The cash-for-admittance college scam in America should not come as a surprise. However, while it has little to do with education, it has everything to do with status.
Recently, headlines were made illustrating the lengths rich parents go to to ensure their children gain an education in an elite tertiary forum. It helped that borderline celebrities dropped million-dollar bails, but the amount of surprise we should glean from it should be slim to none. All up, fifty people were charged in a scam that dragged in school administrators, college athletic coaches, and, above all, wealthy parents accused of shelling out bribes that could add up to over $1 million.
Mind you, the best education for our children is what we all seek. Why wouldn’t you drop x amount of money to get precious y into z?
Except, this scam wasn’t exactly that. Those parents involved in that scam were seeking brand recognition. It’s an evolution of the Prada bag or the car with the horse on it from Maranello. In the modern age, a brand-name education is a luxury good and reflects a certain amount of social capital. Your youngest might be doing nangs and becoming a Chad, but he’s doing so at Yale. This is both new and extremely old.
Sociologist Elizabeth Currid-Halkett examined these shifting status markers in her 2017 book, The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class. She makes the case that while the past was colored by a conspicuous showing of one’s wealth (the carriage, the diamonds, the unfortunate souls press-ganged into servitude), she contends that as society has advanced, our tastes have too. As the average citizen has more access to the societal trinkets that were once only for the elite (running water, education, dental hygiene), Currid-Halkett finds that the rich increasingly focus their spending on “… ‘nonvisible, highly expensive goods and services’ that allow them to have time to gain that social capital and foster it in their children,” wrote Quartz’s Dan Kopf. “Such goods and services include child care, gardeners, and, most importantly, education.”
When you consider the schools involved, it absolutely proves Elizabeth’s theory. Yale University, Stanford University, and the University of Southern California were at the forefront, as well as Wake Forest University and the University of Texas, lesser brands, sure, but everyone still loves a Volvo.
On the surface, you naturally assume that the larger the school’s name, the better they are at doing their job; i.e., offering an education. However, the link between prestige and reality is extremely flimsy. Quartz’s Jenny Anderson cites the work of a researcher, from Stanford itself, who found that learning had little to do with the school’s ranking. “It appears that what students do in college is far more important than the type of institution they attend,” the research said.
But what of the students? Well, there is a particularly notable victim. Olivia Jade Giannulli (daughter of actress Lori Loughlin and designer Mossimo Giannulli, both charged in the bust by federal prosecutors) is a particularly towering figure to strike. While it is not actually clear whether Giannulli knew about the bribes her parents stand accused of paying, she’s attracted attention because her primary focus appears to be on her budding career as an influencer, not on her education.
“I don’t know how much of school I’m going to attend,” she said in a YouTube video posted in August 2018. “But I do want the experience of game days, partying. I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.”
When she was at the University of SoCal, she jumped on board with Amazon, clearly illustrating how difficult it certainly is for a student in the American tertiary system. Again, status.
Money, of course, talks. It has been the primary language spoken in America since time immemorial. It seems, at least according to Currid-Halkett, that the investments the well-heeled are making in their children’s futures are mainly about their present. This, of course, skews the system, as one NFP believes that the rich dominate the enrollment at these selective universities, creating a divide, not only in the realms of opportunity, but also tertiary performance across the board.