Thursday, July 18, 2024

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Merit. Schmerit. College. Schmollege.

The worst part of the cheating scandal was not that the parents paid to cheat, but that they took pains to ensure their children didn’t know they’d won the golden ticket through devious means.

For a second, I thought it was a case of life imitating fiction, when I thought I saw Edie Falco—always Carmela Soprano to me— flashed across my laptop screen, alongside the wholesome lady from Full House. The headline with their pictures read “Actresses charged in college fraud scheme.”

One of the most chilling moments in the eighty-six episodes of The Sopranos was the moment when Carmela places an envelope containing the grades and SAT scores of her daughter on the desk of an attorney she’s requested write the girl a recommendation letter to Georgetown. As the bemused attorney utters her final, adamant refusal to do so, Carmela gently lays the envelope on top of the homemade pie she’s also brought, offers a meaningful look, and states firmly, “Thank you for doing this.”

Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, nabbed in the college admissions scandal.

But of course it was not Carmela arrested; it was an actress who somewhat resembles her, Felicity Huffman. I’ve read through, on a dozen or news and gossip outlets, why Huffman and Lori Loughlin and forty two other people were charged, not with the kneecapping Carmela might have enlisted Tony to resort to for the sake of giving their baby Georgetown, but with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and honest services fraud for the same ends.

Loughlin and Huffman, along with nearly three dozen other anxious, wealthy parents around the country, are charged with participating in fraud schemes cooked up by William “Rick” Singer, founder of The Edge College & Career Network. In 2012 he set up the Key Worldwide Foundation, an actual 501c3 organization through which he funneled payments and bribes to such people as Jorge Salcedo, head soccer coach (now on leave) of UCLA. Salcedo’s front was called Princeville Enterprises. According to the Foundation’s 2016 tax filing, a $100,000 “donation” was made to one Princeville Enterprises of Los Angeles.

(The nonprofit status enabled the parents to take a do-gooder tax deduction since the Foundation promised that “no goods or services were received in exchange for this donation.” Thus, the honest services fraud charge.)

There were two threads to the schemes. In the case of Olivia Jade Giannulli, Lori Loughlin’s daughter, it appears they submitted to the University of Southern California photos of her on a rowing machine, though she had never been on a crew team. (Other schemes involved photoshopping pics of the non-athlete cheaters onto the bodies of real athletes.) The relevant coach received a bribe to convince his or her colleagues to accept the student as a recruited athlete.

William ‘Rick’ Singer,

The second scheme was the one in which Huffman’s daughter was apparently snared. Huffman paid $15,000 to Singer to have him help her pretend her daughter had a learning disability that would entitle her to extended time to take the SAT. Then, at the special test-taking facility, the two College Board officials on Singer’s payroll would change answers to achieve whatever score the parents requested. (Singer’s co-conspirator, Mark Riddell, was apparently capable of achieving any SAT score at will. Lucrative trick.)

I feel oddly bereft of the schadenfreude I thought would be forthcoming from watching the rich and famous crumble. Well, I feel a little joy, but also a twinge of pity, for the kids. Mom and Dad paid big money to pave their kid’s way onto an illicit road to the land of….what? What exactly is the prize they were willing to lie, cheat and steal for? It’s not the security of a decent living. They’re already set for life.

It is, for the most part, not the case that the best schools equate to the best jobs. (The exceptions are for low-income students who attend the most selective institutions.) I’m no longer even convinced that, broadly speaking, good schools equate to good jobs. Look up “growth industries 2019” on Google and you’ll find that fifteen of the top twenty areas listed by MSN Money don’t even appear to require a college degree. Eight alone relate to construction and the related trades. If these parents’ concerns related to their children’s employment potential, perhaps they ought to bypass the selective college field entirely, and seek out instead the best training program for plumbers.

University of Southern California campus.

So getting back to the alleged criminals, if their crimes have got nothing to do with making sure their kids will end up gainfully employed, what’s it about? Well, of course, it’s the YALE bumper sticker to decorate the YALE-worthy car, it’s the attendant illusion of value, it’s aligning yourself with a high end brand, it’s a badge. Lori Loughlin’s husband, Mossimo Gianniulli, was not concerned that his daughter was struggling with academic high school work, but that the culmination of her struggle would be an association with Arizona State University, rather than USC. (Is there really such a difference? How does USC earn a high-end status? Top of the line landscaping and avoidance of cinder block construction?) It’s one more way to convince yourself that the wealthier you are, the more perfect your life should be.

But what the mega-rich have in as short a supply as the rest of us, or maybe shorter, is faith. We just don’t believe that our young adults can be trusted to figure things out for themselves. The worst part of the cheating scandal was not that the parents paid to cheat, but that they took pains to ensure their child didn’t know they’d won the golden ticket through devious means. If the kids think it’s all about merit, they can be made to believe they’re really as smart as the smartest. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me into a school whose standards I don’t meet, shame on everyone. How condescending, to cut a young person’s legs out from under them just when they, in the natural course of things, ought to be learning how to stand on them alone, to figure out in what ways they’re unique. There are a thousand ways to be smart, but the cruel, limiting world of 1600 or bust SAT scores discounts all of that.

Olivia Jade Giannulli, at left, with her mother, Lori Louglin.

So yes, I do feel badly for those rich kids, especially for Lori Loughlin’s daughter Olivia Jade, the YouTube influencer, probably because she’s the only one pouring her heart out online. She should have been left to pursue her life of non-academic influencing, without making USC into a (mostly) unwitting business partner. On the Zach Sang Show podcast, where Olivia Jade was recently interviewed, she admitted it was her two parents, neither of whom had been to college themselves, who wanted it for her. As for her interests, she said, “I have a strong passion for makeup and fashion.” Great, girl. Follow your passions. You don’t need college for those.

New York Times reporters on The Daily from March 14th, “If you believe that education, a college education specifically, is the great equalizer, or can be the great equalizer of our country, what this shows you is that system is completely broken.”

I say, while we’re acknowledging that the system is broken, let’s also acknowledge that we have no reason to believe that college is the great equalizer.


The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.

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