Operation Varsity Blues: Why Did They Do It?

Actress Lori Loughlin (above right), her husband Mossimo Giannulli, and actress Felicity Huffman (above left) were among 50 people indicted for their part in the college bribery scam organized by William Rick Singer (middle). 33 of the people indicted were parents, wealthy parents, who paid Singer over $25 million between 2011 and 2018 to get their children into prestigious universities, which he did by bribing college officials and paying proctors to improve their children’s college test scores after the fact, or take them in their place. 

The public’s reaction was an interesting mix of cackling, preaching, head shaking, guilt-tripping, surprise (They paid someone to take their tests? Rich people have been indicted for something?), and non-surprise (of course the rich are buying their kids way into the best colleges. What else is new?). But, why did they do it? Why was this so important to them? They have money, fame, privilege, access. What more could they want? And, why this? Why college? 

Watching the early stories on the news about this scandal, I noticed more than once that someone from the parents’ communities, the same upper-class, one percent communities, their circle, their level, would be invited to speak on a news program or talk show, and invariably, they focused attention and blame on the fact that self-made parents like Loughlin and Massimo had not gone to college, or had gone to lower-rated ones, while other rich people, parents and neighbors in the communities and wider social circles had graduated from good universities, the right ones. These guest speakers, representatives of the upper-class, The One Percent, felt this fact was important, was the explanation for the behavior, the cheating, and the desperation, so I think it is important, too. It must be the explanation for it, or at least part of it. 

No matter what we lower class schlubs and middle-class climbers believe, the world of big money is different than our lives in every way. $10,000 is nothing. A house means a mansion. Luxury is normal and boring, for some. This scandal can’t be seen properly from our perspective. It is best understood from the perspective of the people in the community. 

Their value system does not resemble ours, no matter how much money they spend to make us believe it does. They are entitled. They see nothing wrong with spending money to get their kids into the university of their choice – the parents’ choice or the kids’ choice. Other parents are doing it, have done it, will do it. They have built dormitories and academic halls for universities, or donated millions of dollars to them – to get their children admitted to those colleges. They are privileged; they have to right to have whatever they want. This is about privilege, not about all the hard-working students who didn’t get accepted to Yale or USC, or wherever because they cheated. 

Cheated, or played by long-established rules but used to wrong person for it, someone who would start talking as soon as a law enforcement official looked at him, someone who wasn’t really one of them, had no loyalty, no class, no code of honor, would not dream of keeping his mouth closed, doesn’t care who he has embarrassed, or taken down with him. They did it his way, William Rick Singer’s way. There were other avenues. They should have taken them. 

But back to “why”? According to people in their circle, the problem is they didn’t go to college or they didn’t go to the right colleges. They have the money to belong in the circle, but they don’t have to pedigrees to match them. They didn’t go to the right school. They are not second, third or more generation money. They weren’t born rich. They are, by definition, Middle-Class, or Lower-Class With Money. 

So, they have to hear from these people every day, these second and third-class money types, about the schools they attended. Oxford. Bryn Mawr. Choate Rosemary Hall. Harvard. Yale. Princeton. I’m from Boston. I’m second generation money, third generation, I went to school here and there. You? Born poor, went to public school and state college on a scholarship. Actress, model, professional athlete. They begin to feel inferior, and maybe that’s the point. 

Access. Privilege. There must be even more of it on the other side of that social status line. Fraternities. Sororities. Connections. Acquaintances. There must be something graduates of prestigious colleges get, have access to, that can’t be gotten any other way, or why would they value it so highly? What would they care so much? 

As much access as Loughlin and Huffman, and the other parents have, there must be a limit to it. There must be more access, more privilege, connections, maybe even money that they could get, could have gotten, if they had graduated from better schools. At the very least they wouldn’t have to hear about it from other people. 

They don’t want their children to have to hear it, too. Their children were born rich. They have a chance to do it right, to live in the right neighborhoods, associate with the right people. Wear the right clothes, vacation in the right places, go to the right schools. They will have it even better than their parents. Or else, why force them to do it? Why pay so much money, for something that has no pay off? 

For the parents’ egos? If they can’t say they went to the right school, they can say their children did. They can say, my daughters are both at USC, and what will people believe? That “the girls” were intelligent enough to get in on their academic merits? Or will they think they got in because their parents are famous? Or because they bought their way in?  

What do the other parents say? Do they discuss how they got their children in? Or does everyone just act like they earned it? 

Well, they can, as long as they don’t get caught. You get the bragging rights, the social status, the recognition, the glow, the pride, the approval, the fellowship, and community of other parents whose children go to USC or Columbia University. You gain even more social acceptance in your community.  

If you didn’t go to the right school, you have to make sure your children do. For your sake and for theirs or you will all be outcasts, outsiders, never really “like” everyone else. 

There is always another hurdle to leap, and another bar above the one you just cleared. One home? They have three. Ten million? We have one hundred million. We are worth a billion. Always another bar. Another reason you aren’t quite good enough, and why, by extension, your children aren’t quite good enough, either. They were born wealthy, fair enough, but raised by what kind of parents? The kind who didn’t have money, and didn’t go to the right schools, or didn’t go to college, at all. How do they really turn out? And, how much of that has rubbed off on them? No, they are almost there, but not quite – farther along than their parents, obviously, but just one generation removed from new money.  

The right house, the right designers, the right decorators, the right everything for their children. They bought into it. The standards. The value system. The social grading system. And they made the long social climb, dutifully. They promised themselves that they would ascend as high as they could, and their children would rise even higher. 

Who knows what they have been subjected to, now that they have been caught doing what countless others have gotten away with for decades. The public humiliation must be worse than the scandal itself. They have to look those same parents in the eye, everywhere they go. And, say what? 

Their children are now free to pursue something else, presumably, but at what price? If they stay in those communities, their communities, will they ultimately regret not leaving? Will they pressure their kids into going to top-tier colleges, one day, just to remove the stigma of the scandal?

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