The Rich are Different

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. F.Scott Fitzgerald “The Rich Boy” (1926)

Yes, they have more money. Ernest Hemingway

After the recent college admissions scandal, perhaps Hemingway would have cynically added, “And they cheat, even when they don’t have to.”

On March 12, 2019, the Department of Justice filed criminal charges against 50 people including 33 parents who had fraudulently lied and bribed their children’s way into selective colleges. Operation Varsity Blues revealed a college admissions system so crazy and competitive that these extremely wealthy and well-connected parents, including the actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, felt compelled to cheat, even when they didn’t have to.

William “Rick” Singer, the mastermind behind the scheme, bragged about his services bribing college coaches and test proctors who would guarantee admission through “the side door.” Apparently, regular folks use the “front door” of submitting actual grades, scores and extracurriculars, while the very wealthy can use “the back door” gaining admission for mediocre candidates by making large donations and pulling strings. The poster boy for “back door” admits is Jared Kushner who secured his slot after his father’s $2.5 million donation to Harvard. The “Z-list,” as it is known at Harvard, is a practice widespread at all prestigious schools allowing the children of alumni, large donors and the well-connected to be favored over all other applicants.

However, even the Z-list wasn’t enough for these parents. Instead, they preferred outright cheating, paying millions to guarantee acceptance by faking athletic profiles and submitting fraudulent test scores. Singer’s “side door” scheme went undetected for nearly a decade, from 2011 to 2019, although it may have started even earlier. Over that time, Singer collected more than $25 million from his clients to pay off psychologists, athletic coaches and test proctors.

Although the Z-list and “the back door” illustrate the inherent unfairness of college admissions, at least with that system, the quid pro quo is not illegal. Kushner never submitted a false profile pretending he was a world-class sailor; never doctored his transcript nor paid someone for his mediocre SAT scores. He never pretended to be world-class at anything except wealthy. And arguably, the Kushner wealth, funneled into campus buildings and endowed chairs, could be enjoyed by other Harvard students. Most of the bribes Singer arranged only benefitted the direct recipients.

So what can be learned from these ultra-wealthy parents behaving badly? That these parents, despite all the advantages that their wealth and status have already granted them and their offspring, still feel it is necessary to cheat. That they feel entitled to cheat and are willing to pay millions for the privilege.

Rather than spend their money to give their children the opportunities to learn at the best schools, from the best teachers, tutors and coaches, these parents decided their kids were too dumb, lazy or incompetent to be entrusted with such matters as their very own futures. In several cases, it appears the students didn’t even know their parents were cheating for them. Transcripts from taped conversations show some parents insisting their children not find out their test scores and applications were falsified by Singer.

For these parents, the back door wasn’t good enough; caught up in their own hubris, they wanted even more. Donating a building or two may reveal their children are mediocre, like Jared Kushner. No, to escape any doubt their kids are the very best and worthy of Stanford or USC, they decided to circumvent the system entirely by cheating their kids’ way to the top. By doing so, they have harmed everyone who played by the rules including their own unsuspecting children.

Most ironic of all is the harm these parents have inflicted upon their kids. Yes, the rich are different from you and me. Wealth, Fitzgerald writes in “The Rich Boy” “does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful.”

By cheating on behalf of their children, these parents who thought that money could buy everything, may have stolen from their offspring the most valuable thing of all–the feeling of accomplishment derived from trying your best and working hard toward a goal, even if that goal is not guaranteed. These Varsity Blues parents—CEOs, professors, doctors, famous actors—appear to exemplify how hard work and effort lead to career success, yet they did not pass on these values to their very own children. Perhaps they thought they were saving them the trouble of working hard for their achievements. Perhaps by eliminating all obstacles from the path to success, these parents believed they “loved” their children.

Instead, these wealthy cheaters have made their children soft rather than hard; made them ignorant rather than educated; made them ridiculed rather than admired. What type of parental love is that?

Actual parental love consists of allowing your children to try and fail, of providing the opportunities, but not rigging the outcomes. How else can children become capable adults and responsible citizens who will continue to contribute to society once their parents are gone?

Yes, the rich are different. Money does matter and what Operation Varsity Blues shows is that college admissions is far from an equal playing field. However, parents who are fortunate enough to afford the best private schools, tutors, coaches and expensive sports like sailing, crew and fencing know that they must let their children try, work hard and possibly fail. If you can afford the best for your children, you must ask them to do their best. That is the most valuable inheritance of all.

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