Lori Loughlin College Scandal

The Admissions Scandal Is About Parental Narcissism—and the Schools’ Complicity

Actress Lori Loughlin and her daughters are at the center of a scheme in which wealthy parents bribed college coaches and other insiders to get their children into some of the most elite schools in the country. (AP Images / Chris Pizzello)

Stanford has a sailing team. The University of Southern California has a water-polo team. And people will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to fake their unqualified kids’ way into top schools.

These were just a few of the many things I learned from FBI agent Laura Smith’s affidavit in the college-admissions scandal that has ensnared 33 rich parents, fascinated millions of significantly less-rich parents, and provided full employment for the nation’s op-ed writers, pundits, and tweeters.

The story, much like its protagonists, wants for nothing. It has celebrities: Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, along with the latter’s fashion-designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, have been arrested for scheming on their children’s behalf. It features obnoxious bigwigs like lawyer Gordon Caplan (who said, “To be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here”) and finance executive Manuel Henriquez, whose wife and daughter “gloated” about successfully cheating on the SAT. There’s also a mastermind, William “Rick” Singer, who earned from $200,000 to $6.5 million per client arranging doctored SAT scores and falsified athletic credentials. He did this while funneling the parents’ payments into his fake foundation, which allegedly helped “disadvantaged youth.” Parents were even able to deduct the bribes on their taxes.

Agent Smith’s dry prose doubles as a savage critique of higher education in this country. Rich schools welcome wealthy but academically mediocre applicants—did you know that two-thirds of sports scholarships go to well-off white kids?—while tuition soars and teaching is consigned to adjunct professors and graduate students. This is what college looks like for entitled parents who don’t care about education, and whose children don’t care either. Before she “got into” USC, Olivia Jade Giannulli, Loughlin and Giannulli’s daughter, was a beauty vlogger and “influencer” with 2 million YouTube followers and her own makeup line at Sephora. “I do want the experience of game days, partying,” she told her followers. “I don’t really care about school.” When news broke of her parents’ arrest, she was hanging out with friends on the yacht owned by Rick Caruso, chairman of the USC board of trustees.

Many have noted that this is a story about all-consuming inequality: Instead of leveling class differences, education reinforces them. But it’s also about parental narcissism and status-seeking disguised as love. These kids were obviously so academically weak that even a big donation to an elite college wouldn’t pry open the door. Why couldn’t these parents, like millions of others, accept that school was not their child’s strong suit? The fact is that you can get an excellent education at hundreds of American colleges, many of which have fine reputations and are easier to get into. Take Bard, for instance, which accepts 49 percent of its applicants; Sarah Lawrence, whose acceptance rate is 43 percent; or the University of Wisconsin–Madison, which admits more than half of all students who apply.

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