Pearls of Wisdom: “For college admissions, $50,000 is a scandal, $50 million is a celebration.”

In reading about the massive college admissions scandals this week, a truth struck me that I hadn’t consciously been aware of before. Yes, compromising the proctors and cheating on the standardized tests is bad. Bribing the coach to admit your child as an athletic recruit, when they don’t even play sports, is bad. Yes, many of the actual students involved were probably not aware of the nefarious side of the business, and now have to reckon with that knowledge of what their parents and other adults did, and how it impacts their lives – that is certainly bad too.

But what struck me is that there are several categories of rich people, and the category that you fall under can determine whether the amount of money you pay to buy your child a better future is a scandal or a celebration.

First, there are regular rich people. These are the kind of kids who have money in their college trust funds before they’re old enough for preschool. These are the kind of families that think about their vacation plans for a few minutes, and then decide that actually, first class airfare is really worth it for long flights. This is the level of comfort, but not too much excess.

Those kids already have a lot of advantages over typical children by the time they reach school age. They have parents who read to them, a busy schedule from the days of mommy-and-me classes to learning extracurriculars or a full time nanny to shuffle them around and teach them in private.  

By the time they’re old enough to apply to college, those advantages pay off even more. They take excellent SAT preparation classes, they can hire private counselling when their school has a college counselor for every 30 or 40 seniors, and they don’t have to spend time on financial aid applications or worry about student debt.

Secondly, there are the very rich. They don’t need college trust funds at all — their family office staff just takes care of the bills. They fly private jets instead of first class. They’ve had household staff their whole lives, and maybe they don’t even realize until their late teenage years that there are people who don’t go to college.

This second category really contains the families that pay tens of thousands of dollars to college admission “advisors.” Sometimes it’s a deliberate choice, as seen with many of the defendants in this scandal, and sometimes they simply hire people who don’t want to disappoint their clients, and end up cheating as a result.

Then there are the uber rich. I still vaguely remember a few decades ago when my son was born in the Klingenstein building at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York — the receptionists had pictures of one of Klingenstein’s family members and detailed instructions taped to their desks of what to do when she showed up for the birth of the descendant of the building’s namesake. This is the kind of money that buys you access, respect, and deference wherever you go, without necessarily even shelling out a dime.

These children can apply to college with an unwritten guarantee when the professor who holds a chair endowed in their family’s name asks for a courtesy meeting. They go on a tour of campus, and instead of a frazzled undergraduate tour guide, they get a dean walking next to them showcasing buildings bearing their namesake.

They don’t need to cheat, because they’re not even playing the same game as everyone else. Fifty thousand dollars in bribes is a crime, but fifty million into a school’s endowment is an unspoken, but universally understood, golden ticket. While the spotlight now shining on the unfair advantages of the wealthy in college admissions is definitely good, it seems useless to talk about one without acknowledging the gross inequity of the other.

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