In August 2018, YouTube personality Olivia Jade Giannulli published a video answering fan questions about college. Giannulli said, “I do want the experience of like, game days, partying…I don’t really care about school” (TODAY 0:26-0:34). However, her mother, Lori Laughlin, was one of fifty celebrities and CEOs caught in an elaborate college admissions scam dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues.” In what the US Attorney’s Office calls “the largest such matter prosecuted in the United States to date,” wealthy parents paid large sums of money to bribe their children’s way into elite American universities (Elfman 2019, 1). Inherited wealth is a source of inequality in the American education system because it ensures that the children of upper-class parents have better access to elite institutions, regardless of the children’s intelligence or abilities. Rather than giving these spots to qualified, lower-class students, enrollment in American universities is sometimes given to students whose parents have the connections and funds to bribe their way in. The 2019 “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal is a contemporary example of this issue.

The prospect of wealthy parents using their resources to help their children succeed in school is not new. Elite parents are able to provide their children with SAT tutoring, private college counsellors, and life experiences that bolster their application essays (Ferguson 2019, 72; Heller 2019, 4). Elites are often able to be highly involved in their children’s schooling, whether that means arguing to place their child in their preferred teacher’s classroom or doing their children’s homework (Pirtle 2019). Wealthy parents can also secure spots at selective colleges for their children by taking advantage of “legacy” admissions or making big donations to the school in question (Heller 2019, 4). While these methods of persuasion are indeed sources of inequality, they are perfectly legal. However, the fifty people charged in the Varsity Blues scandal crossed the line into illegality by using bribes and altered test scores to get their children into the universities of their choice (Ferguson 2019, 72).

According to Timothy O’Brien (2019), college coaches accepted monetary rewards in exchange for awarding athletic scholarships to wealthy students. The moment that the admissions process became compromised was when these coaches “exercised their authority to allow prospective students—who were actually never going to become student-athletes—to be processed under the athletics-based preference system” (O’Brien 2019, 3). In comparison to the legal resources used by many middle- and upper-class parents to give their children a hand in the admissions process, the methods used by the parents in the Varsity Blues scandal were secretive and illegal. Shamus Rahman Khan (2012) defines elites as “those with vastly disproportionate control over or access to a resource” that gives them advantages over others (361). In the case of the 2019 scandal, those who were involved used their money—as well as their connections to William “Rick” Singer—to get their children into the universities of their choosing. Singer ran a college preparation business that consisted of paying professionals to take SAT and ACT exams on the child’s behalf and bribing coaches to recruit applicants as potential student-athletes, despite having no experience in those sports (Elfman 2019, 1). It was the wealthy parents’ “connections at the highest levels” that allowed them to gain access to Singer’s cheating scheme (Balingit, Svrulga, and Yahr 2019). Lower-class parents, in contrast, lack both the social connections and economic status to know about and participate in such schemes.

The reason why admissions inequality is so persistent is not because elite parents are unaware of the consequences their actions have on lower-class children. Sociologist Margaret Hagerman defines “the conundrum of privilege” as parents doing whatever they can to give their own children the greatest chance of success, “despite knowing that doing the best for their children often means leaving other children, often low-income students or students of colour, with fewer opportunities” (Pirtle 2019).

Elite parents know that they are leaving other students with fewer opportunities when they cheat or bribe on their children’s behalf, but they still choose not to change their behaviour. Privileged parents contribute to educational disparities “when they hoard educational opportunities for their already privileged children” (Pirtle 2019). As a result, students who do not have wealthy parents to support them are negatively impacted. Inequalities in university admissions do not just negatively impact the lower-class individuals whose spots are taken by elite children. According to Khan (2012), elites reproduce their social power through their children’s education, thus perpetuating the cycle of economic inequality.

In the case of the 2019 scandal, wealthy parents used their economic influence to gain their children admission into top-tier universities, which enhances their children’s chances of getting high-paying jobs once they complete their undergraduate degree. Khan (2019) calls schools the “engines of inequality” because they allow elites to navigate institutions that help credential them, rather than inheriting titles through birthright (371-72). Since wealth and status are reproduced through education, lower-class children are ultimately ex- cluded from the cycle, regardless of their deservedness. According to Heller (2019), “the more affluent the students, the more likely they are to study with the most experienced teachers, go to the schools with the nicest facilities, have access to the newest equipment, and enjoy many other advantages” (4). Those at the top of the socioeconomic hierarchy tend to stay at the top, while those who are closer to the bottom struggle to make their way upwards. When wealthy parents use their economic influence to gain their children admission into university, they perpetuate the cycle of inequality by enhancing their children’s chances of getting good jobs once they graduate.

The issue of inequality in college admissions is difficult to solve because of its pervasiveness. However, there are some actions that schools and upper-class families can take to discourage behaviour that leads toward greater inequalities. University admissions offices need to do more careful research on the students they are letting in, checking that they are not lying about their grades or extracurricular activities. Amanda Slenski, VP for admissions at a small liberal arts college, says that she calls for references, asks for additional proof on awards (like requesting a certificate), and checks for evidence of an extracurricular activity on social media (Elfman 2019, 2). Admissions offices should create better communication networks between each other, so that if one university realizes a student has submitted false information, the other schools to which the student has applied would also be aware of it. In their admission applications, prospective students should sign a waiver that ensures they did not make any false claims in their application. The waiver should also outline penalties that could incur if they are found lying. Finally, parents who were found guilty in the 2019 scandal should face legal consequences in order to serving as a warning to other upper-class parents. If used together, these suggestions could help prevent cheating and dishonesty in university admissions.

The 2019 “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal is an excellent case study through which to examine the social inequalities created by the class system with regard to Amer- ican university admissions. Upper class families are able to bribe their children’s way into elite institutions, leaving lower-class students, who lack the wealth and connections of upper-class families, with a lesser chance of being admitted. While the scandal was initially uncovered in March 2019, lawsuits are still in progress for many of the celebrities involved. Only time will tell whether or not Olivia Jade and friends will be able to continue partying at USC.

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