The Justice Department has indicted 33 parents in its college-admissions sting operation, labeled “Operation Varsity Blues.” William Singer, who pleaded guilty to four charges of racketeering and related offenses, allegedly offered services to wealthy parents to get their children into top-ranked universities. This included a scheme to fraudulently boost SAT and ACT scores as well as packaging applicants as athletes, to be offered up (at a price) to coaches willing to get an applicant admitted. Why would rich people do this?
The answer is more complex than rich people merely getting what they want. It involves access to the levers of power.
Consider how certain states have “honors colleges” for high-performing students at in-state tuition prices. An honors college student likely will receive a robust education — a good that some say outweighs an institution’s reputation. However, state honors colleges have little to no clout in the reputation market as they lack the strong alumni networks of a Georgetown or University of Southern California.
An institution’s reputation as a gateway to power has a market value. In classical economic terms, that value is “discovered” by parents and for-profit admissions counselors. For example, according to the Justice Department’s affidavit, one indicted parent paid $275,000 to have her daughter admitted to Georgetown as a tennis athlete. Ergo, the parent discovered Georgetown’s reputation was worth over a quarter-million dollars.
That mother and the other 32 indicted parents were playing catch-up. In pursuing their careers, they didn’t have time to be “tiger” moms or dads.
Tiger parents intensively groom their children for admission at top universities. Their work involves mapping out a child’s activities for every hour of every day during the child’s high school years, or even earlier. These parents know it’s not just about a quality education; it’s about power.
Cello lessons? Check. Lessons in the Laotian language? Check. Summer seminar in STEM for gifted and talented students? Double-check.
On a personal level, I learned what happens when a rich kid lacks tiger parents. About 20 years ago, I was quizzed by a wealthy acquaintance. He wanted to know if his son could get into Harvard. What did the son do over his summer vacations? I asked. Daddy shrugged. Did he know any foreign languages? Spanish, said Daddy. Did he learn that from their housekeeper? Daddy shrugged. Was there anything in the son’s background to catch the eye of an admissions officer? Daddy shrugged, and admitted it was his wife who was pushing for Harvard. The son was rejected by Harvard but admitted to the University of Chicago (as consolation prizes go, it was excellent). Nevertheless, his mother was disappointed.
At its basic level, getting admitted to one of the “name” universities is a game. Tiger parents and the for-profit admissions counselors play to win. But who loses?
Not the rich kids who didn’t get admitted to Georgetown. Their families have deep social connections to other wealthy people. Thus, their children never have to spend a day behind a fast-food counter, or endure the dreaded “entry level” job.
The losers are highly intelligent high school students who aren’t from rich families, and lack a characteristic that checks the “diversity” box.
Their parents can’t afford to pay for cello lessons or services from professional admissions advisers. The parents also might not understand why going to Yale is important.
The stark reality is for every “packaged” student who gains admission to a top institution, there’s another (from an unloved, unwanted zip code) who’s rejected.
Rejections function as a way to keep power within the circle of the wealthy elites. It also reinforces a uniformity of experience. Therefore, it’s not surprising to see undergraduates hew to their parents’ fashionable leftist views.
Bernie Sanders and his bicoastal elite friends can talk about a level playing field and uplifting the unlifted. But when it comes to winning the university admissions game, the elites have rigged the path to power to suit themselves.
Joanne Butler was an international trade specialist at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and at the Foreign Agricultural Service at USDA in the George H.W. Bush administration. In the George W. Bush administration, she was a senior adviser and speechwriter at the Department of Labor.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.