Paterno: OC is Ground Zero in the College Bribery Scandal

Chapman University

I wasn’t surprised when I heard celebrities, rich parents, and coaches were indicted in a racketeering scheme, based in Orange County, to get their kids into elite colleges. College admissions is a racket, California is the land of extremes, and Orange County is notorious as a fraud capital.

There’s no more fitting Ground Zero for this scandal than right here, where elitism and anxiety about getting and keeping wealth and status is well documented in TV shows like “The Real Housewives,’’ “The OC” and “The Real Orange County.” It was just a matter of time before ordinary influence peddling morphed into bribery and fraud, breaking open the secrets hiding in plain sight.

The mastermind, Rick Singer, owned a multi-million dollar Newport Beach mansion. He traveled in wealthy social circles, where he found an eager market in the uber rich willing to buy his too-good-to-be-true-product, what he called,  “a side door that would guarantee families would get in.” The indictments came down, and the media circus began.

My own university, where I sit on the faculty admissions committee, is cooperating with the Justice Department, and is “not aware of any wrongdoing.” No doubt college admissions needs overhauling. But first we have to correctly identify the problem.

The current crisis stems from America’s misplaced anxiety and obsession with elite college admissions.  Fewer than four percent of applicants attend elite colleges, and below 1 percent go to schools that accept 10 percent or less. That leaves 96 percent searching for affordable, quality degrees elsewhere.

The children of the wealthy will always find a seat at a good college if they have decent high school grades and can pay full or near full tuition.

The real victims are students and families with the least money and access to equal opportunity.

While America gawks at the latest college admission spectacle, lawmakers play a ruthless game of Three-card Monte. Exploiting our distraction, they continue relentless cuts to public colleges and universities, where the vast majorityof students attend classes.

Among private colleges – average annual tuition $35,000-$60,000 – only about 40, those with generous endowments and financial aid, promise to charge families what they can afford. Many enroll more students from the top 1 percentof income earners than from the bottom 60. In any case, the parents forking over millions of dollars in bribes weren’t applying for financial aid. They wanted certainty, even if it meant paying a criminal more money than most Americans earn in a lifetime.

As villainous as Rick Singer seems, he’s a bit player in the Wild West of a multi-billion dollar college admissions industrial complex. Thousands of sellers compete in a global marketplace rife with unpredictable prices, incomprehensibly numerous vendors, no rules beyond maximizing profit, and scammers operating nationwide at all income levels.

And that brings us back to California, predictably at the center of this most recent con.  A confluence of conditions created a petri dish allowing corruption to more easily bloom here, thanks, in part, to our excessive concentrations of wealth.

More super rich people live in California than anywhere else in the nation, and wealthy parents want their children to maintain the privilege high status affords them. A brand name degree is a way to prevent their offspring from falling into a social class lower than they believe is their birthright.

Case in point: As Lori Loughlin traveled to Los Angeles to answer charges that she paid $500,000 to get her daughter into USC, that same daughter was on a yacht in the Bahamas owned by USC’s board of trustees chairman Rick Caruso. Caruso’s $4 billion net worth is just shy of the $5.7 billion needed to fund the entire 23-campus California State University system.

That’s entertainment, no doubt. But when the 96 percent obsess over the anxieties and privileges of the rich and famous, we lose sight of the need to level the playing field for everyone else – including the middle class and merely affluent.

In California, extreme income inequality – we have the nation’s highest poverty rate – exists alongside superlative public colleges and universities that educate more low income and first generation students than anywhere else in the nation. Despite its faults, higher education in California is exemplary.

My solution to the problem of Rick Singer and his contemptible clients is simple. Tax them – the entire 1 percent — to support public higher education, using California as a model.  California’s network of community colleges and state universities enrolls nearly 2.6 million students across 137 campuses, not including the 9-campus University of California. At the University of California, 42 percent of the undergraduates are first-generation students, more than at any other American research institution.

If we want to make admissions fair, we have to stop obsessing on the 4 percent aiming for top colleges and start focusing on the 96 percent who deserve high quality, affordable, publicly funded degrees.

Susan F. Paterno is the Journalism Program Director and a Professor of English at Chapman University.

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

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