Operation Varsity Blues,” the 2019 college admissions scandal, returned to the news earlier this year when a Netflix documentary provided a fresh opportunity to decry abuses of privilege and the selfishness of parents seeking to boast of their children’s achievements. Comforting accounts, to be sure: We are not like those celebrity cheaters! But not very illuminating. When we consider how parenthood has changed in recent years, we may find we are not so different after all.
In 2018, in the course of an unrelated case, the F.B.I. stumbled upon an elaborate scheme, coordinated by a college consultant named William “Rick” Singer, to get the children of wealthy families admitted to selective universities, including Stanford, Yale, Georgetown, and the University of Southern California. Charges were brought against Singer, two of his employees, one university employee, nine college coaches, two people involved in entrance exam administration, and thirty-three prominent parents—most notably, actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, but also CEOs, lawyers, designers, investment bankers, and others. Many of the defendants have since been convicted, sentenced to jail terms, and fined.
Why did they do it? Surely money explains the motives of Singer and the coaches, but what about the parents? Commentators have offered two overlapping explanations. In one, to quote an education professor, the scandal is “just another example of how the rich and powerful make the rules or change and bend them to suit their own interests.” In the other, it shows how rich parents instrumentalize their kids to enhance their own prestige.
We needn’t dismiss these accounts in order to see their inadequacies. Contrary to the first, these rich and powerful parents could not, in fact, manipulate the rules to get what they wanted. They had to resort to Singer and the illegal means he facilitated: cheating on entrance exams, falsifying applications, bribing coaches. And though we might imagine these people saw themselves as untouchable, the wiretapped conversations and court testimony revealed in Netflix’s Operation Varsity Blues show otherwise. The parents were terrified of being caught and constantly sought reassurance from Singer, who exploited their naivete.
The second and related story, about social status, is ad hominem. Though none of us parents can rule out selfish motives, it is hard to imagine that people who already enjoyed great prestige would jeopardize their own livelihoods and reputations merely to satisfy the “inexplicable desire to grasp even more,” in the words of the judge who sentenced Loughlin. “Inexplicable” is right. Surely, a more fundamental desire was at work.
Whatever else may be true, perhaps—just perhaps—they also did it for their kids.
Over the past decade, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture has conducted surveys and interviews with parents about how they are raising their children, and about the hopes and fears they have for their kids’ futures. This research shows that parents, whether of high or low socioeconomic status, devote a great deal of time, energy, and resources to their children. They “invest much effort in providing opportunities that will give [them] a competitive advantage down the road,” to quote a 2019 survey question to which more than 80 percent of parents assented, at least in part.
Some reluctance to give unqualified affirmation concerns the implications of “competitive.” That “hard term” makes some parents “cringe a little bit,” as one father put it. According to one couple, “competitive” sounds “aggressive”; it seems to suggest that “somebody else has to be lower,” and that your investment in your children is “for the sake of being on top.” With these reservations aside, they acknowledge, “in honesty that is what we’re doing.” Nearly every parent who raised this worry said something similar. They agree with the many parents who said, “I want my children to have every advantage possible.”
If talk of competitive advantage sounds like the voice of the affluent, consider another scandal that briefly made headlines just months before Varsity Blues. In this case, the charges of deception were leveled at Michael and Tracey Landry, the leaders of a small private K–12 school in Louisiana that serves predominantly black, working-class students. The school, T.M. Landry, enjoyed national media attention for its success in getting graduates accepted to elite universities. But it turns out that the Landrys were doctoring transcripts, inventing student accomplishments, and spinning false stories of hardship on college applications.
The Landrys were also reported by the New York Times to have “fostered a culture of fear with physical and emotional abuse,” and Mr. Landry was reported to have a criminal record for violence against a student. Stories like this one never focus on parents, though clearly parents were willing to turn their children over to the Landrys. They knew many of the school’s features—students cleaned the school, taught children in the lower grades, stayed into the night, and attended year-round—and must have had some inkling of the harsh disciplinary practices. “Apprehensive families,” reported the Times, “were placated by videos of students solving tough math problems and being accepted to college. ‘When you see these videos,’ [one mother] said, ‘you want that.’” You want, in short, a competitive advantage.
Providing advantages and fostering the unique qualities of each child have become central to parenting, to a distressing degree. In various ways, parents revealed that they have little of durable value—skills or practices or even principles—to transmit to their children. “All we can do as parents,” said one father, “is give [children] options and give them the tools. They have to do it.” One mother explained, “I want him to have what he wants and at least the opportunity to choose and make that happen for himself.” The parental role is “to support their dreams,” what “they want for themselves,” to quote two other parents. Though parents can teach and enable and cajole, the future rests in the children’s hands.
Even a family’s social position and “cultural capital”—tastes, speech patterns, mannerisms, museum visits, and so on—amount to less and less. In a different way than the T.M. Landry students, young people from more affluent homes are likely to view their family background as a handicap. Under the pressure of egalitarian norms, these kids have to show that their accomplishments are not given to them but merited through their hard work and talents.
A Chinese student from a wealthy family in Beijing provides a particularly vivid example. After being accepted to Stanford, she posted a video on social media. In the video, she says: “Some people think, ‘Didn’t you get into Stanford because your family is rich?’” But she insists it wasn’t like that. The admissions officers “have no idea who you are.” On the contrary, “I tested into Stanford through my own hard work.” No doubt she believed that. It later came out that her parents had paid $6.5 million to Rick Singer. She got expelled.
Since the young person’s choices are what determine her course in life, parents must foster independence, self-motivation, and perseverance. Many parents worry that in decisive moments their child will, as one father said, “sell yourself short.” Nearly all parents rank hard work as critical to their children’s adulthood. But a strong sense of self-worth is even more important, and much in the parent-child relation is organized to promote it. This trait, stated one parent, “is what’s going to get you through everything.”
The importance of self-esteem may explain why Varsity Blues parents were anxious to hide their schemes from their children. In our interviews, parents often noted that self-esteem “unto itself”—without some basis in actual deeds or qualities—can be a “hollow goal.” Getting admitted to a selective college is highly prized, but only if it verifies to the candidate that he or she is genuine Stanford or Yale or USC “material.” That conferral of worth is the magic—pictured in the documentary by home videos of teens and their families greeting college acceptance notifications with rapturous joy. It confirms that the kids have the right stuff.
In the videos of rejection notifications, by contrast, we see tearful heartbreak. These kids, poor souls, don’t “have it.” They might be reassured by the wise counsel of a former Stanford admissions officer interviewed for the documentary: “Forget about USC. Go someplace else. You can get a great education almost any place if you want it.” Or they might not. In the competition to be somebody, a great education often seems quite beside the point.
The perceived stakes are high. Like it or not, one mother observes, “to get the most out of life . . . you need to be competitive.” Since their decisions, noted another parent, “can affect the rest of their life,” children need to be protected from any lack of drive or tendency to make poor decisions. Contra the oft-repeated charge, parents do not believe they should protect their children from every hardship. They worry, says one, that “we are sheltering them too much.” But many do see it as their responsibility, continues the same parent, to erect “scaffolding” as kids prepare to “make their own choices.” In another metaphor, parents must put up “guardrails.” Despite the effort they already invest, many parents—about two-thirds in our 2019 survey—believe they should be doing even more.
What it means to raise children has changed. The Varsity Blues scandal, though extreme, brings the new situation into relief. The parents’ actions, though unjustifiable, are not inexplicable. When the role of parents is not to reproduce a way of life, or pass on a heritage, or (in the words of the Proverbs) “train up a child in the way he should go,” but rather to equip him to define his own life, set himself apart, and choose his own happiness, then the moral imagination of one who turns to a Rick Singer takes on a certain logic. Perhaps in that imagination, what we do for our children is prepare them for a competition that is not “competitive” but win-win; we enhance their self-esteem so that they never settle or falter; we protect them from failures and bad decisions; and after all our exertions, we regret that we didn’t try harder.
And perhaps—just perhaps—we cheat a little. Not by engaging Rick Singer, but in smaller ways: doing a child’s homework and projects; taking his side, right or wrong; seeking an ADHD diagnosis because he doesn’t seem to be prioritizing his performance at school. Behaviors like these are common, as surveys and interviews confirm. A tutor told me of an irate parent in Boston who complained that her daughter’s college essay still “sounds like it was written by a high school student.”
Perhaps the Varsity Blues parents really are different. It’s nice to think so. Or perhaps they are a prism for the profound distortions of a culture that has stripped parents of their traditional duty—the duty of passing on a tradition—and left them anxious to provide advantages in any form they can.
Joseph E. Davis is research professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and author of Chemically Imbalanced: Everyday Suffering, Medication, and Our Troubled Quest for Self-Mastery.