On Tuesday, dozens of parents were among 50 people charged with participation in a widespread college admissions scam. The parents ― who included famous actors, financial leaders and other successful business people ― allegedly were part of a scheme in which athletic coaches and exam proctors were bribed to get an illegal leg-up for their children, even after the kids had gotten the advantages of a privileged upbringing.
These parents broke the law, according to federal prosecutors.
But the wealthiest of families in the U.S. can rely on multiple legal ways to buy their children into college, even as universities continue to market themselves as meritocracies ― a selling point that long has been an essential part of perpetuating the American dream.
There’s the donate-a-ton-of-cash-to-a-fancy-college route, just like Jared Kushner’s dad did for him by pledging $2.5 million to Harvard University. Or there’s the cottage industry of boutique services for students ― extra tutors, essay coaches and interview prep professionals – designed to help the elite get their kids into Ivy League schools and other prestigious colleges.
“People believe the meritocracy is real and they want to participate in it,” said Tressie McMillan Cottom, who has studied and researched access to higher education. But compared with the upper hand enjoyed by the upper classes, low-income and working-class families aren’t even close to competing on an even playing field, she said.
One New York-based college consultancy firm, Ivy Coach, charges up to $1.5 million for its most advanced package, according to Brian Taylor, the company’s managing director. Marketed as a concierge service that helps students apply to up to 20 schools, it is “the ultimate level of continuous personal attention to every detail,” according to the company’s website.
Taylor said he recognizes that the college admissions process is certainly a game. The parents charged in Tuesday’s indictment allegedly made the mistake of operating outside the legally acceptable rules.
Instead of paying for test prep, they are accused of paying for a test proctor to fix incorrect answers their children gave in entrance exams. Instead of paying to shuttle their kid from one extracurricular activity to another, they are accused of paying college coaches to create a fake spot on a team for a sport their kids didn’t even play.
In the process, these alleged schemes reveal greater truths about the college admissions horse race.
“It’s a totally unfair system and we help students beat an unfair system at an unfair game,” Taylor said. “We do so ethically, though.”
“People with the means to do so will pay for specialized knowledge that is not democratically available.”
The machinations that give powerful people access to exclusive colleges usually occur outside the public spotlight. Tuesday’s indictments break wide open the false promise of equal access to higher education ― exposing the bag of goods so much of the public was sold about why people succeed, according to Cottom, an assistant professor at sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The internet has only further stratified the system. It was supposed to democratize access to information about elite institutions. But these schools aren’t accepting more students as more students apply. In turn, people with money are taking greater steps to get a big edge.
“People with the means to do so will pay for specialized knowledge that is not democratically available,” said Cottom, author of Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy.
While lawsuits threaten to overturn affirmative action ― one of the systems that does help low-income students gain access to distinguished colleges ― no signs are evident that colleges will end any of the processes that help people of privilege, like legacy admission advantages.
Bari Norman, co-founder and president of Expert Admissions, a college admissions counseling agency, said she hopes Tuesday’s indictments serve as a wake-up call for colleges, signaling that the current system is broken. She told HuffPost she suspects admissions officers are now having difficult conversations about the type of environment that fostered the breadth of the alleged cheating ― and what type of system created such apparently desperate parents.
But she remains pessimistic that any big changes will result.
Her company helps students pick classes and extracurriculars in high school to best position themselves for the admissions process. The company usually starts working with students their sophomore or junior year of high school, although in some cases even earlier.
Norman wouldn’t say how much her company charges for its services, and she noted that they sometimes work pro bono.
But at Ivy Coach, they’re upfront about their sky-high prices.
It’s a fee that the company makes “no apologies for,” according to its website.
Taylor said the admissions business operates within a free-market economy. The fees his company charge result in expert advice that helps students optimize their chances for admission to a top-notch school.
“We take no issue with any company that charges high fees. We take absolute issue with companies bribing college coaches or college admissions officers,” he wrote in an email. “Don’t cheat on the SAT or ACT. Hire an outstanding tutor ― who may very well cost a whole lot of money ― to help your child improve his or her score tremendously.”