Cheating Parents Should Be Required to Subsidize College for Students in Need
By Irvin B. Nathan and Elizabeth Sarah Gere*
The outrageous scandal uncovered by Operation Varsity Blues—by which wealthy, well-connected parents paid millions of dollars in bribes and engaged in other illegal and unethical schemes to get their high schoolers into prestigious universities—struck a sensitive nerve at charitable organizations in the District of Columbia that devote their efforts to encouraging economically disadvantaged students, despite tremendous obstacles, to study and work hard, play by the rules, and pursue higher education as a way of improving themselves and their community.
One such volunteer, nonprofit organization, of which we have long been active members, is the Abramson Scholarship Foundation. The Foundation provides partial college scholarships and supportive mentoring to highly talented but economically disadvantaged D.C. public high school graduates. All of the funding for the Foundation comes from voluntary donations. The more than one million dollars it has worked diligently to raise and then provided in scholarships over the past quarter of a century to almost 300 highly deserving, strongly motivated students is dwarfed by the amount spent by the few dozens of parents to allow their already privileged children to unfairly gain further advantages.
The majority of our student recipients are the first in their families to attend college. Most are from single parent homes. Several have suffered homelessness while attending high school. For some, English is not their first language. Others have an incarcerated parent or have suffered or witnessed violence. All come from families of extremely limited financial means. The only resources they have to seek college admission is their intellect, their grit and determination, and whatever financial and other support they can obtain from organizations like ours or universities.
Our Scholars have become engineers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, nonprofit organization leaders, doctors, accountants and even a newly minted pediatric nurse. Many of our graduates now mentor the next generation of students and continue a record of community service, including serving on our Board of Directors. To put these deeply deserving students at a further disadvantage in the college admission process by illegal and unethical means harms all of us. To create a phony charity to execute this scheme exacerbates the damage done to legitimate nonprofits, like ours, truly dedicated to supporting those without the means of the one percent.
Every spring, the Foundation’s board members interview motivated high school seniors seeking financial support. One of the many insights that emerge from these interviews is the strong motivation it takes for these students to overcome the peer pressure in high school to denigrate education and to blow off school. Many street-savvy teenagers already believe that the system is rigged and that students of color or those who lack financial means have no fair chance of competing with privileged kids in succeeding in school or in life in America. As a consequence, the young people who study hard, make diligent efforts to get good grades, and engage in extracurricular activities in an effort to improve their chances of college admission have to battle against this peer pressure and overcome all the obstacles that stand between them and success.
The fact is that, even apart from the illegal and unethical schemes that have been exposed in the Varsity Blues indictment, the system is stacked against the poor. Children of the relatively well-to-do can be sent to expensive private secondary schools; they can receive costly tutoring in academic subjects or in preparation for college entrance exams; and they can receive preferences either as legacies or because of their family’s large financial contributions to the university of choice. It is no coincidence that at the most prestigious colleges in America, including the Ivy League, more students come from the top one percent of the income scale than from the bottom 60 percent.
Until we as a society take serious steps to even the playing field in college admissions and more broadly in educational opportunities, the gap in incomes and lifestyles is only going to grow greater, leading to fewer and fewer young people who can reach their full potential. Of course, no silver bullet will cure the problem, but the present state of affairs does suggest that a just and appropriate resolution of the criminal charges and civil suits that have been brought against the wealthy-but-misguided parents and their co-conspirators is not long prison terms or hefty fines that will go into the federal treasury, but instead, sizable court-ordered contributions to charitable organizations and universities that will help fund the educations of deserving students from low- and middle-income families. Particularly those universities which at best turned a blind eye to these deceitful practices have an obligation to recruit and help finance the education of talented, motivated, economically disadvantaged youth who are striving to get ahead in our increasingly competitive society.
* The authors, the former Attorney General for the District of Columbia and the former Deputy Attorney General of the Public Interest Division, are members of the Board of Directors of the Frederick B. Abramson Scholarship Foundation.