Empathy and Other People's Money: The College Admissions Bribery Scandal

Empathy and Other People's Money: The College Admissions Bribery Scandal

Reading the first reports of this college admission “pay to play” scandal begs the question:  Who really deserves to be a member of the United States much-lauded meritocracy?

I had written a first draft of a blog post on empathy that I was going to polish and publish today.  Then the news dropped of the college admissions bribery scandal (see NPR’s reporting of it here), with dozens of wealthy people being indicted for paying thousands of dollars and cheating the system to get their kids into name brand-name universities.  I scrapped the first draft and started a new document in good ol’ Microsoft Word.  If a news story calls for reflection and an attempt for empathy, it is this one.

The Story of My College Admission

While not a graduate of one of the named universities in this report, I am the graduate of an “elite” college, “Ivy-adjacent,” you might say.  Coming from a distinctly mediocre high school, attending an elite college was a dream -- and a stretch -- for me.  One guidance counselor at my school even said, “You’re graduating from this high school, don’t you know that you can’t get into any of the colleges that you applied to?  You should apply somewhere else.”  Thanks for the encouragement.

Well, I did get into one of those schools that apparently I was not supposed to get into.  And as I found out many years later, my college was not too committed to my success, as evidenced by the fact that I did not receive any merit aid or grants to help me pay for my tuition.  My parents were left to their own devices to pay for said Ivy-adjacent college, and struggled for four years to do so.  I left with student loans (though not to the extent that is seen today).  I buckled down and had them paid off in ten years.

The scene at my alma mater was definitely “elite.”  As a brunette from a public high school I was their version of diversity.  On my first day of freshman year a petite blonde equestrian from Chevy Chase, Maryland, walked up and shook my father’s hand.  I had never seen a teenager do that before.  Later, while going around a circle doing a get-to-know you game, she commented to a new-found friend, “Oh, you went to public school?  That is so cute!”  And that pretty much sums up my social experience in college.

Did I get a great education at this Ivy-adjacent institution?  Undeniably, my professors gave me the education of my dreams and (probably unknowingly) the emotional support to get through four very tough years.  Did having this degree on my resume pave the way for my future success by signaling to others that I was a part of a special club?  Maybe so, though I work in the social services so I am not exactly cashing in on that investment.

The College Admissions Bribery Scandal Today

I read this report and listened to the radio news and watched the reaction on MSNBC.  I also read a couple of opinion pieces in the New York Times and The Atlantic.  This scandal is simultaneously shocking and not shocking to me.  Did I have classmates whose parents were able to pay cash for their child’s education?  Sure I did, and it wasn’t too hard to guess who was who.  They ran the social scene on campus, they were the ones to get the top awards at graduation, and they are the ones who actively participate in the alumni association today.  In essence, this is their world and I got to visit it for four years.

But for those 32 parents who just got arrested?  Why did they make the conscious (or maybe subconscious?) decision to break the law to get their kids into these name-brand universities?  As one television personality put it, “You’re rich and your kid is going to be fine.  Why did you need to cheat to get them into college?”

Employing Empathy Around the College Admissions Bribery Scandal

So let’s consider this:  Why would a wealthy parent lie and cheat to get their kid into college?  If you look at the report, the parents arrested have addresses like New York City, San Francisco, and Beverly Hills.  At first glance, you would assume that they have enough influence to open doors for their children without needing them to have a name-brand school on their resumes.

The first step in trying to empathize with why these parents made these decisions would be to listen to them tell their story.  And to really listen without judgement.  If we were so lucky to have audience with one of these parents, we could then ask clarifying questions to confirm that we are hearing their story correctly.  We could watch their non-verbal cues like their facial expressions or body language to gauge how they are feeling, and we could try to put ourselves into their shoes and consider what it would feel like to be a wealthy parent who is highly motivated to send their child to a certain university.

My curiosity leads to a few different questions:

  1. Did they really believe that attending a brand-name university was the only way to ensure that their child would be successful later in life?

  2. Were they of the mindset that “people like us do things like this” with regards to paying a private consultant to bribe their way to a college acceptance letter?

  3. Did they fear that their child’s educational potential could not stand on its own merit, necessitating this type of intervention?

As a mom myself I will state that I want my kids to get quality education, though based on my own experience I am still reflecting on what that school should look like.  And as a mom to one kid who is decidedly not a traditional learner, I do wonder which academic environment will allow him to be his best self.  But maybe because I don’t have any friends who have access to an exclusive professional service such as this, I don’t have that feeling of “people like us do things like this.”

I think that this story has exposed the tip of the iceberg and that we are going to see more stories like this in the coming months.  This exposes the dark side of the Story of Meritocracy that we like to tell ourselves here in the United States. 

Now I would like to hear from the Talking About Money Tribe:  What do you think about this story?  How does your own educational path influence your reaction?  Can you empathize with why the parents exposed here made the choices that they made?  I am all ears.

Talking About Money Article Club: The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior by M. Keith Chen

Talking About Money Article Club: The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior by M. Keith Chen