In the latest episode of the Operation Varsity Blues soap opera, Lori Loughlin and “her husband Mossimo Giannulli” (as he’s invariably called) have refused a plea bargain for charges pertaining to their actions surrounding their daughters’ acceptance into USC. Facing 40-year sentences, they’re apparently going to trial with the dual arguments “we didn’t know” and “any parent would do it.”
I’m no attorney, but I predict an acquittal.
Really, who knew that a $500,000 donation and a picture of your daughter on a rowing machine wouldn’t get the kid into USC? The thing was clumsily handled, to be sure. First, since young Olivia Jade was posing as a coxswain, it would have been better to have a picture of her bossing someone else on a rowing machine. Second, the money wouldn’t have been funneled through (alleged) con man Rick Singer’s charity for the “underprivileged” (coxswains of the world?) and into the account of USC senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel, who apparently pulled the inside strings.
Even so, Loughlin (and what’s his name) can plausibly argue that they donated money to a university, and if the university was willing to give preferential treatment to their daughters, then, well, who are they to question it? After all, most universities would rather have half a mil than a decent coxswain, who are probably a dime a dozen. How hard can it be?
The defense is plausible because college admission, especially at elite schools, is complicated to the point of mystification. Nobody knows how it works, and if they do, they’re not telling. Admissions offices look at the “whole person” on an “individual basis,” which may mean that SAT scores, community service, intercultural experiences abroad, personality evaluations, personal statements, GPA, class standing, athletic skills, legacy status, and about 11 other things may make or break an admissions case.
As Jonah Goldberg points out, “complexity is a subsidy.” If you make a system complicated, you’re rewarding people with the resources to navigate that complexity (or to pay someone else to do it for you). Even without the blatant dishonesty in this case, money pays for tutors, summers abroad, application coaches and athletic skills. Club sports, where most college recruiting is done, aren’t cheap. How many working-class coxswains do you know?
Parents, being mostly clueless on the matter of college admissions, are also desirous of helping their children, or at least of helping their children reflect positively on them. In the sport of competitive parenting, college admission is the Olympics. One of the curious features of the Loughlin saga is that Olivia Jade, already a successful “internet influencer”— if you don’t know, don’t ask — didn’t even want to go to college, except for the parties and football games. With the sad state of USC football, you wonder why she was so excited about the latter.
Her lack of enthusiasm is understandable. College is a grind. You’re asked to pass classes in a number of difficult subjects about which you’ll retain little knowledge. So, at least, argues Bryan Caplan in “The Case against Education.” But this, Caplan says, isn’t entirely without value, since you’re signaling to future employers that you’re intelligent enough to do so. Whether you remember how to calculate a differential matters less than demonstrating that you were once able to do so.
Caplan argues that a college degree also signals two other desirable traits: conformity (you’re meeting the expectations of Mom, Dad and your professors) and perseverance. College is almost diabolically designed to identify those with a strong work ethic.
On the one hand, consistent study, regular class attendance and diligent time management are essential to success. (Quick tip to college students: Go to class. Every class. It’s so easy to get behind.)
On the other hand, there are parties, football games, no parents to prevent you from sleeping in, beautiful spring afternoons that practically beg you to avoid the dank, dreary classroom, etc. That paper due next week has a thousand competitors for your attention, and the road to academic probation is paved with good intentions.
If you’re already wealthy and successful, why labor through four years of conformity and hard work to prove that you’re smart enough — and you’ll probably struggle on that point, since your peers have a substantially stronger academic record than you do — to get a job you’ll never need? Why, especially, if you already have access to the best parties?
But if Olivia Jade has a point, so does her mother. Increasingly, a college degree identifies not just an accomplishment, but a kind of person. It’s easy enough to say that college isn’t for everyone, but harder to say that about your own child. And for a smaller, but still substantial, number of parents, not just any college will do.
Not many parents would do what Lori Loughlin did, but enough will sympathize with the motive to prevent a conviction. Plus, she’ll be able to afford the best attorneys.