Two years ago, when the college admissions scandal, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, crashed into headlines, it immediately became a showcase of white privilege.
Images of Full House actress Lori Loughlin and Gordon Caplan, the former co-chairman of the white-shoe law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher, making the perp walk to the Boston courthouse where they were charged—along with nearly 40 other parents—with paying an independent counselor slash conman named Rick Singer vast sums of money in order to get their children into colleges such as Yale and Georgetown, epitomized the gross inequities of the American class system: White, rich people, yet again, were paying to play. Since that moment it’s a theme that has played out in American culture, especially in the midst of the pandemic.
The parents’ glib smugness, as revealed in the 200-page, soap opera-esque indictment, was glaring. Transcripts of phone calls captured parents chortling with mischievous glee as they plotted their schemes with Singer. “I know this is craziness, I know it is,” said Jane Buckingham, a Los Angeles-based trend-forecaster and socialite as she and Singer talked about having a fake proctor take the ACT for her son. “And then you need to get him into USC. And then I need you to cure cancer and [make peace] in the Middle East.”
But as I began researching my book about the scandal, Guilty Admissions, I quickly realized that underlying parents’ nonchalance there was something more powerful, and more pervasive, lurking amongst white parents of enormous means: a deep-seated fear that they are no longer winning at the game of college admissions, a system that long favored their ilk.
As I spoke with dozens of parents of children in elite, private high schools in order to better understand their mindset, they complained again and again how it had become harder than ever to get into selective schools. Thanks to an explosion of applications and an emphasis on offering slots to the “freakishly remarkable,” as Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business, has described it, America’s elite universities now prize unicorn-type prodigies, as opposed to the smart and hard-working kids that were supposedly the holy grail in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Slots at top universities were becoming scarce to rare; a scarcity the universities encouraged in order to get their all-important acceptance rates to previously unimaginable lows. Stanford’s is so low—4 percent—it no longer bothers publishing it.
These trends affect all college applicants, regardless of socio-economic background. But affluent parents, even those whose kids had the “hook” of being a legacy or recruitable athlete, felt things were further stacked against them due to a shift in the culture that had led universities to focus on building freshman classes that reflect the world we live in. In other words, diversity had evolved slowly from just a buzzword into an institutional priority in higher ed. The result was that wealthy white parents were freaking out.
As Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Stanford dean and the author of How to Raise an Adult, told me, the more colleges said, “‘Hey, we want Black and brown kids, too. And we want Asians, too,’” the more “white people are terrified because they’re losing a privilege that they never realized was a privilege.”
This fear of falling out of a secure bubble, one that dates back to the days when colleges were specifically built for white, Protestant males, has only intensified in the two years since the scandal broke. Black Lives Matter and the social upheavals of the last year have turned what was a quiet panic into a gathering frenzy, as colleges’ desire to attract and enroll a more diverse population has intensified. When U.C.L.A. and U.C. Berkeley saw “historic gains” in its Black and Latino applications this past fall—the former rose by 48 percent at both campuses, the latter by 33 percent and 36 percent respectively, Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, called the figures “phenomenal.” “The university has sought a more representative class for a long time and now it’s within reach,” he said.
A few days after those figures were announced, I spoke to the white mother of a senior at a private high school in L.A. Her daughter had a weighted GPA of 4.4, was a competitive athlete, and participated in an array of extracurriculars. She’d been all but recruited (verbally) by the coach at a prestigious New England college. But after applying early decision, she was not admitted. When the mother reached out to her daughter’s college counselor to ask what happened, the counselor broke down the college’s goals for its freshman class: 36 percent BIPOC; 16 percent first-generation to attend college; 12 percent international students (who pay full tuition); 15 percent legacy kids; 18 percent recruited athletes.
“So there’s little room for Caucasian girls from private schools with no ‘hook,’” the mother reasoned.
Affluent, white parents are largely self-aware about their woe-is-me railing about what they ultimately feel is a form of reverse discrimination. (And most are aware of the facts that dispute their agita: more than two-thirds of the Ivy League come from the top 20 percent of the income scale.) In Los Angeles where Rick Singer found his most receptive audience, these parents are overwhelmingly liberal Democrats who proudly advertise their social-justice beliefs. They outwardly applaud schools’ efforts to admit a more diverse student body, believing it is for the greater good of the campus and society overall. During the Black Lives Matter unrest last summer and fall, many eagerly signed up for the Town Halls and Zoom sessions that their high schools organized to discuss Diversity, Equity and Inclusion issues. Indeed, they are in tune with the social trends ripping through the country—until, all of a sudden, they realize it might affect their own child’s chances of getting into college.
And for further context, this year’s college admissions season has been like no other. Colleges’ decision to make the SAT and ACT optional this year (the U.C. system is phasing the tests out completely) after many standardized testing sites shut down due to COVID-19, meant that applications rose dramatically. Suddenly the kid who’d always thought Yale was a reach due to a meh verbal score on the SAT, dashed off an application. The pandemic also led to deferred enrollments from the fall of 2020—why pay for Zoom college?—meaning that those kids’ were pushed into this coming fall’s freshman class, taking slots from the graduates just coming in.
However you slice it, the sense is the rules are being rewritten and that there is no longer a sure-fire way to pave the way toward a gilded college acceptance letter from a top college. The usual methods—hiring tutors; sending kids off to Costa Rica to build houses and “character”; or just making sure a kid stays on top of their rigorous workload—simply aren’t enough anymore.
This panic and despair was at the heart of the Varsity Blues scandal and is even more acute in 2021, showing how the practices and obsessions—with name-brand schools and the feeling that it is a kind of droit de seigneur to attend them—have only been exacerbated, even as news about the scandal has largely died down. Most of the parents who pled guilty have already been sentenced and done their time. Loughlin was recently released from prison after a two-month stint. But unless there are real changes at the college level in terms of what they’re asking of students and how many of them they’re letting in—if freshman class sizes were enlarged, for example, there would be less scarcity—the frantic desperation that led to Varsity Blues will live on. Even if Singer himself becomes a shadow.
Correction, March 5: The original version of this story misstated Julie Lythcott-Haims’ last name. It is Lythcott-Haims, not Lythcott-Haimes.