A few days ago, I wrote a blog post about a young lady in Atlanta who applied to 70 colleges and got into 54 of them. That post, titled “I would not want to be 18 years old in 2023“, was inspired by comments I read about Daya Brown’s decision to apply to so many colleges. It made me recall my own days as a high school senior, trying to decide where I would go for my undergraduate degree. I remember those days were pretty challenging, especially since I was mostly navigating the whole process by myself.
When I was in high school, we didn’t have the Internet readily available. I went to a rural, public high school, with four guidance counselors handling about 1600 students. My parents, already well into middle age, with three already “grown and flown” daughters, weren’t all that invested in helping me find the “right” college. No one, other than me, pressured me to get excellent grades. I didn’t take any prep courses for the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test).
I don’t even think anyone looked over my applications before I submitted them and checks for application fees to Dr. Porter, the guidance counselor I barely knew. I don’t think Dr. Porter even said a word to me about where I was applying, and whether or not they were “appropriate” choices for me. I think I would have done fine at the other schools I applied to, but I was competing against people with better test scores and grades, and more school activities.
Consequently, I had one choice in the fall of 1990– the one school that admitted me out of the four I applied to. It turned out to be a fortuitous choice for me, as I did well at Longwood College (now Longwood University). But maybe if I’d had someone like Rick Singer in my pocket, I might have gone somewhere else… Somewhere a lot better known, more prestigious, and more expensive.
In March 2019, I was just as shocked as anyone when I saw the photos of actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman being arrested by the FBI in their fancy homes. A lot of people were outraged when they heard about what the famous actresses had done for their daughters, but they certainly weren’t alone that day. They simply had the misfortune of being the faces of the Varsity Blues scandal, a “sting” operation that resulted in dozens of arrests of wealthy parents who wanted a “side door” to prestigious universities for their children. They’d hired Rick Singer, a hustler who had convinced them that if they did what he said and paid enough money, their little darlings would be accepted to universities like the University of Southern California, Yale, and Georgetown. The parents were unaware that after years of hustling, Rick Singer was about to go down… and they would be going with him as their children, most of whom were completely unaware of any shenanigans, would watch in horror and humiliation.
I see I downloaded Nicole LaPorte’s book, Guilty Admissions: The Bribes, Favors, and Phonies behind the College Cheating Scandal, in early March 2021, about two weeks after it was published on February 23, 2021. I just finished reading it this morning, after some concerted effort. It’s not that it wasn’t an interesting read. On the contrary, I was often flabbergasted by LaPorte’s juicy stories about Singer and the many people who were caught in his web. It wasn’t just parents who got burned by his scam, either. Singer talked coaches, “smart” people, and admissions officials into going “rogue”, accepting money Singer coaxed out of powerful and wealthy parents to make sure their children got into the “best” schools.
LaPorte explains the high pressure environment of southern California, where even very young children are pressured to attend the best private schools that will give them the best shot at going to a big name university. As I read Guilty Admissions, I learned about elite private high schools like Buckley, Marlborough, Marymount, and Harvard-Westlake, all of which had their own vibes.
Each of those private schools have highly qualified guidance counselors, many of which had encountered Rick Singer’s “independent consultation” work and weren’t too keen on their students using it. Singer specialized in gaming the system, and as it’s become incredibly obvious, wasn’t honest in his dealings. But it hadn’t seemed like Singer had started out that way. In the beginning, he seemed more like a legitimate operator who actually spent time with the teens he worked with, helping them get better grades and test scores themselves, rather than falsifying their college applications, lying about their races, paying people to take their college boards for them, or inventing sports teams for them to claim.
Guilty Admissions is definitely a page turner. LaPorte writes well, and to a “nobody” like me, the story is astonishing enough that I don’t need to be “sold” on it. However, there are a few glitches in the book. For instance, at one point, LaPorte refers to “Seaton Hall University”, when she means “Seton Hall”. It was probably a typo, rather than a reflection of LaPorte’s knowledge or lack thereof of the subject matter, but given that she was referring to a university, that mistake was a very noticeable whopper. I also want to point out that it’s already 2023, so some of the information in the book is dated, which is to be expected. Thankfully, we have the Internet for updates.
However, LaPorte includes plenty of footnotes, photos, and other useful tools for readers who want to learn more. I got the sense that she interviewed a lot of key people in this scandal, even as she also watched the same news coverage we all did. When I finished reading Guilty Admissions, I wanted to read more, from a different perspective. I ended up downloading 2020’s Unacceptable: Privilege, Deceit & the Making of the College Admissions Scandal, by Melissa Korn and Jennifer Levitz. I don’t know when I’ll get around to reading that book, but at least one Amazon reviewer wrote that he thought it was a better book with a different perspective. LaPorte mostly focuses on southern California and the University of Southern California, with some mentions of other elite universities like Yale and Georgetown. I think it’s important to realize that there were more people and schools involved. This is a widespread issue.
I mentioned in my previous post that I had the “privilege” of being a temp in the admissions office at the College of William & Mary in the late 90s. William & Mary is a highly selective school, so I saw a lot of materials from very exclusive and expensive private high schools. It really opened my eyes… and that was in 1998! Nowadays, I think the prospect of choosing a college is worse than it was back then. So many young people think they need to go to a “brand name” college! It’s absolutely crazy!
LaPorte also adds that COVID-19, ironically, has really messed up the college game. Fewer young adults are opting for college now, as it’s gotten so expensive. COVID-19 made the experience less appealing, as students were expected to wear masks and take classes on Zoom, rather than have the immersive experience so many of us older folks have had. I often like to say that every cloud has its silver lining. What I mean is that every situation, no matter how horrible, has the potential to bring about something positive. I don’t think COVID-19 is, overall, a great thing at all… but maybe it has acted as sort of a bucket of water of sorts– cooling off the insane pressure to attend a certain university, or even to go to university at all.
I certainly don’t regret going to college or grad school. I got a lot out of both experiences. But the cost of attending is getting harder and harder to justify, especially for people who end up like I have. 😉 I just think it’s sad that so many people seem to think that it’s worth risking prison to get their kids into certain universities, especially when I know from personal experience that there are MANY excellent schools of higher learning in the United States. I think the Varsity Blues scandal is a good reminder to us all that chasing an image can lead to ruin… or at least uncomfortable familiarity with the sensation of wearing handcuffs outside of a movie set or a bedroom.
Anyway, I would recommend Nicole LaPorte’s book, Guilty Admissions. I’d give it four stars out of five, and recommend additional resources. I look forward to comparing this book with Unacceptable by Korn and Levitz, whenever I get around to reading it.
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