One power-broker parent exposes the bitter truth that the elite play by their own rules

Degrees of difficulty.
Degrees of difficulty.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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William McGlashan, Jr., a top executive at the private equity firm TPG, co-founded the Rise Fund, a socially conscious investment vehicle, with Bono. He also allegedly paid $250,000 to an “admissions consultant” to help his son cheat on a college admissions test and pretend he was a football player to guarantee him a place at the University of Southern California.

The consultant, William Singer, pitched the sports route as a “side door” into the school. The “back door,” as it were, is via a direct donation to a university, which is far more expensive, the consultant said, and only guarantees that the donor’s kid gets a “second look.” (Needless to say, the “front door” is taking tests and submitting applications for admission truthfully.)

According to documents released as part of criminal proceedings (pdf) against Singer, McGlashan, and a host of other parents, coaches, and test administrators, the private equity exec found it all “totally hilarious.” On phone calls tapped by the Feds, McGlashan and Singer hatched a plan to make the kid look like an elite football kicker in his application, which would give him a 90% chance of admission, Singer claimed. Since the son played lacrosse, not football, Singer asked for photos of him playing any sport, so he could “Photoshop him onto a kicker.” McGlashan responded:

“Okay. Okay. Let me look through what I have. Pretty funny. The way the world works these days is unbelievable.”

Indeed. McGlashan, a power broker who projects social awareness through his involvement with the Rise Fund, reveals with startling alacrity how some among the very rich believe the rules don’t apply to them. He and other parents in the indictment appear perfectly willing to rob qualified students from places at top colleges.

Their entitlement is staggering: they seem to feel their kids deserve a spot at a brand-name college, regardless of whether it is a good fit for them or they have to break the law to get there. “They feel it’s their due,” said Sandy Bass, a schools and admissions consultant in New York City.

Damningly, when Augstin Huneeus, Jr., a parent whose daughter attended the same school as McGlashan’s son caught wind about the financier using Singer’s services, he called him on it. “Is he talking a clean game with me and helping his kid or not? ’Cause he makes me feel guilty,” he told Singer in a phone call. (Huneeus, a vineyard owner, allegedly employed Singer to help his daughter cheat on tests and apply to USC as a water polo player. ) Paraphrasing a chat he had with McGlashan, Huneeus said the private equity exec told him, “Look, I’m gonna push, I’m gonna prod, I’m gonna use my relationships, but I’m not gonna go and pay to get my kid in.”

As they allegedly try to game the system, and lie to each other about it, these parents’ actions show, once again, that America’s pitch as a great meritocracy is false.

Jockeying for position

“Ten to 12 years ago you could go to any college and say you are making a major donation and even if you had no ties at the school, they would accept it and then they would take the child when they applied,” said Bass. Things have “tightened up” she said, so now you have to be more discreet. Heightened competition means fewer seats, fueling the privileged few to push harder. 

There is, of course, a lot that well-off families do to improve the odds their kids get into college that stops short of criminality. Parents of means send their kids to private schools to make sure they are well-positioned for admission to certain colleges. They hire tutors for SATs and ACTs for up to $1,000 an hour, and also for individual classes, subjects, sports, and interview techniques. They hire consultants to craft the perfect summer experience so that their child has ample source material for their college essays. They tap their professional networks to secure internships at banks and law firms, which are often unpaid.

After all that, parents appear to justify their investments by gaining admission to a brand-name college, even though this won’t guarantee of happiness for the student it supposedly benefits.

Rick Weissbourd, a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, says the elite who play by their own rules exacerbate the already severe inequality in education. He founded the Making Caring Common project to try and make the college admissions process more sane.

“The deck is so stacked against low-income kids and working class and middle class kids, and it’s getting more stacked,” he said. “These parents don’t seem to have any consciousness about equity.” 

He sees how the rules of wealth at work all the time: there’s the unethical, but increasingly common, like parents who write their children’s college essay, or pay tutors or online companies to do it. A “small but not insignificant” number of parents also now call admissions officers to sabotage their children’s classmates.

“They are twisting their needs with their kids needs,” he said. And, in the process, they make it more stressful for everyone else. “It makes other parents more anxious,” he added.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In Britain, that bastion of class-based privilege, kids apply to university on predicted grades and personal statements. Legacy admissions and athletics play no role.

The “rules” don’t help the kids

Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and the author of The Blessing of a B-, told me a few years ago that excessive tutoring, stealth or declared, can damage a child’s intrinsic motivation and self-esteem. “The tutoring is saying, ‘You have to perform at a high level in every subject and we don’t believe you can solve your problems on your own,'” she said.

Indeed, the more we do for our kids, the less they learn to do for themselves (independence being sort of the goal of the whole parenting thing). When the stakes are raised, parents kick into high gear. Certain powerful parents appear to go off the rails entirely.

A pair of economists recently published a book making this case: in countries where inequality is rising, parents push harder—they “helicopter” more. It is a rational response. Not all of them arrange six-figure bribes, of course, but plenty feel that it is within the rules, as they apply to them.