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On Friday actress Felicity Huffman became the first of the 15 parent defendants who have pled guilty in the Operation Varsity Blues conspiracy to be sentenced. The Emmy award-winning star of Desperate Housewives was sentenced by federal judge Indira Talwani to 14 days in prison, a $30,000 fine and 250 hours of the kind of community service you shouldn’t list on a college application.
Huffman’s jail time fell between the 30 days requested by prosecutors and the community service-only proposal made by her defense lawyers. She will have to report to prison within six weeks, meaning she can remain free long enough to catch the Oct. 12 premiere of the Lifetime movie about the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, a drama that Town and Country predicts will give viewers “the soapy conflict they crave.”
Huffman’s sentence was watched closely due to a legal debate reported on earlier this month by The Wall Street Journal. That debate centered around the question of whether there was any financial harm caused by the actions of Rick Singer and the parents he conspired with. Lawyers for some of the accused have argued that there was no loss of monetary value due to the scandal, and that in fact some universities actually benefited from the donations channeled through the scheme perpetrated by Singer. There has been speculation that sentences with little or no jail time might influence defendants planning to go to trial to plead guilty.
Of course the “no monetary harm, no foul” argument misses the point. The college admissions process is not just a business transaction, because higher education is more than just a business, even if it doesn’t always seem that way. Education is a public good, and access to education is access to the American dream. A college education is an experience that can transform a person’s life, and the payoff from earning a college degree may be $1 million in earnings over one’s career.
To be successful and effective, the college admissions profession depends on public confidence and trust in the college admissions process. When the rich and famous cut in line, whether through illicit means or by buying access, public confidence that admission to college is based on merit (however hard that may be to define) and fairness is eroded, and that hurts both the profession and society.
It is also not the case that there were no victims in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal. Selective admission at the kinds of colleges and universities targeted by Singer and his client co-conspirators is a zero-sum game. In a hyperselective landscape, for every student who is admitted, there are multiple qualified applicants who aren’t admitted. While it is true that the scandal participants disadvantaged only a small group of applicants who might have earned walk-on slots as a rower, water polo player or participant in some other sport, there were clearly qualified, deserving candidates disenfranchised by the bribery and corruption.
The more obvious victims are the children of those who participated in the fraud. While some of them were aware of or even participated in the conspiracy, others, including Felicity Huffman’s daughter Sophia, were unaware. Huffman’s light sentence was a function of the fact that she took full responsibility for her actions and had no previous record, but she also paid Singer $15,000 to have Sophia’s SAT answers changed and her scores raised 400 points by his confederate Mark Riddell. When Sophia Macy (Huffman is married to actor William Macy, who has not been charged in the case but was apparently aware of the fraud) learned what Huffman had done, she broke into tears and demanded of her mother, “Why didn’t you believe in me? Why didn’t you think I could do it on my own?”
That is the $15,000 question for Felicity Huffman to ponder and the broader question for all of us to consider about the Operation Varsity Blues scandal. There were, in my opinion, two flawed beliefs that led the OVB parents down a rabbit hole into criminal behavior.
The first was the belief that parental status, and perhaps parenting success, is determined by the prestige of the college attended by your child. That’s perhaps the ultimate suburban legend, one that U.S. News & World Report is only too happy to promulgate and profit from each fall.
The other is the lack of belief in your child’s ability to earn admission to college on his or her own. I have always believed that the college process is harder on parents than students. It tests your basic beliefs about college admission, about parenting and maybe about life. Is the college admissions process rational and fair or a game? Is your job as a parent to help your child become independent or to shield and protect them from disappointment?
I learned early on as a parent that I derive more pleasure from my children’s successes and feel more pain from their disappointments than anything in my own life. That’s natural. What’s neither natural nor healthy is not allowing our children to be the lead actors in their own journeys.
Earning admission to college should be a monumental accomplishment for a student. It should test readiness for the college experience itself. To take that sense of agency and accomplishment away from a student is a crime. I have certainly encountered more parents in the past couple of years who believe fervently that 17-year-olds are not capable of navigating the college admissions process. I don’t want to believe that. If it’s the case, we either need to change the admissions process or change the way we educate and prepare students for college.
Not believing in their children is the real crime perpetrated by the parents in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal. That’s a terrible message to send to children, and one that Felicity Huffman seems to have learned with help from her daughter Sophia.
And what about Huffman’s Operation Varsity Blues co-star, Lori Loughlin? She is among the 19 charged parents who have elected to fight the charges. Who would have thought that the Olsen twins are not the only members of the Full House cast neither as cute nor innocent as they once were, or that Bob Saget would turn out to be the moral compass of that show? The Netflix sequel, Fuller House, is entering its final season. Will Full House of Corrections be next?