The U.S. College Admission Scam Is Basically an Ivy League Fyre Festival

Both these scams get an A+ for revealing how people with privilege operate

Ishani Nath
Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin and Billy McFarland in a collage image on an orange background with waves
(Photo: Getty Images Art: Joel Louzado)

The U.S. college admission scam may as well be called “Mo Money, Mo Problems.”

Yesterday, 50 people were charged in an elaborate scheme where rich and famous people tried to buy their children’s way into American universities. The scam, orchestrated by William “Rick” Singer, involved a fake charitable organization, some choice Photoshop work and bribes given to SAT/ACT exam administrators as well as university coaches and admin staff—with payments ranging from a casual $200,000 to $6.5 million for parents to guarantee their kids admission. The 33 parents involved include real estate moguls, CEOs and actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. That’s right, Aunt Becky isn’t so wholesome after all.

The details of this case are WILD—and also bear serious resemblance to another unabashed display of privilege and flagrant disregard for the rules. *Desperate Housewives narrator voice* Yes, I’m talking about the Fyre Festival.

If you’re having trouble seeing how the 2017 “luxury music festival”—which promised an exclusive and Instagrammable experience in the Bahamas and instead delivered cheese sandwiches and disaster relief tents—is similar to Lynette Scavo playing out what feels like a Desperate Housewives plotline IRL, let me break it down for you.

A version of this scam already exists, legally

All Fyre Festival creator Billy McFarland wanted to do was throw a super exclusive, #FOMO-inducing party on a beach packed with models. And at the core of the American college admissions scam, which authorities termed “Operation Varsity Blues,” was a need for parents to get their kids into elite universities, such as Yale, Georgetown and Stanford. And in both these instances, we see the 1% using their wealth to access so-called elite experiences.

But here’s the thing. THEY DID NOT NEED TO BREAK THE LAW TO DO THAT.

The idea for Fyre Festival wasn’t originally terrible, or even that new. Coachella has been pumping out VIP packages and luring in celebs for years—the system for this to succeed was already in place.

Similarly, the university admission system, in both the U.S. and Canada, is already tipped in favour of wealthy families. A 2017 study of 38 U.S. colleges found that the privileged 1% made up more of the student body than all of the students from the bottom 60% combined.

The children of wealthy families don’t have to worry about scholarships, student loans or working part-time while keeping their grades up. Affordability isn’t a factor. So, instead of buying into Singer’s scheme, the 33 parents involved in the recent scam could’ve put their numerous dollar bills towards the best SAT tutors, the fanciest prep schools, the extracurriculars that look good on college applications plus a sizeable donation to the university of their choice to sweeten the pot. The formula for using your privilege to get into the best universities already exists—and it does not involve Photoshopping your kid’s face onto images of actual student athletes to sneak them in under false pretences.

The system of legal incentives is so accepted as part of the fabric of U.S. college admissions that it was even referenced in the press conference for the scam. “We’re not talking about donating a building, we’re talking about fraud,” U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said.

Paying for the image, not the experience  

It’s important to take a minute here and really consider WTF the families involved with the U.S. college admission scam were buying. In theory, students want to attend post-secondary institutions to learn the skills they need to have a successful career. But their parents don’t actually seem to care about that end goal because if they did, their kids’ real test scores would be enough and they could go to whatever school accepted them. Instead, these parents spent thousands (or millions) to alter test scores so their kids could get into specific institutions. This seems to signal that they in fact do not care about education at all. It’s not about what their child learned or is capable of, or about their potential future. Instead, the U.S. college admission scam seems to be about these families trying to solve any and all problems with money, rather than work, just to perpetuate a certain image.

And that is a play right out of McFarland’s book. McFarland’s main goal was to create an elite experience that would look good on the ‘gram. He put all his money into marketing a slick, desirable event full of A-list talent like Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner—but seemed to care decidedly less about what the actual experience was shaping up to be.

If you were one of the many viewers who tuned in to Netflix’s Fyre, you know that feeling of watching McFarland repeatedly promising cash to employees and vendors for a multitude of problems, without any regard for what he was actually purchasing. Fyre Festival contained lies at multiple levels, starting with the marketing right down to the falsehoods McFarland told to the company’s employees and local Bahamian workers—echoed by the layers upon layers of fraud involved in the U.S. admissions scam. The two cases share a similar sentiment that whether it’s getting into Yale or hosting a festival on an uninhabited island with no infrastructure, nothing is insurmountable if you have money. All you had to do was keep up appearances. (*Looking at you Aunt Becky*)

That unabashed feeling of entitlement

Whether it’s the Fyre Festival or the U.S. college admission scam, both demonstrate a sense of entitlement for nice things, with a complete disregard for other people.

And this is where my normie blood really starts to boil. It made me heated when McFarland repeatedly ignored his employee’s warnings that the festival was nowhere near ready for attendees. It raised a few degrees more when he convinced one of his staff to put $150,000 of Fyre festival expenses on a personal credit card. And it hit an all-time high when McFarland fled the Bahamas leaving a local restaurant owner and the staff who had worked round the clock to set up the festival as best they could, without compensation. As much as the Fyre Festival was a demonstration of privilege, it also revealed the unabashed level of entitlement that McFarland and his team had to the time, space and labour in the Bahamas. They came, they did whatever they wanted and they left, with complete disregard for the locals they screwed over.

In the same way, the U.S. college admission scam taps into a bigger system of privilege that people of colour and other marginalized people don’t have access to. It hits a nerve because, though every marginalized person knows that we don’t all start at the same place or get the same opportunities, we’re repeatedly told that education is accessible to all and that the old cliché of anything being possible if you just work hard enough is true, even at the most elite academic institutions—and even though the stats say something completely different.

When I first saw the headlines, my eyebrow raised at the idea that these parents felt this scam was something they had to do when the system was already stacked in their favour. My fist clenched when I realized it wasn’t even about the education, it was about pure vanity. (Despite the fact that some people were bribing their way into Wake Forest University. What?) And I had to put down my phone when it sunk in that the 50 people charged yesterday completely disregarded the applicants who actually did the work, and still missed out on those spots.

Details about Operation Varsity Blues are still being revealed, but here’s hoping that Netflix and Hulu are already working on a documentary about this mess.

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