Operation Varsity Blues: Elite Anxiety, Not Elite Privilege
I never thought I would feel sorry for the heiress to the Hot Pockets fortune, but by the end of Unacceptable: Privilege, Deceit, and the Making of the College Admissions Scandal by Wall Street Journal reporters Melissa Korn & Jennifer Levitz, I almost did. Ever since the pre-dawn raid in March 2019 when the FBI arrested more than forty people including actresses Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives and Lori Laughlin of Full House, Americans have been waiting for a book that puts all the details of Operation Varsity Blues in one place. This is that book, and the full story is a depressing one.
The figure at the center of the scandal is Rick Singer, a man whose job didn’t even exist until recently and in many parts of the country is still exotic: private college admissions consultant. For a flat yearly fee of a few thousand dollars, Singer would sit down with you and your teen and tell you whether he had too many extracurriculars or not enough, how much his GPA would have to improve to get into his “reach” school, which part of his life story would make a good personal brand. One client had a younger sister with a disability. There you go, Singer said, that’s your brand: “I’m a giver, I’m compassionate and empathetic as a result of helping to raise my sister.”
That was the legitimate part of his services. For wealthier clients, Singer could arrange to have a Harvard graduate on his payroll take the SAT for your child or bribe a coach to flag your child as an athletic recruit in a minor sport like sailing or water polo. Sometimes the bribe would take the form of a donation to the university earmarked for the aquatics department. Sometimes it took the form of $60,000 in hundred dollar bills handed to the coach in a bag.
How did a washed-up basketball coach like Singer work his way into the private homes of not just the Hollywood elite but even Silicon Valley royalty like venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins? One reason is that he did the parenting they wouldn’t. Unacceptable notes again and again how much clients appreciated the way Singer would give their kids tough love and pep talks — every coach’s specialty, as anyone who played high school sports remembers. He did the nagging they were too cool to do themselves. “Jack, we’re going to get those grades up, right?” Singer exhorted one client’s son. “What can you commit to?”
Is Unacceptable a story about privilege? A scandal as juicy as this one seems like should say something about society, and that’s the moral most people have drawn from it: rich parents game the admissions system to give their kids unfair advantages. But the dominant emotion among Singer’s clients was not arrogance but anxiety.
Admission to the University of Southern California used to be a breeze for rich kids, back when the joke was that USC stood for “University of Spoiled Children.” Schemes like Singer’s only arose because colleges became more competitive. Being from an elite family counts for less than ever before. That’s why the cream of the California aristocracy were willing to trust their children’s futures to a fast-talking hustler like Singer, because they no longer trusted that their advantages would ensure their children admission to a good school or a bright future without that diploma.
No one in Unacceptable, Hot Pockets heiress aside, comes from old money. Other than the Hollywood actresses, most of the parents were meritocrats themselves: law partners, oncologists, hedge fund managers, consultants. The water polo angle may give the scandal a WASPy flavor but that’s a red herring. Singer’s clients weren’t trying to recreate the pre-meritocratic world where upper-class children could coast their way through the Ivy League. The workaholic meritocracy is their world. It’s a safe bet that they all voted for Obama.
In fact, if the water polo angle signifies anything, it’s the crucial importance of liberal policies in making Singer’s schemes possible. The reason schools have so many recruitment slots in boutique sports like women’s crew is Title IX, which forced colleges to equalize spending on men’s and women’s athletics. “Institutions with football programs can have upwards of 100 men on those teams,” Unacceptable explains. “To maintain equitable opportunity, they may have built really, really big women’s rowing programs.”
The biggest silent revolution in education today is the proliferation of diagnosed disabilities among affluent students. In the last ten years, elite parents discovered that getting their kid labeled with ADHD or anxiety allows them to request special accommodations on tests, like extra time or a private room. Singer encouraged clients to get bogus diagnoses so he could channel their kids to special testing sites and put his designated proctor in the room with them to correct their answers.
Students with special accommodations used to have asterisks next to their SAT scores when the College Board sent them out. In 2003, those asterisks were removed — not because wealthy parents flexed their influence, but because of a civil rights lawsuit brought by a disability advocacy group. Eliminating the “scarlet asterisk” would protect disabled students from discrimination, they said. Instead it enabled canny operators like Singer to commit fraud on a large scale.
Meritocracy was supposed to level the playing field for people with fewer material advantages. Its actual effect has been to take the country’s rich and powerful parents, who, as a class, used to be pretty relaxed about where their kids went to college, and fill them with anxiety about their children’s prospects and a willingness to do anything to get them admission to an elite university as the only ticket left to a safely middle-class life. As with Title IX and disability accommodations, a policy meant to benefit the disadvantaged ended up benefiting those with greater advantages already. In that sense, Operation Varsity Blues is not a story of what happens when you make special allowances for privilege. It’s a story of what happens when you try to eradicate it.