College admissions scam: Affirmative action for the rich and the famous
A Stanford University student walks in front of Hoover Tower on the campus in Palo Alto, Calif. Federal authorities have charged college coaches, parents, and others in a sweeping admissions bribery case in federal court. | Paul Sakuma / AP

The Department of Justice arrested 50 affluent individuals Tuesday morning, in what is being called the “largest college admissions scam” ever prosecuted. Dozens of wealthy parents, including famous actresses Felicity Huffman (Desperate Housewives) and Lori Loughlin (Full House) were charged in an alleged conspiracy to bribe, cheat, and deceive their children’s way into top colleges.

According to a federal criminal complaint, the elaborate conspiracy involved several parents making arrangements to have someone provide answers for the SAT and ACT standardized test. In other cases, bribes were accepted by university coaches as payment for fabricating student’s athletic records.

William “Rick” Singer, the central orchestrator of the scam, was indicted on charges of racketeering, money laundering, defrauding the United States, and obstruction of justice. According to Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, Singer was allegedly paid up to $25 million by parents to help their children get into top schools. And what makes it even worse is the fact that many of these payoffs were funneled through a fake charity Singer had set up, which meant the participants in the scheme were often able to deduct their bribes from their taxes. Privilege compounded.

Although authorities have publicly condemned the actions of those involved in the scam, this particular case of nepotism, wealth, and power being used by the ruling-class in education is not unique. Universities have a long and complex history of upholding classist and racist power structures. Affluence and access to wealth play a crucial role in campus engagement—from participation in fraternity organizations to the quality of dorm room placements.

Despite overwhelming evidence that wealthier applicants have always had a leg up in college admissions, many Black and brown students still feel pressure to validate their place in academia. In addition to the burden of engaging with systems of institutionalized racism and classism, students of color have been outspoken about the microaggressions they face throughout their time as undergraduates. “The thing that really gets me,” says Ph.D. student Jorge J. Rodríguez V, “isn’t that I’m surprised—it’s that students of color work three times as hard as these rich white kids, accomplish three times as much, and are still told we don’t belong or are there only because we’re ‘ethnic’.”

Rodríguez is speaking to the underlying misconception that affirmative action policies award “undeserving” students of a color a space in academia that should go to someone with higher qualifications. Pre-med student Laura (@LauraMariaxO on Twitter) says, “I remember when a girl in my high school told me I only got into college because I’m ‘Latina and poor.’ Yet, here are the white elite using their wealth to diminish any progress affirmative action has attempted to make.” Much like the people that have spoken out online, working-class students of color are continually placed in the compromising position of having to demonstrate their rightful eligibility to attend top-tier universities.

One notable example of this is Abigail Fisher, a white woman who sued the University of Texas after she was denied admissions during an early enrollment process. Fisher alleged that other “less qualified” (non-white) applicants had been admitted under affirmative action guidelines and that she was wrongfully discriminated against. Her lawyers argued that use of race as a consideration in the admissions process violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Ultimately, the district court held that the university’s admissions process was constitutional, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

Although affirmative action policies are intended to promote opportunities and equal access to disenfranchised communities, they are often the topic of heated public debates regarding race and class, privilege and education in the United States. The college admissions scam uncovered by the DOJ is a microcosm of the way in which capitalism shapes our higher education system.

For decades, colleges and universities have allowed wealthy alumni and donors to have considerable influence in and control over their institutions. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner was reportedly admitted into Harvard University after a $2.5 million pledge from his wealthy developer father—a fact that has been downplayed since there was nothing specifically “illegal” about the contribution.

Gregory Abbott, founder and chairman of International Dispensing Corporation, leaves after appearing in federal court in New York on bribery charges, Tuesday, March 12. Abbott is among dozens of people who were charged Tuesday in a scheme in which wealthy parents allegedly bribed college coaches and other insiders to get their children into some of the nation’s most elite schools. | Bebeto Matthews / AP

Wealthy applicants, like Kushner, have historically been awarded advantages in systems of higher education. Even now, there are programs available for students to participate in a four-day “application boot camp.” These pipeline programs include luxuries such as private jet rides to prospective colleges for students whose families can dish up the $43,000 cost.

Every step of the college admissions process has built-in financial barriers—from the standardized testing procedures (the more times you can afford to take it, the higher your score is likely to be) to the preferential treatment of ‘legacy’ applicants (if your parents went to a school, you’re more likely to be admitted). According to The Guardian, the acceptance rate for legacy applicants at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Georgetown, and Stanford is between two and three times higher than the general admission rate. This is just one of the numerous ways in which universities maintain their status as “exclusive” schools.

Details from the college admissions scam are still coming out, but in the meantime, several teachers, parents, test administrators, coaches, admissions officials, and private instructors remain in the hot seat. The FBI and the Department of Justice have yet to identify all co-conspirators in the federal investigation and will continue to make arrests of parties involved in the elite scam.

One positive offshoot of the spotlight now shining on this elaborate fraud is that the general public is now taking a fresh look at the classist (and effectively racist) practices that shape the university admissions process. Now, the whole country can see what working-class kids have known for a long time.


Michelle Zacarias
Michelle Zacarias

Michelle Zacarias was a staff writer at People's World. A graduate of the Univ. of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Zacarias invested her time in raising awareness on issues of social justice and equality. Michelle self identifies as multi-marginalized: as a Latina, a woman of color and a person with disabilities.