The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The rich have always had a leg up in college admissions. How different, then, is this new scandal?

Georgetown University was one of the schools targeted in a college admissions scam. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Rich people paying for their children to get into elite colleges and universities college isn’t exactly new. It’s no big secret that America’s wealthy have used their power, influence and money to win a leg up when it comes to college admissions.

That may explain why there was outrage, although not unmitigated surprise, that the federal government had charged dozens of people in a massive college admissions bribery scheme, two Hollywood actors included.

The details, however, were shocking. The massive criminal complaint made public Tuesday tells stories of bribery, phony test scores, made-up résumés and superimposed photos to “prove” that applicants are athletes when they aren’t. At least one of the cooperating witnesses in the case pleaded guilty to a number of serious federal charges, including racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice. That sets this scandal apart.

College students: Do you think the college admissions process is fair?

But there is no question that rich people win the college admissions contest in ways many other people who can’t think isn’t fair. They donate or promise to give big bucks if their children get into school. They spend money on tutors and overseas trips. Then there are the life advantages conferred by wealth: elite medical and psychological care, safe home environments and other things students from low-income families don’t have.

The scandal ensnared Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin as well as wealthy business executives who some might have thought didn’t need more than they already had to get their children into school. What this shows, according to Anand Giridharadas, journalist and author of the book “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” is that even traditional preference isn’t enough anymore for the rich.

He tweeted: “The crux of the college scandal: Many rich Americans are no longer content with the generalized rigging of America in their favor. They want extra, private, bottle-service, bespoke rigging, over and above the unfair advantages they’re forced to share with other rich people.”

Journalist Daniel Golden detailed how the rich buy their children’s way into school in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series for the Wall Street Journal and a 2006 book, “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.” He details how, for example, Harrison Frist and Al Gore III got into elite colleges without remarkable academic records, and then writes:

Like Harrison Frist and Al Gore III, thousands of wealthy, well-connected applicants slide into elite colleges each year with little regard to merit or diversity. They benefit instead from what I call the preferences of privilege. Although how-to-get-into college books, college night recruiters, and college administrators ignore or downplay their importance, the preferences of privilege aren’t just pivotal in close calls. They routinely allow an academically weak applicant to leap over a strong one and can represent an admissions boost equivalent to hundreds of SAT points at Ivy League schools and other elite colleges. The children of wealth and influence occupy so many slots that the admissions odds against middle-class and working-class students with outstanding records are even longer than the colleges acknowledge. . . .
Even as admission has become increasingly competitive in recent years, premier universities still extend preference to alumni children. Children whose parents have given big money in the past or are likely to pony up upon admission are ushered to the lead of the line. At nearly all top universities, the fund-raising office furnishes admissions with a list of these “development cases,” who are often accepted even if they rank near the bottom of their high school classes or have SAT scores 300-400 points below some rejected applicants. University presidents generally have a right-hand man, from Joel Fleishman at Duke to the late David Zucconi at Brown, whose role, whatever his title, is to gratify key donors and alumni, including facilitating the admission of their children.

In 2016, Golden wrote a piece for ProPublica, co-published with the Guardian, about President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, that said in part:

Trump’s influential son-in-law went to Harvard. Is this how Jared Kushner got in?

My book exposed a grubby secret of American higher education: that the rich buy their under-achieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations. It reported that New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998, not long before his son Jared was admitted to the prestigious Ivy League school. At the time, Harvard accepted about one of every nine applicants. (Nowadays, it only takes one out of twenty.)
I also quoted administrators at Jared’s high school, who described him as a less than stellar student and expressed dismay at Harvard’s decision. “There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,” a former official at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey, told me. “His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not.”
Risa Heller, a spokeswoman for Kushner Companies, said in an email . . . that “the allegation” that Charles Kushner’s gift to Harvard was related to Jared’s admission “is and always has been false.”