Class rules: the US college scam and its rich rewards

When I moved back to Sydney after many years away, the question I got asked more than any other was, “Where did you go to school?”

Mostly, this inquiry came from strangers who were probably just trying to place my admittedly mangled accent. But this isn’t just a conversational crutch. Where someone spent the ages of 13 to 18 has become shorthand for more complicated markers of identity, like class. The American version is to ask where someone went to college, which is what they call the undergraduate years. Because the majority of universities in the US are private, they’ve adopted the same aggressive branding as other corporate entities – much more so than even the most exclusive private schools.

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This goes some way to explaining why a cabal of Hollywood actors were recently caught bribing their childrens’ way into selective institutions of higher learning. The college admissions scam landed Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman in prison for 14 days, after it was revealed she had paid $US15,000 (about $22,000) to inflate her daughter’s entrance exam results. Another Hollywood identity, Lori Loughlin, is accused of spending half a million dollars to ensure her daughter’s entrance to the University of Southern California.

The thing is, college in the US isn’t just about learning, at least not exclusively. For decades now it’s been enshrined as a rite of passage to adulthood, as well as the gateway to an enduring professional network. In recent years, as inequality has risen, where you went to college has become even more significant. It’s now how you establish your bona fides as a person. Take Lori Loughlin and her daughter, Olivia Jade Giannulli. Before she even began thinking about college, Giannulli was a successful beauty vlogger. Millions followed her pronouncements on lip gloss and luminiser. As she made abundantly clear on YouTube, more study wasn’t the preferred option; instead, she wanted to ride the influencer wave for as long as she could. (This is southern California; permit me the surfing analogy.) Clearly Loughlin didn’t spend all that money so her daughter could read Finnegans Wake under the guidance of brilliant professors. No – she understood that if her child made it to USC, its brand would bring value for the rest of her life.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that rich people can buy their way into whichever US college they want anyway. I didn’t know him personally when we were at Harvard together, but Jared Kushner – the man in charge of finding peace in the Middle East and solving the US’s opioid crisis – was one of a group of rich kids on campus widely understood to have had a helping hand getting in. (Subsequent investigation by journalist Daniel Golden has found that Kushner’s father had pledged $US2.5 million to Harvard while Jared was in high school, where, according to a former school official, his grades “did not warrant” Harvard admission.)

Theoretically, these wealthy students enable colleges like Harvard to give generous financial aid packages to the more academically deserving. Harvard tuition is currently $US46,340 a year; if Kushner’s dad wanted to help someone who actually studied in year 12, then we should let him. But what all these examples show is that there are many paths to even the most prestigious educational institutions – and that a diploma from one is a less useful barometer of intellect, and certainly of character, than is often assumed.

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