clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Myth of Meritocracy: On the Aftermath of the College Admissions Scandal

Felicity Huffman and several other defendants are pleading guilty to charges of fraud and conspiracy, and Operation Varsity Blues is wrapping up. What did we learn?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Monday, Felicity Huffman and 12 other defendants—plus one former tennis coach—agreed to plead guilty to federal fraud and conspiracy charges. Two years ago, Huffman paid $15,000 to employ William Singer, a college admissions counselor who bribed test administrators to doctor SAT results for Huffman’s daughter. Huffman was one of 33 parents whom federal prosecutors charged in connection with Singer, who pleaded guilty one month ago to four charges, including obstruction of justice, racketeering, and money laundering. Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli were also charged in connection with Singer. The federal prosecutors allege that Loughlin and Giannulli directed Singer to pay half a million dollars in bribes to the University of Southern California to ensure their daughters’ admissions to the school through recruitment by the crew team. Loughlin and Giannulli have yet to enter a plea in response to the charges. On Wednesday, Huffman and Loughlin attended a court date in Boston; Loughlin greeted her fans—her supporters—gathered outside the courthouse. “Pay for my tuition!” they chanted.

The FBI investigation of Singer—known as Operation Varsity Blues—would amount to a scandal in any time, but the celebrity clients, the large sums they paid, and Singer’s wide and brazen influence among top colleges has launched a larger referendum on meritocracy. The term “meritocracy” seems designed to ridicule the very notion of class mobility and achievement; “meritocracy” describes intelligent professional advancement of “the best and the brightest,” but just as often comes to mean wealthy factions entrenching themselves, insuring their offspring, and obscuring their shortcomings through institutional advantages. The indictments are a scandal because Singer and his clients embarrass so many flattering assumptions about top-tier college admissions; they’re a scandal because Singer’s schemes bolster so much cynicism about test prep, extracurricular merits, and, of course, money.

Singer’s schemes were a comedy of institutions. Huffman paid Singer to raise her daughter’s test scores, and so Singer ran a shell game to sort Huffman’s daughter, among other clients, into a test center which would allow him to exploit “extended time” provisions designed for students working with disabilities. Meanwhile, Loughlin, Giannulli, and several other parents exploited college athletics programs—a meritocracy within the meritocracy. Singer bribed coaches and Photoshopped applicants into games they’ve never even played. Singer embarrassed USC, Yale, Stanford, Wake Forest, and Georgetown. His clients humiliated their children and, less crucially, themselves. Loughlin’s daughters remain enrolled at USC amid frequent speculation that they’ve both dropped out. Loughlin’s older daughter, Olivia Jade—a popular, profitable fashion vlogger before she even applied to college—resisted her mother’s insistence that she attend college. Her parents’ scheming, detailed so meticulously by federal prosecutors, scuttled her sponsorships. “She’s distraught, she’s embarrassed and she’s determined to figure out how to rebuild her brand,” People editor Breanne Heldman told ABC News, citing a source close to Olivia Jade’s family.

The children are the trickiest consideration for anyone reading Operation Varsity Blues as political satire. The kids will be fine; their parents are rich. Olivia Jade is a YouTube star; she wanted nothing to do with the academic aspects of USC in the first place. The parents humiliated their children, most of whom didn’t know about the elaborate schemes to get them into college; so the kids aren’t guilty, but they’re not especially sympathetic, and not just because undergrad slots at several competitive universities were supposedly wasted on them. They’re young adults who move through the meritocracy with little to no suspicion about the systems which engineered their ascent. They’re college students, in other words. They’re living in the meritocracy, so prohibitively defined by its prices. In 2017, Huffman paid $15,000 to rig an exam. The price rises.