If, like me, you’re an avid observer of human affairs at their most vain and status-crazed, you have been studying the College Cheating Scandal, or what investigators called Operation Varsity Blues, with all the intensity of a rabbinical scholar poring over Leviticus. Each reading yields delicious new details of greed, ambition, hypocrisy, and decadence. “Ah! Vanitas, Vanitatum!” as the author of the classic nineteenth-century novel Vanity Fair sighed. But eventually the mordant fun gives way to the recognition that what we have here is evidence of a serious sickness in the American meritocracy.
The story is well known by now, but before it disappears into the overflowing landfill of tawdry contemporary Americana, some of its more obscure gems deserve a farewell salute. Let’s begin with the master of ceremonies, William “Rick” Singer, owner of a Newport Beach, California college-consulting company. Singer bribed college coaches and staged mockups of his clients’ slacker children at athletic events, sometimes photoshopping their faces onto a picture of actual soccer players or rowers, or, weirdly, pole-vaulters. A 36-year-old Harvard grad, Mark Riddell, could take a standardized test and get an agreed-upon, specific score with the precision of an expert archer. Singer hired him to take or to correct tests for clients whose preliminary scores would put them on the reject pile: Riddell is now Cooperating Witness #2. My favorite bit of chicanery was Singer’s money-laundering operation. To hide the eye-catching sums that he was earning for his ploys—and to give his clients the extra perk of a (legal) tax deduction for their (illegal) contributions—Singer set up the Key Worldwide Foundation, which he advertised as “provid[ing] guidance, encouragement and opportunity to disadvantaged students around the world.” The IRS estimates that Singer earned $25 million for his good works.
The charitable donors are a treasure trove of you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up farce. Jane Buckingham, Beverly Hills mother and businesswoman, paid Singer $50,000 to have Ridell take her son’s ACT for him so that he could score high enough to get into the University of Southern California; Ridell got the boy a 35 out of 36. Earlier in her career, Buckingham had parlayed her expertise as a “youth marketing specialist” into a TV show, Job or No Job, offering millennials career advice. Evidently she forgot what she told an interviewer at the Observer when she described some of the young people who came on her show as “so entitled that you want to slap them.” Another donor was Willkie Farr & Gallagher co-chair Gordon Caplan, named as The American Lawyer’s 2018 Dealmaker of the Year. Also in the lineup are actress Felicity Huffman and her husband William Macy, most recently star of a television series called—will the dark irony never stop?—Shameless. For reasons not entirely clear, Macy has not yet been indicted.
First prize for sheer gall goes to actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion-designer husband Massimo Giannulli. The two paid Singer a half-million to package their daughters as accomplished rowers in order to buy their place in the University of Southern California freshman class, though evidently neither girl knew the difference between a coxswain and an entry on Pornhub. Nor, at least in Olivia’s case, were they thinking much about their course load. As it happens, Olivia spent the first week of school in Fiji. She wasn’t there to visit the renowned libraries of the South Pacific, but for a photo shoot in her role as a “social media influencer.” Using the stage name Olivia Jade, she video-splained to her 1.9 million followers that, while she would be doing a lot of traveling for her career, “I do want the experience of, like, game days, partying. I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.”
A few final, irresistible details about the dewy Loughlin: the actress made her name on the hit sitcom Full House. She played Aunt Becky to the golden-girl Olsen twins. Aunt Becky was supposed to be the show’s moral compass; in one episode, she marched into the office of a preschool admissions director to tell on her husband for lying on his niece’s application. Back in the real world, Loughlin went on to groom her own daughter for a future on the red carpet—witness the Internet photos of the luminous mother and daughter posing at celebrity events and gabbing on The Today Show. It seems unlikely that Olivia Jade could have collected her Sephora, Amazon, and Dolce Gabbana deals on her own; her doting mother was the influencer there. In short, the Hallmark-wholesome Aunt Becky turns out to be a modern-day Becky Sharp.
This kind of arrogance, greed, and ambition has been the stuff of literary satire and philosophical reflection throughout the ages. What sets Operation Varsity Blues apart and caused the public outrage, of course, is its American context. The parents were not seeking riches, fame, or even elite status in any conventional sense: they already had that. Between the two of them, Felicity Huffman and Bill Macy are estimated to be worth $45 million; their daughters would never be lacking in American Express black cards or invitations to friends’ Aspen chalets. Olivia Jade was already on her way to online stardom, at least within her peer group.
No, they were not looking for financial rewards or klieg lights. What they wanted was for their kids to fit in as members of the cognitive elite. Anand Giridharadas, NBC political analyst and fire-and-brimstone scourge of America’s richest, tweeted about the scandal that America’s ruling class “confuses its privilege for merit.” That’s exactly backward. The Operation Varsity parents opened their wallets precisely because they knew their children did not have the right stuff. They wanted elite status for their children, and in a meritocracy, even one as tattered as our own, high SATs and extracurriculars leading to a hoity-toity college degree are the ticket. The parents of Operation Varsity will probably get over the humiliation of a mugshot, but their kids will never live down being outed as meritocratic losers.
Which takes us to the only good news in this whole sordid affair: buying your way into cognitive-elite respectability is trickier than anyone thought. Even if you avoid jail, you are surrounded by people who are expert at sniffing out meritocratic poseurs, namely those with modest IQs. One cautionary example is President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose ticket into Harvard, according to the 2006 book The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges, was his father’s $2.5 million dollar gift to the university. Jared got his Harvard degree, but he has been the butt of social-media taunts precisely because his daddy had to pay a fortune to get the school to admit him. The cost of a brag-worthy degree? Millions. The cost of the right- and left-brain stuff? Priceless.
The current system of college admission doesn’t have many defenders at this point. Everyone knows that it corrupts us all: the high school teachers who feel obliged to inflate the talents of their ordinary students, the therapists selling their professional credentials to parents who want special-disability diagnoses for their healthy kids so that they have extra time to take their exams, the middle-class parents who have neither the funds nor the stomach to violate the law but help create the panic that is driving their kids (and their educators) out of their minds. Worst of all, it demoralizes less-advantaged kids and their parents, who are already tempted toward resentment-filled hopelessness.
For all higher education’s sins, though, there’s no easy way to fix its role in the broken meritocracy. Limit legacies and sports admits? Sure. Look skeptically at résumés filled with service trips to Guatemalan villages and computer camps? Yes, please. But an increasingly high-tech economy will have to reward those who can decipher complicated deals, program robots, and pursue similarly complex cognitive tasks. The challenge is to reduce the prestige and honor attached to those talents and rewards—and to the schools that develop them. Ironically, Operation Varsity Blues may be a step in that direction.
Photo Roberto Michel/iStock