How to Read the News

It seems like everyone in the country is thinking about college admissions this week. And really, because the media is so utterly self-referential, this story would already be behind us if those caught up in it were only CEOs and venture capital managers. That would just be normal, expected behavior. It’s the presence of three minor-league celebrities— two former TV stars and the daughter of one of those actors, herself now an YouTube and Instagram Influencer, whatever the hell that means—that has given the story the salaciousness to last through two days.

(Being an influencer means a lot, apparently—this 19-year-old had deals with more than ten companies to do product placement and brand mentions. There’s a whole category of people who are famous for being famous. And when mom was arrested, daughter was hanging out with the daughter of USC’s board chair on his yacht Invictus, the name of the boat itself becoming perhaps the most perfect detail in this woeful cycle of self-congratulation.)

Anyway, lots of smart people have weighed in on this already, including and especially the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, writing as though to a foreign audience who wouldn’t understand the context within which all of this happened. I’m not an investigative reporter, and I don’t have anything new about the indictments or the perps. What I do have is a simple list of the schools implicated in all this, along with the median family income of those attending:

  • Chapman ($150,000)
  • Georgetown ($229,000)
  • Northeastern ($151,000)
  • Stanford ($168,000)
  • University of Texas ($124,000)
  • UC Berkeley ($120,000)
  • UCLA ($105,000)
  • USC ($161,000)
  • Wake Forest ($222,000)
  • Yale ($193,000)

These are the kinds of schools for which wealthy parents think that a quarter-million-dollar bribe is a worthwhile investment on top of tuition. You’ll note the absence on this list of schools like UNC-Pembroke, or Northern Michigan University, or Fitchburg State, or Colby-Sawyer College, the schools for the 99%. Those schools are desperately trying to attract students, accepting nearly every applicant. It’s only the fanciest clubs and restaurants that have doormen, and three-month waiting lists for a reservation. Bribing someone to get into Grand Valley State would be like knowing the secret password to get into Burger King—the door’s just open.

So when these elite families are buying their children access to a college education, it’s clear that “a college education” is only a small component of what’s for sale. What they’re really buying is a country-club membership, where their kids can have access to a whole variety of “influencers,” and thus expand their own influence. (The faculty, to be blunt, are the caddies, the ones who carry your burden and help you strategize your way around the course.) I had a friend, once a lawyer at a small firm, who was recruited by one of the giant law corporations. As part of her orientation, they provided her with a $5,000 clothing allowance, a set of golf clubs, and six months of lessons. None of those things made her a better attorney, but they made her a more profitable member of the firm, because she could fit in where the deals were done—the firm itself had corporate memberships at the same country clubs as their corporate clients. Going to USC doesn’t ensure a better education than going to Cal State–Northridge, but it does ensure a better chance of continuing and amplifying your privilege.