Another One Bites the Dust - the Last Varsity Blues Case Results in Jail

AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File

The Varsity Blues college admission scandal officially came to a close on Friday, April 8, when a jury convicted professional test taker Mark Riddell, who was then sentenced to a four-month stint in federal prison. He was also ordered to forfeit $240,000 of his ill-gotten gains. Meanwhile, a since-fired USC coach was convicted on three counts of fraud and bribery in the same imbroglio.

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The scandal erupted in 2019, when it was revealed that rich entitled parents were buying access to preferable admissions outcomes through bribery, fraud, or by any means necessary. US Attorney for Massachusetts Rachael Rollins summed it up thusly:

“To say the conduct in this case was reprehensible is an understatement,” Rollins said afterward, acknowledging the sprawling investigation preceded her taking office earlier this year. “The rich, powerful and famous — dripping with privilege and entitlement — used their money and clout to steal college admissions spots from more qualified and deserving students.

What shocked myself and many others about this scandal was not that the rich and powerful were using their elite status to gain an advantage in the admissions process — it was the brazenness of their manipulations. We all instinctively know that the elite have an advantage when trying to gain admission into college — in fact, there’s even a name for it: “legacy.” Legacy admission is when you are given preferential status because you’re the offspring of someone who has previously attended the college. Think it doesn’t matter? The Boston Globe estimates you are six times more likely to gain admission to Harvard if you are a legacy application.

Not a legacy admit? Just get mom or dad to pony up to fund a new building or endowment, and you’re probably good to go.

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I spoke to an admissions officer at a party once (full disclosure: I know some of the families who were involved in this case), and while he would certainly never go on record, he said bidding starts at about $500,000. That’s not enough to get you in, but you will be considered more favorably. One million really increases your chances. Ten million and you can start packing your bags for orientation.

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Universities are backing away from these policies because it’s not a good look in the Age of Equity. Democratic representatives in Congress have even brought up a bill to ban legacy admissions altogether.

Another dirty little secret this episode has uncovered: NCAA III Division athletics. At a college admissions presentation I once attended, the speaker gave a long presentation about all the achievements, extra-curricular activities and so on that you would need to have a chance at a top college. She finished by saying, “By the way, if you’re a recruited athlete, ignore everything I just said.”  Want to get into Harvard or Stanford? Take up sailing, or buy a horse and train for the equestrian team. You won’t get a scholarship like you would if you were a top-ranked Division I football player, but you will definitely have a better chance of getting in.

To circle back like Jen Psaki, it’s the audacity of the Varsity Blues participants that is so shocking. Actress Lori Laughlin and her designer husband Mossimo Giannulli certainly could have dropped $500,000 on a USC donation, but instead, they dressed up their daughters in crew outfits, claimed they were top rowers, and even comically had photos taken of them on a rowing machine. Both daughters were admitted. Also making Hollywood look good was actress Felicity Huffman, who secretly had someone else take her daughter’s standardized test — without telling said daughter.

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Why did Loughlin, Huffman and so many others resort to cheating when they could have afforded the old-fashioned way of donating, or God forbid, actually earning their way in? It’s because they think of themselves as even more elite than the regular elite — a sort of Super-Elite class if you will. It never occurred to them that they would get caught, or face consequences.

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