Privilege and Punishment: Felicity Huffman and the Prestige Problem

With legacy enrollment dramatically rising at America’s top colleges and universities, who needs fraudulent admissions anyway?

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Photo: Steven Senne/AP/Shutterstock.

One of the biggest stories of 2019 might be the college admissions bribery scandal. Last March, US federal prosecutors charged dozens of wealthy parents, including some well-known celebrities, with criminal conspiracy and fraud relating to various “cheat-the-system” techniques aimed at giving their children unfair advantages at getting into prestigious universities. The underlying reality of elite parents engaging in brazenly deceptive practices to give their kids a leg up should surprise absolutely no one; the fact that they got caught should surprise everyone. Even more newsworthy, though, is the level of privilege you can sniff in the reactions of some of those charged. Lori Loughlin arrived at her court hearing like it was nothing more than an irksome press conference that her assistant forgot to tell her about.

The tale of the Emmy-winning, Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated actor Felicity Huffman, who received a paltry 14 days in jail last week, also reeks of privilege. She told a judge that she only paid a college admissions consultant $15,000 to rig her daughter’s SAT score because she felt she needed to give her daughter a fair shot at getting into college to study…acting. She believed that paying someone to doctor her daughters’ test scores — an act that couldn’t be a more textbook example of an unfair advantage — would put her child on an equal footing with her peers. Huffman’s privilege carried through to the letters for leniency from Huffman; her husband, actor William H. Macy; her Desperate Housewives co-star Eva Longoria; and 25 other people — all arguing that Huffman shouldn’t go to prison because, y’know, she’s just regular folk, and Huffman felt overwhelmed by motherhood, and that Huffman’s heavy-handed arrest — agents entered the home early one morning, heavily armed — traumatized her family.

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Talk about desperate housewives: Huffman wanted to prove that she and her family are ordinary people with ordinary problems, and therefore they shouldn’t be arrested and treated like ordinary people even when one of them broke the law. After all, if attractive and famous white people can’t be treated with leniency, who can be? Fortunately, the wise and thoughtful Meghan McCain provided poignant insight:

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As is often the case with American crime and justice, however, we’re missing the forest for the trees. Huffman and Loughlin, along with other parents in the scandal who aren’t as famous (but still quite rich), should face harsh punishment. They used their privilege to undermine meritocracy and the legitimacy of higher education. Rich kids shouldn’t have easier paths to unearned success and prestige just because their parents have celebrity and a hefty checkbook. If people aren’t going to be punished for gaming the system, then what is the American college admissions process other than a racket that primarily judges the applicants’ access to resources? Universities themselves would take a major hit if this happened. They would be denigrated as elitist, out-of-touch ivory towers.

Er, that is exactly America’s college admissions process. Did we really need the two whitest women in Hollywood to go down for us to become cognizant of how brutally un-meritocratic higher education is, and how heavily a child’s access to parental wealth improves their odds of acceptance? Again, the real news story isn’t that rich people gamed the system, it’s that they were caught. So let’s ask a harder question: How will jailing Huffman repair America’s broken and categorically unequal university institutions? While Huffman is in the slammer, will we collectively analyze at all the factors that caused a woman with all the privilege in the world to still feel like college was out of reach for her kids? I doubt it.

We know the cost of college has dramatically escalated over the past few decades; today, it is rising eight times faster than median wage growth. Astronomical student loan debt now makes up the largest non-housing personal debt in America. Universities know that their degrees still provide young people with access to better jobs and more wealth, so they use that information to dramatically inflate the actual costs of enrollment. To escape a debt-trap, a young person essentially must be either born into wealth, or win a scholarship.

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These financial issues obviously do not apply to Huffman’s kids, who fall into the category “too wealthy to care.” Yet the costs of college do have a trickle-up effect on the super-rich and those born to privilege as well. In a system where everyone is encouraged to take on debt and go to college regardless of cost, wealth isn’t the barrier it once was to the masses entering higher education, yet those who feel that they are socially superior to the riff-raff and the hoi polloi still feel the need to demonstrate their superiority. Instead of bartering in wealth, they barter in prestige. Indeed, researchers have concluded that parents no longer put stock in whether their kids get into college so much as which college it is. You’re the mother of a student at a local state college? So what — no big whoop. You’re the mother of not one, but two students at USC? Now you’ve got her attention — and the attention of her bank account. That’s something you can brag about to the other moms at the country club. Getting your kids into an elite school isn’t about quality of education or access to success and opportunity; they already have plenty of both. It’s about a status symbol. That’s what motivates people like Huffman and Loughlin to bankroll illegal admission schemes for their kids.

Privately, here’s what people like Huffman and Loughlin might argue: What’s the harm in rich people throwing their money at certain schools if there are more than enough colleges and universities to go around? After all, talented poor and middle-class kids can and do go somewhere else — and get scholarships to boot. This where the real tragedy of the college admissions scandal kicks in. Studies show that while there is little correlation between the success of people of privilege and the schools they attend, access to an elite university can substantially increase the chances of success for less privileged students. So again, this has little to do with accessing education and nearly everything to do with accessing prestige. Attending Harvard gives you access to a network of the elite, to a gold, glowing star on your resume. These things mean little to those who have it throughout their lives. It means the world to those who did not.

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We found out that rich people are so enthralled by prestige that they’re willing to cheat to get it for their kids, even if doing so has negligible effect on their kids’ chances for success. We found out that they’ll do this directly at the expense of poor and middle-class kids who actually do need to attend prestigious schools to move up the social ladder. Arresting a few dozen parents of privilege and throwing them in jail won’t remove or change this gross and perverse incentive — in fact, all it will do is force them to change their approach. After all, who needs fraudulent admissions when legacy admission is rapidly rising at America’s top schools? So long as prestige and privilege remain heavily tied to a few elite and complicit schools — all of which are happy to exploit status-anxiety among upper-class American parents — the game will remain rigged. And some of America’s most talented students, who just happen to be born without privilege, will suffer for it the most.