Ababiy: The college admissions scandal is a symptom of a disease

The wealthy have long had the front door, back door and side door. Why are we only talking about it now?

Jonathan Ababiy

Most cities don’t do this, but for nearly a century the New York City Police Department has tipped off photographers nearly anytime anybody interesting has found themselves being taken to the station in handcuffs.

It’s called the “perp walk.” After letting a crew of photographers assemble on the sidewalk, NYPD cops link arms with their handcuffed suspect, like grown up preschool teachers, and slowly walk the perp between the police car and station. It’s a softball toss for photographers and any editor who wants a picture of a star made low. A number of movie stars, politicians and Wall Street kingpins in varying degrees of emotion and preparedness have all been blessed with this glow of cameras.

Perp walks are a controversial practice. An obvious tactic of humiliation, it implies guilt, even though trial for the suspect hasn’t even started. As the Pacific Standard wrote last year, it scratches society’s “satisfying itch for retribution,” but doesn’t do much else besides scratching that itch.

This is the danger with the recent news about the FBI’s investigation into college admissions fraud. It’s fun to watch. But will we be brought out of our smug, Midwestern self-satisfaction to do anything about it? Our reaction to this investigation needs to confront other more-accepted ways the rich and wealthy win the college sweepstakes.

The initial reaction of many people to this story was simply one of ridicule. It’s hilarious to see famous actresses, lawyers and business leaders get themselves in trouble over something as trivial as college admission. Some of the schemes are so harebrained it’s difficult to see why anybody thought it was a good idea.

For example, one parent indicted in the scheme pays the corrupt college admissions fixer to bribe the University of South Carolina’s senior associate athletic director. The fixer hires a graphic designer who Photoshops pictures of the parent’s kid in water polo gear bought off Amazon into a stock photo of water polo players. The bribed senior associate athletic director then used the doctored photo and a fake athletic profile to try to convince admissions counselors to accept the “athlete.”

After we get over the idiocy of a scheme like this, we should consider other less visible ways the wealthy try to beat the system in college admissions. Stories like this don’t really happen all that often. What really happens is more subtle stuff.

The snitch in the FBI report puts it quite well. Talking to a client who was a top lawyer at an international law firm, he said: “There is a front door which means you get in on your own. The back door is through institutional advancement [donating money], which is 10 times as much money. And I’ve created a side door in.” The fixer got caught opening the side door, while the back door is still open and the front door isn’t always easy to open.

The wealthy can hire completely legal admissions consultants to massage and marinate their kids’ lifeless college essays and can sink thousands into tutors other kids can’t afford. There’s always the option of just buying a building on campus, too, like Jared Kushner’s dad did.

There are many doors into college campuses. What this scandal does is remind you that those doors aren’t necessarily open for you and me. It’s fun to see rich people do the perp walk, but it’s our job to make sure something systemic comes out of it.