday, March 12th, Andrew Lelling, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts revealed charges against 50 active participants in a scheme to game admission into elite schools, including Yale and USC. Charges were brought against 33 parents, one college admissions exam proctor, two ACT/SAT proctors and one college administrator, and nine NCAA coaches. The scam, which actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman took part in, worked in a few ways, but basically involved getting children extra time on the SAT or ACT, falsifying scores, and falsifying athletic recruitment materials to take advantage of secured admission spots. In some cases, kids were active participants in the scam. In others, they were unwitting accomplices.

As the sun rises on day two of this scandal, which will receive endless ink thanks to schadenfreude and morbid curiosity, it’s worth considering just how damaging this must be for the children of implicated parents.

Elisabeth Kimmel, the owner of Midwest Television, Inc, secured her daughter’s athletic recruitment to Georgetown as a tennis player and her son’s athletic recruitment to USC as a track athlete. Neither of her children played those sports and neither of them knew what their mother had gone so far as to use photoshop to falsify photographic evidence of athletic talent. Because Kimmel sent the transcript to the National College Athletic Association, neither Thomas nor Thomas’s high school counselor knew what was going on.

When Thomas Kimmel arrived on campus, he was asked about joining the track team. Understandably, he found this very confusing. Now he doesn’t. Now he knows what happened. And it must be terrible for him. He may be wealthy, but he’s a kid and still very much deserving of empathy. Imagine learning several months into your first semester at your dream school that your mother committed a felony to get you in. Imagine being terribly proud and then feeling terrible. That would be awful.

In the federal report, one parent complained about his daughter to the main cooperating witness over the phone. She had wanted to retake the ACT until she got a coveted 34. Annoyed, her father spoke to the main cooperating witness and suggested that her scores get cooked, saying, “She’s fucking driving me nuts… I just want this one done.”

That story seems particularly tragic given that the daughter was more than willing to put in the work, and that the dad could afford to pay for it.

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As the scandal unfolds, it’s clear that there really are no winners here (other than, arguably, federal prosecutors looking for a resume line). But there are big losers. Those are the kids who were scammed by their overeager parents and the kids whose spots were taken by the underqualified children of the corrupt. The kids scammed by their parents are learning a violent, public lesson about their privilege and about their parents conditional support that will be hard to come back from. The kids who were passed over in favor of a quick buck don’t know who they are, but anyone rejected by the named institutions either already knew or learned a lesson about privilege and what it means to be locked out.

The inevitable question being asked is this: Why didn’t these parents just donate a $2.5 million library to Harvard like Jared Kushner’s parents? The answer is fairly obvious. These folks thought they were getting a good deal. And they were right. To no small degree, admission to elite colleges can always be purchased. The price of extracurriculars and extra time and extra stabs at entrance exams add up. The wealthy are massively advantaged in the process. The difference was that the scam offered a guarantee rather than nudge and wink. Arguably, it was a steal at the price.

But it was a bad deal for the kids, who assumed too much risk. Even the complicit ones got sold a rotten deal by rotten scammers.

Did Thomas Kimmel need to go to USC? Nope. He would have been fine at UC Santa Cruz. He didn’t ask for this and probably doesn’t deserve flack for it. His mother committed fraud — that doesn’t make him one. The college scam story is not, ultimately, a story about children. It’s a story about parents and profiteers. It’s a story about the cost of refusing to play on a level playing field, which turned out to be considerably higher than anyone thought.