Airing Dirty Laundry: Operation Varsity Blues Highlights the Insecurity of Privilege

We need to reckon with a higher education system that promises access, but disproportionately delivers advantage.

“Dirty Laundry” image, courtesy of Go Media

Why did rich parents cheat their children’s way into college?

Why would these parents fraudulently scheme their children’s way into universities? Given the quoted consultant rate of $250,000 — $400,000 per student, we can assume the families who engaged in this practice:

  • Live in good neighborhoods, which means they have quality K-12 public schools.
  • Earn enough money (or have enough wealth) to afford private school tuition as an alternative to low-performing public schools.
  • Can hire private tutors for SAT prep, bolstering their kids’ capacity to get a high score.
  • Shell out funds for athletics, dance, and other after-school activities without having it break the bank.

Given all these resources, why would wealthy parents consider paying exorbitant funds in an (illegal) effort to access higher education? This fraud scheme illustrates widespread economic anxiety, even among the rich and famous, and the insecurity of economic privilege. Parents want to do everything they can to bolster their kids’ success. This desire exists across the class spectrum.

Research shows that those at the top of the economic ladder may experience heightened insecurity, especially when it comes to passing social and economic advantage down to their children. Ironically, families with the most economic privilege are some of the most aware about how precarious their position — and the current economy — is because they have the most to lose. In this precarious economy marked by increasing income inequality, it’s hard to maintain one’s position at the top. Affluent families are acutely aware of the changing economy, which fuels their anxiety and increases the threshold for what it takes for them to feel secure. These parents see a top-tier education as a key buffer against the pressures of the global marketplace, which offers some insight into why this wealthy group of parents, despite, and perhaps because of, their economic privilege, engaged the services of “The Key” Edge College & Career Network.

Does where you go to college make a difference?

  • Signal social status to future employers and marriage partners
  • Build a social network with other well-connected elites (and alumni)
  • Facilitate a pipeline to “good” jobs

The “college for all” movement — in which young people are encouraged by parents, teachers, and guidance counselors to attend college — has pushed more people into higher education. However, the rapid increase in college graduates means that a degree is less economically valuable. More people having the credential means that a bachelor’s degree is now a “fuzzy signal” to employers, which makes the prestige of the institution — getting into a “good” college — even more important.

In a precarious economy where almost half of college graduates are underemployed, the university name on that diploma matters. The degree transmits information to potential employers about the applicant’s persistence, productivity, and potential “fit” within an organization. A degree from an elite college or university, such as Stanford, Yale, and Georgetown — among those named in the Justice Department statement — goes a long way with employers.

What does this mean for the future of higher education?

This scandal makes public what has long been private behavior: parents with resources leverage those means to benefit their children, whether it’s through legacy admissions, significant university donations, or the 18+ years of economic resources to make a young person competitive for a top college. Rachel Sherman found that wealthy parents focus on pursuing their children’s advantage through a cultural logic of “legitimate entitlement,” which draws attention from institutions and processes that obscure inequality.

Talking about what may have motivated parents with seemingly all the resources in the world to cheat the system is necessary if we’re going to have an honest conversation about the ways a college degree can perpetuate inequality. If there’s any good to come out of the Operation Varsity Blues fraud, it’s an overdue reckoning with a higher education system that promises access, but disproportionately delivers advantage.

Brittany Dernberger is a friendly Midwesterner who couldn’t break her habit of waving at other runners until she lived in Washington, DC for almost a year. She previously served as the Assistant Director of Grand Valley State University’s Women’s Center, where she spent most of her time getting students off campus to explore gender justice in their local communities and in South Africa. Now, she’s a Sociology PhD Candidate at University of Maryland, College Park, studying gender, jobs, and economic inequality, and figuring out what role she can play in making this world a brighter place.

Leveraging research for social change. Sociology PhD. I study gender, inequality, and the college-to-career transition. A friendly Midwesterner. @bdernberger