When law enforcement officials announced Tuesday that they’d charged about 50 parents, counselors, standardized test score administrators and college coaches in what they described as the “largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice,” they portrayed the arrests as an antidote to the influence of wealth in the college admissions process.

Andrew Lelling, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, described the parents involved in the case as “a catalogue of wealth and privilege,” during a news conference Tuesday, noting that they turned to fraud, despite “already being able to give their children every legitimate advantage” in the college process. Those parents included actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman.

Hafeez Lakhani, a New York-based college coach, remembers at least three occasions where he’s been asked for help to cheat the system. He tells them: ’You’re talking to the wrong guy.’

The parents in this case allegedly paid between $15,000 and $75,000 to a college counselor, William Rick Singer, to facilitate someone taking a standardized test on their child’s behalf. In addition, parents paid Singer a total of $25 million between 2011 and 2018 to bribe coaches and administrators to place their children in preferred admissions categories, like recruited athlete, essentially guaranteeing they’d get into the schools, according to court documents.

Summing up the allegations, Lelling told reporters “there can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy.” (The elite colleges named in the FBI case were not accused of any wrongdoing.)

But even if those charged in the case, which include famous actors as well as chief executive officers and other high level executives, face consequences for allegedly using bribes to get their children into elite colleges, experts say money still confers an advantage in the college-going process.

That puts the ability of our colleges to act as engines of economic mobility at risk, said Mark Huelsman, the associate director of research and policy at Demos, a left-leaning think tank.

Though the alleged tactics described in court documents are unethical, experts say they represent a logical extension of a culture that’s so focused on earning a spot at a top college and will deploy all of their resources to get it.

“Wealth overhangs the entirety of our higher education system,” Huelsman said. Though elite colleges with the most resources are becoming more economically and racially diverse, they still educate a small share of the nation’s low-income students. Those students are more likely to end up at colleges that struggle more to get them to and through school, instead of gaining access to institutions — which we often believe accrues through merit — that can be transformative economically and otherwise.

Wealthy parents can tip the scales of meritocracy, said Anand Giridharadas, the author of Winners Take All, a book criticizing the wealthy’s approach to philanthropy.

The people charged in this case, allegedly decided that, “despite the unfair societal advantage their children had, they were not even going to be able to hack it on the rigged meritocracy working so heavily in their favor,” he added.

The explicit, but legal role, money can play in the college process

A donation to a university from a relative or close friend can play a role in a student’s chances of getting in. That relationship came under renewed scrutiny last year during a lawsuit accusing Harvard University of discriminating against Asian-Americans in admissions.

Emails unearthed as part of the case revealed discussions between Harvard’s dean of admissions and other officials regarding philanthropy associated with certain applicants.

A donation to a university from a relative or close friend can help a student. That relationship came under renewed scrutiny last year during a lawsuit accusing Harvard University of discriminating against Asian-Americans in admissions.

Singer, the college counselor charged in the latest FBI case, alluded to the relationship between donations and admissions as part of his pitch to clients. He described his approach as a “side door,” into colleges, that offered a better shot at admission than the “front door” — a student getting in on his or her own merit — or the “back door,” using donations to curry favor, according to court documents.

“When you go through institutional advancement, as you know, everybody’s got a friend of a friend, who knows somebody who knows somebody but there’s no guarantee, they’re just gonna give you a second look,” Singer allegedly told a prospective client. “My families want a guarantee.”

Subtle ways of getting a leg up

Of course few families have the means or even the inclination to use a major donation to give their kid a shot a top college. But wealth gives prospective students a leg up in other ways too.

For one, students from wealthier families are more likely to have access to the types of well-resourced schools, whether public or private, that can prepare students for admission into an elite college.

Of course few families have the means or even the inclination to use a major donation to give their kid a shot a top college. But wealth gives prospective students a leg up in other ways too.

In addition, admissions officers have all sorts of preferences that may be subtly influenced by wealth, said David Hawkins, the executive director for Educational Content and Policy at National Association for College Admission Counseling, which counts high school counselors and college admissions officers as its members.

High schools with a tradition of sending a lot of students to a particular college may have a better relationship with that admissions office than schools that don’t have the resources to create that type of relationship, Hawkins said. A student’s demonstrated level of interest in a school can also play a role in whether they’re admitted and one way college officials measure is by visits — something low-income students can’t always afford to do.

Students whose parents or grandparents attending a college also often reap an admissions advantage. Given that in the past higher education institutions have largely been bastions of the elite, wealthier families are more likely to have generations of alumni from the same college.

Of course, families with the means can afford to pay for help preparing for standardized tests or independent college counselors that can help give them a leg up.

Of course, families with the means can pay for help preparing for standardized tests or independent college counselors that can help give them a leg up. Though the alleged tactics described in court documents are “extreme and unethical,” to Hawkins they represent a logical extension of a culture that is so focused on earning a spot at a top college and will deploy all of their resources to get it.

“My reaction based on 20 years of working with our members is that this is a real case study in the commodification of college admissions,” Hawkins said. He added, “People are willing to go to extreme financial lengths to acquire these goods.”

‘Worst-kept secret’

The confusion and lack of transparency surrounding what it takes to get into an elite school may be part of the reason families are so eager to get an edge and the case will only add to the lack of trust students and parents may have in college admissions, said Anna Ivey, a college and law school admission consultant and the former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago’s law school.

Ivey knows the lengths families will go to get their kid into college intimately — as a college consultant, she gets inquiries from time to time asking for help facilitating influential donations. “We decline,” she says.

Hafeez Lakhani, a New York-based college coach, remembers at least three occasions where he’s been asked for help to cheat the system. He tells them: ’You’re talking to the wrong guy.’

Hafeez Lakhani, a New York City-based college coach, said he can remember at least three occasions where he’s been approached asking for help cheating the system. He tells them: “You’re talking to the wrong guy.” When the charges were announced Tuesday, Lakhani said he “wasn’t terribly surprised.”

Andy Lockwood, a Long Island, N.Y.-based college and financial-aid counselor put it more bluntly. “This is the worst-kept secret in college admissions,” he said. Lockwood estimates that prospective clients ask him about a dozen times a year whether he has any “backdoor” connections before they hire him. He tells him he doesn’t.

“Everyone knows there’s a whole pay-to-play system in place for college admissions, for jobs, if a Congressman gets elected,” he said. “This is just an extension of that.”

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