Op-Ed: Money Trumps Merit in College Admissions

Cartoon illustration by Jennifer Ngo ’22.

Federal prosecutors have charged over fifty people in the sweeping college admissions scandal, dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” upsetting the world of higher education.

The ringleader of the scheme is William Singer, a renowned figure in the college counseling business for three decades, who helped wealthy parents secure spots for their children at elite universities. Much of the money that clients paid was disguised as non-profit donations, so that families could claim undeserved tax deductions.

According to The New York Times, actress Lori Loughlin and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli allegedly paid Singer $500,000 to disguise their daughters as crew team recruits at the University of Southern California, which has a low 11 percent acceptance rate. The couple maintains their innocence, despite facing counts of conspiracy to commit fraud and money laundering conspiracy, which could land them in prison for up to forty years.

As People reports, Loughlin is refusing to plead guilty because she believes she is blameless.

“It’s just taking some time for it to sink in that what she was allegedly doing could be considered illegal,” said a source close to the defendant. “From the beginning, she didn’t want to take a deal, because she felt that she hadn’t done anything that any mom wouldn’t have done, if they had the means to do so. So this wasn’t her being obstinate; this was her truly not understanding the seriousness of the allegations.”

Singer himself has pled guilty to a host of charges, including racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice.

Loughlin has maintained a calm outward appearance, even signing autographs before entering the courtroom.

Her daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli, a popular social media influencer, was dropped from a sponsorship with the makeup company Sephora, and along with her sister, is blocked from registering for classes at USC. On her Instagram, Jade posted a photo of herself flipping off the camera, tagging several media outlets in the caption.

College athletic coaches across the country accepted millions in bribes to admit students as false recruits. The New York Times further reports that the Stanford sailing coach, the UCLA mens’ soccer coach, and the Wake Forest womens’ volleyball coach, among others, were all placed on leave or fired. Parents went so far as to photoshop their children’s faces onto athletes’ bodies and add false achievements to their résumés.

Another famous parent implicated is Felicity Huffman, who admitted to paying a test proctor $15,000 to falsify her daughter’s SAT score, which jumped to 1420 out of 1600—400 points higher than her PSAT score.

According to NBC News, the “Desperate Housewives” star was sentenced to 14 days in prison, a $30,000 fine, and 250 hours of community service. In a move that faced widespread criticism, she was released after serving just 11 days at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California.

Huffman maintains that her daughter was unaware of her illegal actions at the time, releasing an emotional public statement before she pled guilty.

“I am ashamed of the pain I have caused my daughter, my family, my friends, my colleagues, and the educational community,” Huffman said. “I want to apologize to them and, especially, I want to apologize to the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.”

Singer helped countless people pull off test score fraud. He encouraged several parents to secure an unwarranted learning disability waiver, which allows for extra time on exams.

The largest reported payment to Singer came from Chinese pharmaceutical billionaires, who shelled out $6.5 million to get their daughter, Yusi Zhao, into Stanford. Nevertheless, in a video posted online, Zhao asserts that she was admitted to the college through her own “hard work.”

The family’s lawyer has painted the Zhaos as victims of Singer’s scheme, arguing that Mrs. Zhao intended the money to be a donation to the university. As of now, no charges have been brought against the family, but Zhao has been expelled from Stanford.

In response to the scandal, Stanford students Erica Olsen and Kalea Woods filed a federal class-action suit on behalf of “qualified, rejected” students, implicating eight colleges.

In addition to citing the unfair admissions process, their federal complaint alleges that Olsen’s “degree is now not worth as much as it was before, because prospective employers may now question whether she was admitted to the university on her own merits, versus having parents who were willing to bribe school officials.”

I am happy to see that the corruption that pervades higher education is being exposed. As a college-bound high school senior, I was especially enraged by the scandal. My peers and I work hard to earn our grades and test scores, so it was disheartening to see money triumph over merit.

Most of the families involved in the scandal are wealthy and white. With these privileges, they already have access to services like SAT and ACT tutoring and private admissions counseling, which can cost thousands of dollars. Resorting to bribery and dishonesty is both unnecessary and immoral.

We may never live in a true meritocracy, but these lawsuits are a first step towards a more equitable future. As long as we continue to strive for equal opportunity, I have faith that we can enter a new era of educational justice.

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