Column: ‘The system is rigged’ feels real when the rich cheat to get their kids into top colleges

The scheme, which allegedly began in 2011, centered on the owner of a for-profit Newport Beach college admissions company that wealthy parents are accused of paying to help their children cheat on college entrance exams and to falsify athletic recor


We’ve been hearing about it for years.

The system is rigged.

For the record:

11:20 p.m. March 12, 2019A previous version of this article misspelled Lori Loughlin’s last name as Laughlin.

Donald Trump went at it from the right, Bernie Sanders from the left. They targeted different villains but identified the same casualty.

The little guy. The one who kept falling further behind while a select few prospered.

And now we can see it as clear as the writing on the indictment.

The college entrance cheating scandal unveiled by federal prosecutors on Tuesday is a story for our time, a perfect snapshot of fatuous American greed and savage inequality.

The parents charged in the scheme are rich and connected, and their children had all the advantages that come with such privilege.


But, if prosecutors are right, that wasn’t enough.

So they cheated to get their kids into some of the most elite universities in the United States, according to the indictment.

Some parents allegedly paid hundreds of thousands to put in the fix on SAT scores, or to bribe school officials, while others paid millions.

“We’re talking about deception and fraud — fake test scores, fake credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials,” Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said at a news conference Tuesday. As he spoke, some of the four dozen accused perps were still being rounded up and paraded into courtrooms in a national spectacle of moral depravity.

And California — national capital of both wealth and poverty — played a central role in the scandal.

Heads have already rolled at UCLA and USC.

Actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, clothing brand creator J. Mossimo Giannulli, are accused of paying $500,000 in bribes to have their two daughters designated as recruits for the USC crew team.


One of the two daughters babbles in a YouTube video about her academic interests. “I don’t really care about school,” she says, adding that she does want to participate in game days and partying. She later apologized for her remarks.

Actress Felicity Huffman is accused of disguising a $15,000 charity payment in a bribery scheme with the goal of upping her daughter’s SAT score. Huffman is the wife of actor William H. Macy, star of a TV drama in which a main character was busted for taking SAT tests for other students. The show is called “Shameless,” and what can I add to that?

Rick Singer, the Newport Beach owner of a college admissions company, was described by prosecutors as the mastermind of the scheme, which was designed to get students into UCLA, USC, Stanford, Yale and Georgetown, regardless of whether they’d earned the shot and without consideration of those whose admission dreams were snuffed to make room.

You can’t really blame the kids for what the grown-ups are accused of doing, and in some cases, it’s not clear the kids even knew what was happening.

But if the charges are true, what kind of world do these people live in? I can’t think of a more corrosive parental lesson than to teach kids that if they can’t quite make the cut, it doesn’t matter, no need to work a little harder, not if you have money.

If the fancy private schools and SAT prep courses can’t do the trick, the proudly entitled know how to win the game anyway.

And by the way, enough already with the idea that in a country with thousands of universities, only a handful are worth going to.

Parents and kids focused only on exclusive schools are wasting time, money and energy on the paper chase, and subjecting children to ridiculous levels of pressure and peer judgment.

And for what?

If these people think their kids need a leg up, I’d be happy to give them a tour of Telfair Elementary School in Pacoima, where nearly a quarter of the children don’t have stable housing.

Or, for a different view of what college is all about, they could pay a visit to my Cal State L.A. class, where most of the students come out of underfunded public schools. The bribes and fees allegedly paid by a single one of the corrupt parents would more than cover a year’s tuition for the whole class.

Full coverage: Dozens charged — including Hollywood actresses — in connection with college admissions scheme »

On Monday night, I asked one of my students, Christian Mejia, to read his paper aloud. The assignment was to write about life in L.A., and he’d written a gem of an essay about growing up surrounded by violence.

Mejia wrote that his block was the only one in his neighborhood on which you didn’t have to worry about gangs or shootings or graffiti. An elderly gent named Glen lived on the street and once he got to know you, he handed you free snacks — candy, ice cream, chips — as often as you cared to return. Even rival gang members dropped their dukes and stood together at the gate, awaiting snacks.

Mejia says he remains inspired years after Glen’s death by his selfless gesture, which brought a measure of peace to a troubled neighborhood.

My students may not be able to buy their way into fancy colleges, but they arrive with a set of powerful tools. They’re scrappy, hungry and intimately familiar with the skills of survival, and they’re driven by a desire to make their parents proud with hard work. Many of them take more than four years to get their degrees because they’re working a job or two or taking care of their elders or their youngers.

They have no mommies and daddies who can fix SAT scores. Where they come from, on the other side of the rigged world, there are no shortcuts.

And they’re better for it.

Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez