College Bribery Scandal Exposes Flaws In Admissions System

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Paying for college has taken on an entirely different meaning. We've always known that wealthy parents can leverage their influence and money to get their kids into better schools, but what we learned about yesterday, if true, is egregious and illegal. Federal prosecutors say they've uncovered a scheme in which rich parents bought their kids admission to elite schools like Yale, Stanford and the University of Southern California. We are told they bought falsified exam scores. They bought fake photos making it look like their kids starred in sports they didn't even know how to play. Some 50 people have been charged. More than half of them are parents, and they include Hollywood stars and some big-name business leaders.

This is FBI Special Agent Joseph Bonavolonta.

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JOSEPH BONAVOLONTA: This is not a case where parents were acting in the best interests of their children. This is a case where they flaunted their wealth, sparing no expense, to cheat the system so they could set their children up for success with the best education money could buy, literally.

GREENE: This story has, of course, renewed broader questions about fairness in American higher education, and joining us to talk about it is Alia Wong. She has written about this case and these questions for The Atlantic. Thanks for being here.

ALIA WONG: Thank you.

GREENE: So what the parents allegedly did in this case was illegal, but, I mean, you've written that there are a lot of legal ways that wealthy parents have really tried to essentially buy their kids' way into selective schools. I mean, how common is this in general?

WONG: It's pretty common. It's widespread especially with private colleges, especially the elite colleges. It's kind of just a fact of life that people have accepted. The universities say that giving these preferences helps maintain their economic advantage, their competitive edge in the higher education ecosystem. They say it creates a sense of community. So there have been legal means of basically giving preference to wealthy kids for forever.

GREENE: Universities, you're saying, have essentially said, this might not seem great, but we have to allow, you know, families to put their names on buildings. We have to allow there to be legacy acceptance. Those are things the universities say actually help them in the long run?

WONG: That's what they say, yes.

GREENE: So if that kind of stuff has been going on, besides the FBI getting involved here and calling out some of these activities as illegal, like, why the outrage? Why is this the moment that is causing people to seem so angry?

WONG: Well, I think, for one, you know, it's a bunch of public figures. It's kind of the most egregious example of the haves and have-nots and how that dynamic really drives higher education. I think also it's just such a theatrical scheme, allegedly. You know, it has all the components that you might even see in a TV show, so I think that adds a sensational element to it. What's honestly most shocking about this is that they don't just resort to those conventional means of gaining an advantage. They had to go through this illegal, convoluted, satirically evil mechanism.

GREENE: So if this is as systemic as you say - I mean, the universities have not been charged here. But is this, do you think, going to expose enough that universities have to, in some way, be held accountable for both allowing some of these students in and for allowing this kind of system to fester for so long?

WONG: They definitely need to be accountable. I think one of the most obvious ways that they could at least attempt to solve some of these inequities is by growing the size of their classes. The Ivy Leagues, by and large, haven't enrolled more students over the years, despite the skyrocketing numbers of applications, and that is arguably because selectivity itself - the lower the acceptance rate, the more prestigious the institution. And that, of course, is perpetuated by the rankings which do place emphasis on selectivity, so it's kind of this vicious cycle.

GREENE: What should we take from this case and this moment? I mean, is this a big moment, or is this just exposing something that sort of exists and is going to go on?

WONG: Well, I think actually - I think it's both of those things. I think what is big about this is, obviously, it's a sensational story. There's a lot of drama. There are famous people. It's almost like Fyre Fest in that you just kind of look at all these wealthy people and realize that they're not as perfect as they like to say they are. I think that the fact that this is such a prominent news story will draw attention to what's really been an entrenched and worsening issue.

GREENE: What would you say to a student in a family that is not so wealthy that sees this story and is sort of thinking, like, is it even worth it, if this is the system that's sort of stacked against me?

WONG: Well, I think now - in retrospect, now that we are reading about these revelations or alleged revelations, I think, for one, it puts the universities' feet to the fire and saying, you know, now that the mainstream public has its eyes on you, you can't get away with some of these practices or some of these omissions anymore. I think moving forward, to a kid who is maybe feeling a little deflated by it all, that I would say, use the fact that you are in many ways a victim or someone who is getting the short end of the stick here, use that to your advantage. I think that's something that can really be a compelling story for universities.

GREENE: Alia Wong writes for The Atlantic. Thanks so much. We appreciate it.

WONG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.