College Admission Scandal: When Parents Don't Trust In Kids

Operation Varsity Blues is not a surprise in the culture of intensive parenting.

Posted Mar 12, 2019

Today, The New York Times broke the news of this year's latest scandal: the college admissions fraud that has led to 50 indictments. The government called the investigation Operation Varsity Blues, and employed 200 agents nationwide. The murky tangle of bribes and fraud involved parents, coaches, college administrators, and the consultants paid to make it happen.

Making use of the typical practices of elite universities, which frequently use lower academic standards for recruited athletes, coaches were able to request certain unqualified students in return for bribes. Photoshopped and falsified athletic records helped.

For $15,000-$75,000 per test, college exam administrators helped kids cheat on their entrance exams. Whether it was correcting their answers, feeding them answers, or letting someone else fraudulently take the test for them, this price bought good scores.

In one instance a high-powered executive paid $6 million to make sure their child was accepted to a competitive university.

William Singer founded Edge College & Career Network, referred to as The Key, a college preparatory business through which he helped almost 800 families buy their kids’ way into top schools, typically without letting the kids know what was happening on their test scores.

“What we do is we help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school. They want guarantees, they want this thing done,” said William Singer, speaking during a wiretapped conversation as quoted in the NY Times. He was also recorded saying that this made kids feel good about themselves, “No one knows what happens. She feels great about herself. She got a test score, and now you’re actually capable for help getting into a school. Because the test score’s no longer an issue.”

The colleges where coaches were involved included University of Southern California, Stanford, Wake Forest, Yale, Georgetown and others. The parents included leaders of business and celebrities including Felicity Huffman. William H. Macy was implicated but not indicted. In a bizarre twist, Felicity Huffman was willing to pay for her first daughter to have inflated scores, but not her second.

At What Price?

We’ve been hearing about the increasingly competitive college admissions process for some time now, but this is shocking. Or is it? Is this less surprising than it first appears?

We live in a culture of intensive parenting that values a child’s comfort, self-esteem and success above all else, and holds the parents entirely responsible. Perhaps this is exactly what we can expect people to do in a culture like this. Yes, the price tag is astonishing. $1.2 million to get admitted to Yale makes little sense if you consider the expected return on investment. But that parent made sure to get their child what they believed they needed, even to the point of a criminal fraud.

Whether they saw it or not, these parents paid another price when they chose to do this: their child's hope of confident independence. Does it serve this young adult to go to a school for which they are not matched, to struggle with an academic challenge for which they are not suited? Will their parent bribe their professors to make sure that they continue to have grades that are above their ability, all in the interest of self-esteem?

Professors Weigh In

The responses on social media have been swift and insightful. One former Ivy League college professor who wished to remain anonymous wrote, “I love this college admissions scandal so much. What the hell kind of parents are these? 'Listen, kid, you're too dumb to get into a college we can brag about on your own, and physically speaking you're frankly an embarrassment, so we're gonna bribe some coaches and photoshop your head on to an acceptably athletic body. Love yoooooooooou!'... I can’t imagine how the kids in question feel about their parents lack of belief in them."

Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash
Parents paid up to $6 million to get their kids into the right colleges.
Source: Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash

This comment is heartbreaking in its accuracy. Is this the best way to love our children? I can only imagine how these college kids are going to feel. Particularly the ones who were unaware of the way their applications were doctored. Their parents’ criminal actions send a very specific message: Sweetheart, you are just not good enough. We don’t believe in your abilities.

Another anonymous Ivy League graduate and a current college professor, commented: “Like, for $1.2m, why not just let them pursue "fashion" or be a "concert promoter" as a "career" instead?”

She has a point here. What is success? What is flourishing for these young people? It's probably not  being driven by the expectations of lawnmower parents who mow down the law to get their kid into college. With that kind of money to spend, why not allow your child to identify what makes their heart sing with joy?

The Message of Intensive Parenting

Whether we call it intensive parenting, helicopter parenting, tiger mothering, or curling parenting, the message is the same. “Sweetheart, you are just not good enough. We don’t believe in your abilities.” This scandal is upsetting and unfair to everyone. It’s unfair to the kids who did not get a place that was rightfully theirs because of fraud. It’s unfair to the kids whose parents did this without their knowledge and now have to live with humiliation.

What if we reflect on how in a lesser way, while still within the legal bounds, we have sometimes done things that may send this kind of message to our kids? Can we shift a bit and try to tell our kids that we trust their abilities? Can we tell them that we trust them to figure it out?


Medina, J., Benner, K., Taylor, K. (2019) College Admissions Scandal: Actresses, Business Leaders and Other Wealthy Parents Charged. New York Times.