My friends can't stop talking about it, and for good reason. Operation Varsity Blues has all the makings of a soap opera. Money. Deceit. Celebrities. But unlike a Netflix series, the college bribery scandal involves real people accused of committing real crimes with the threat of real consequences.
Last week federal prosecutors in Boston charged 33 parents and 13 coaches with gaming the college admissions system by offering bribes to coaches, paying for others to take entrance exams for their children or making sure proctors corrected answers on those exams -- all to guarantee admission into elite colleges. Some parents even doctored photos to prove their kids participated in a competitive sport. So, yes, the fraud as described in the indictment was shocking. As were the names attached to the scheme , most notably that of actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman as well as well-known real estate developers, lawyers and retired chief executives. The FBI also has said there will be more indictments in what is being referred to as the "largest admittance scam" investigated by the Department of Justice.
But something beyond the numbers and the eye-opening list of famous names has captured our fragmented attention. On so many levels the scam speaks to all that is wrong with the college admission process, with youth sports, standardized testing and modern parenting. Once again it confirms what we all know, that the idea of a level playing field is a con and that the rich can buy their way anywhere, not just elite ivory towers.
Still, what's difficult for us plebeians to understand is why people with ships full of privilege would resort to criminal activity when there are so many legal ways to guarantee a spot in college. Fair or not, well-to-do families have been spending large chunks of change to open doors for their kids for decades. And some of those avenues are even tax deductible!
For instance, the 2006 book "The Price of Admission" tracked how the father of Jared Kushner, current aide and son-in-law to the president, pledged a $2.5 million donation to Harvard in 1998, just before his son, a lackluster student with middling grades and mediocre SAT scores, got admitted to the Ivy League school. It also detailed how the sons of former vice-president Al Gore benefitted from the influence of their powerful family.
And here's another example: Donald Trump transferred to the prestigious University of Pennsylvania with the help of a Wharton Business School admissions officer who was friends with his older brother.
Truth is, it's not only the uber-rich who can grease their kids' admission into prestigious schools. The "professional class," those of us with disposable income and a decent salary, can hire SAT tutors, pay for sports coaches and use our business contacts to provide kids with impressive internships and experiences -- all advantages poor and working class parents can't afford. I know of one former English teacher who quit her job because she could make more money charging $95 an hour as a college essay tutor. She had a waiting list too.
In the end, our fascination with Operation Varsity Blues is really about our own inner struggle with how far we as parents will go to ensure a rosy (and sometimes undeserved) future for our children. Do we write their science report for them? Do we rescue them from punishment? Do we justify their sense of entitlement? Do we ignore the fact that our money and connections mean another child, perhaps one with more merit, won't get the spot we've taken for our kid? Do we commit a crime?
According to the Operation Varsity Blue indictments, most of the students who reaped the bribery rewards didn't know about it. Now they certainly do. They know it was cheating, not hard work or brilliance, that got them in. They know their classmates are mocking them, both publicly and privately. And they know, devastatingly so, that in an effort to stroke their egos and claim bragging rights, their parents instead delivered a very different message: On their own they simply weren't good enough.
(Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.)
(c) 2019, Ana Veciana-Suarez. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.