For a low-income Temple University student like Camellia Brown, the multimillion-dollar college bribery scandal is two things: “Crazy and unfair.”
“People like me had to work hard to get where I am,” said the 18-year-old freshman, the daughter of a single mother who works as a crossing guard in South Philadelphia. “Anybody who played a part in this should get in big, big trouble.”
Those deserving of Brown’s ire include the 50 people charged Tuesday in a bribery scheme to get privileged students with mediocre grades and modest athletic skills into high-end universities.
“These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling in Boston. “This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud.”
For people like Brown, the case represents yet another disappointing reminder that the rich call the tune in America, while so many people never get to even hear the music.
The scandal “undermines the idea that education is a meritocracy,” said John Russo, visiting scholar at Georgetown University and a working-class studies expert. His school’s tennis coach, Gordon Ernst, was one of the people indicted.
What the so-called Varsity Blues investigation exposes, Russo said, are the inequalities that are seen throughout the United States every day, in income, housing, health care, and other areas. “It reveals much of what is hidden in American society,” he added.
Ironically, Russo said, the attempt by rich parents — including the actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin — to grease the skids to allow their kids entree into elite schools may have been necessitated in their eyes by the success universities have had in admitting low-income, first-generation students.
“Universities attempt to smooth out some inequities in admissions by accepting less-affluent kids,” Russo said. “The rich saw it as a threat — taking spots from their own children.”
The “scam to end all scams,” as Vanity Fair calls it, shows clearly the “hidden class war in America,” said Temple sociologist Matt Wray. "The wealthy use their resources to ensure advantages for their children, further disadvantaging already disadvantaged kids. There are countless examples of the rich taking advantage of the poor.
“On average, the poor will lose, not because they lack talent, drive, or equal skills. No. What they lack is money. Varsity Blues is a particularly galling example of that.”
Wondering why well-off people needed to goose a system already tilted in their favor, Philip McCallion, director of Temple’s School of Social Work, opined that well-off parents feel pressure that it isn’t enough to get their kids into college. They have to attend high-level schools.
“The concern is, ‘My children won’t succeed as well as what people expect of them, being rich,’” McCallion said.
From the perspective of working-class students, the spectacle of the rich stooping to illegal means to benefit their children is “incredibly disappointing,” said Jen Weikert, executive director of College Possible Philadelphia, a nonprofit that coaches low-income, first-generation students to get into and through college. Camellia Brown is one of their charges.
“These students are working hard, and for somebody to jump in front of the line is dishonest,” Weikert said. "We want a level playing field regardless of the student’s zip code.
“But this event shows the college application process in the United States is broken. Something is morally corrupt.”
Will a scandal like Varsity Blues convince low-income students they have no chance to matriculate?