Of course there’s a way to buy your way into college, thought everyone who ever wondered how an admissions board separates one kid from another.
Now a raft of indictments against actors, business executives, doctors and lawyers suggests a nationwide conspiracy of very powerful and wealthy people paying exorbitant amounts to cheat their kids’ way into college – a scandal that hits squarely at America’s striving middle class.
The episode offers yet another clue about why policy proposals many Democrats call progressive and some Republicans call radical have gotten such traction this year. Jobs guarantees, baby bonds, Medicare for All and free college tuition are just some of the ideas Democrats have proposed to take privileges from the wealthy and try to offer them to everyone else.
What’s behind the appeals that Democrats, including some 2020 presidential contenders, are making is that the cards are stacked against anyone who follows the rules, and there’s a side game only the rich are allowed to play. The college admissions scandal offers up some indication that they’re right – and what makes it so surprising is that, this time, the rich might have to pay a price.
The alleged scam has yielded headlines for implicating the actresses/overeager college moms Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and Loughlin’s husband, Mossimo founder Mossimo Giannulli, in criminal behavior.
The details of the indictments paint an unpleasant picture of college coaches and administrators playing along at cheating on college entrance exams. While many American high schoolers and their parents are agonizing over whether they can even pay for college, there’s a subset of the country apparently agonizing over whether they can pay the $500,000 they’ll need to sneak into the right college. That’s $500,000 on top of the more-than-$50,000 tuition.
There are, of course, also many stories of wealthy people whose children found their way into top-flight schools despite nonstellar careers in high school. ProPublica and The Guardian wrote a very interesting tale about how the father of Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s now-son-in-law, pledged to give $2.5 million to Harvard, paid in installments. Both of his sons got in. The payments were discovered by ProPublica from a subpoena by federal authorities of his charitable giving. At the end of the day – and there’s no direct evidence these three pieces of information are linked – Harvard got a $2.5 million pledge. Jared Kushner got accepted. His dad got access to a tax deduction.
Trump once tried to sell the idea of Trump University to students who wanted his real estate know-how. He ultimately settled for $25 million with students who said they’d been defrauded.
While he thought his own image was enough to sell students on Trump U, he likes to brag that he got his own undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania, what a great school it is and how smart he was to get in.
“I went to a great school – Ivy League school – all of that stuff. Did well. Smart guy,” he said at Liberty University in January 2016. It was a riff on a line that was often included in his stump speech during the campaign.
Trump transferred to Penn after attending Fordham University in New York. College acceptance was a very different thing in the 1960s, but that didn’t stop Trump from trying to make sure his high school and early college records remained private years later, according to his former lawyer.
“I’m talking about a man who declares himself brilliant but directed me to threaten his high school, his colleges and the College Board to never release his grades or SAT scores,” Cohen recently said at a hearing on Capitol Hill. Note: Cohen is headed to jail for earlier lying to Congress.
It’s not exactly clear how much Trump has given to Penn over the years. A 2016 Daily Pennsylvanian review of university reports found pledges of more than $1.4 million from Trump to the school, though there’s no way to tell if the pledges were fulfilled. Three of his four adult children have degrees from there.
This is not meant to be a partisan knock. Huffman, who authorities say paid $15,000 to grease the wheels for her daughter, is a longtime Democratic donor.
To a good portion of the country, those sums are so out of reach as to be the stuff of fairy tales.
But the story of what government should do to help people pull themselves up is being written, in part, this campaign season.
Some Democrats, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who is paying loans on her Boston University degree and was until pretty recently working at a bar, are talking about the idea of a federal jobs guarantee. She was shut down by Ivanka Trump, who presumably did not have to pay for loans on her Penn degree, and said during a recent interview that she doesn’t think people want that kind of guarantee.
“People want to work for what they get,” said Trump, a White House adviser to her father. “So I think this idea of a guaranteed minimum is not something most people want. They want the ability to be able to secure a job. They want the ability to live in a country where there’s the potential for upward mobility.”
Education is key to upward mobility and an important investment Americans can make in themselves. The median weekly wage of an American without any college education was $712 in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median wage of a person with a bachelor’s degree was about two-thirds more than that – $1,173, according to the BLS data.
But it is an expensive investment, indeed. The US had more student loan debt than credit card debt in 2017, more than $1 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. Most students who go to college take on some debt, and, according to the Fed’s annual report on the economic well-being of US households, 20% of Americans with student debt were behind on it. Younger Americans were more likely to have taken on debt, which suggests the problem of student debt will only get worse.
In Pew polling, just before the 2016 election, 52% of Americans said the affordability of a college education was a very big problem. In Pew’s poll just before the 2018 midterm elections, a much higher 63% said it was a very big problem. Eighty-six percent said it was a very or moderately big problem in 2016, compared with 90% of voters in 2018.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who’s running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, introduced a proposal for federal and state governments to subsidize tuition and give all American kids access to free college. A number of states, including New York, are experimenting with the idea.
The idea of leveling the playing field extends beyond college and debt. Several Democratic candidates, including Sanders, want to end the private insurance market to give everyone access to the same health insurance market. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey would give every American child a nest egg at birth and contribute to it with tax money, giving more to the less fortunate. Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts want new taxes on the wealthy in order to create social programs for the middle class and poorer Americans. Sen. Kamala Harris of California wants new tax cuts for the middle class.
Proposals like these have drawn accusations of plans for a socialist takeover from Republicans, including President Trump. But what’s at the bottom of each one is trying to do something about the frustration people feel that the capitalist society is doing a lot more for some people than for others.