Yard Sale

A FEW WEEKS AFTER THE ADMISSIONS SCANDAL BROKE, I went to what the invitation described as a “Get Together” at a bar in Los Angeles, thrown by a member of my class at Harvard to celebrate our impending ten-year reunion. Harvard had appeared ten times in the criminal complaint: mostly because FBI agents would instruct William “Rick” Singer, after he was wired, to dangle the possibility of a “side door” into Harvard before parents, ensnaring those for whom USC wasn’t enticing enough; once because Singer tells a parent that one of the exam proctors in his pocket “played tennis at Harvard.” Dignified on the surface, yet peripherally and somehow nerdily contributing to major corruption—that was our alma mater.

Image from Teruyoshi Hayashida’s Take Ivy, 1965, a guide to Ivy League style.
Image from Teruyoshi Hayashida’s Take Ivy, 1965, a guide to Ivy League style. powerHouse Books

I paid $22 before tip for a Sazerac in a plastic cup. Near the bar, four of us formed a group. The woman to my right was a lawyer who worked downtown. The woman to her right was a consultant who worked with tech companies. That made three of us who were working in fields where pedigree and connections mattered as much as—if not more than—talent and skill. The man to my left was dressed conservatively in a button-down shirt beneath a dark sweater. I was wondering what private-equity firm’s name would come tumbling out of his mouth. “I’m the second-chair clarinetist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic,” he said.

This was exotic and led to questions about how he got his job. Beginning in the 1970s, he explained, symphony orchestras, seeking to eliminate the perception of gender bias, instituted blind auditions. The musician plays onstage, behind a screen. Many orchestras, the clarinetist added, rolled carpets from the wings of the stage to the center, to mask the telltale click of high heels. About forty musicians auditioned for every open chair at the LA Phil. So the odds of attaining this man’s position were worse than the odds of getting into Harvard.

I could easily imagine a Varsity Blues parent paying a concert violist to sneak behind the screen and shred a glissando—except for the fact that their kid would notice, and Singer’s business depended partly on parents keeping a secret from their children. They were willing to break the law in order to prevent a child discovering that he couldn’t get into USC on his own. “Is there any way for this to get back to [my daughter]?” Gordon Caplan, a partner at the international white-shoe behemoth Willkie Farr & Gallagher, asked a week and a half before Thanksgiving 2018. “She’ll walk out of there and she will never know that this actually occurred,” Singer replied. He was striking the primary leitmotif of the Varsity Blues criminal complaint. Our kids can never know. New York private-equity manager William McGlashan to Singer: “So he doesn’t have to know how he got in. Is that the case?” Kentucky bourbon magnate Marci Palatella to Singer: “Money, for the right environment, yes. But he can never know.” Massachusetts real estate developer John B. Wilson to Singer: “Would the other kids know?” Singer to California vintner Agustin Huneeus: “She gets a letter from admissions, which’ll say in there she’s been admitted . . . she won’t know anything.” And so on. As McGlashan had put it to Singer in a separate call, “the way the world works these days is unbelievable.”

As news of the scandal hit the front pages, many people observed that McGlashan and his coconspirators had stolen spots from students who actually deserved them. At the LA Times, the Pulitzer-nominated city columnist Steve Lopez, whose writing often focuses on immigrants and the poor, profiled a cashier’s son who had studied and got into Harvard. “He got into a great college the old-fashioned way,” the headline said. “Hard work, big dreams.” But of course the old-fashioned way, at least where Harvard was concerned, was to be rich, white, male, the child of a former student, and—for Jews, until the 1960s—to represent no more than 15 percent of the incoming class, the so-called Jewish quota. That was how the old money did things; they were racketeers avant la lettre.

Weeks passed and only one Varsity Blues kid addressed the media. Jack Buckingham told the Hollywood Reporter that he knew there were millions of “less fortunate” kids who “grind their ass off just to have a shot at the college of their dreams.” To be “unknowingly involved” in a scheme that took spots from deserving students and gave them to rich, undeserving ones, he said, made him upset. In combining sincerity with PR lingo, the statement seems to me representative. These kids understand, better than their parents want them to, how they benefit from a rigged system. They simply view those benefits as being mostly the result of luck. Some people are “less fortunate,” and some people are #blessed.

How else, besides fortune, could the Varsity Blues kids make sense of the inexplicable jumps in their standardized-test scores? Caplan’s daughter never broke 22 on an ACT practice test, then scored above 30 on game day—and evidently did not find this weird. It was as Singer predicted: “She will think that she’s really super smart, and she got lucky.” These kids are in a world in which lucky things happen all the time. I got a 22 on the practice but then I got a 30, luckily. I almost went to jail for that DUI but luckily my dad knew the judge. It’s so lucky that your summer house is free the week of spring break.

When I was in my mid-twenties and tutoring on the Upper West Side, I had a student whose mother would swoop in to the high-ceilinged living room during our sessions, wringing her hands over the boy’s apathy. “Jesse knows how important it is to work hard,” she would say. “You have to tell him how important hard work is, Jesse.”

The most important thing,” I lied.

For as long as I was at Harvard, a framed quotation on this very subject had sat on the mantel of the common room in my dorm. Parents whose “purses can afford it,” Ben Franklin had written, send their boys to Harvard, where “they learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely, and enter a Room genteelly (which might as well be acquir’d at a Dancing School,) and . . . they return, after Abundance of Trouble and Charge, as great Blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.” Class training was what we were buying. And now I was passing these skills on to people who deserved them no more than I had.

One day I arrived to find a worse-than-usual fracas. The kid, as was his wont, had smoked a huge joint before an exam for which I’d spent weeks preparing him, throwing all our work out the window. “Jesse?” his mother said.

“You can’t keep doing this,” I said. “You’re never going to get into Duke.”

“I know, I know. I’m sorry,” he said.

But when his mother left the room, his expression became bright and full of knowing. “The thing is,” he said, “none of this matters. These tests don’t matter. In the end, my dad will make a donation to Duke, and that’s where I’ll go.” On a console table was a photograph of my student beside a smiling Obama. A few months later, I learned that he had been admitted to Duke. To paraphrase an aphorism most closely associated with Martin Luther King, we have meritocracy for the poor and unnatural selection for the rich.

When the rich kids finally get to college, there ensues a class collision of intense and never-to-be-equaled-again proportion, condensing the outside economic system into bright and almost violent miniature. Even if we think we get the gist, the numbers are batshit. As the education writer Owen Davis observed in a recent piece for The Baffler, at “Ivy Plus” colleges the number of students from the top 1 percent exceeds the number from the bottom 50 percent. At Brown, Penn, and Princeton there are more students from the top .1 percent than from the bottom economic quintile.

Again imitating the economic reality outside the campus gates, these numbers tell a story of intensifying demand and limited supply. When more students compete for a fixed number of spots, as Malcolm Harris argues in Kids These Days, admissions officers can eat an all-delicacy diet of “geniuses on scholarships” and rich kids, two groups who haven’t necessarily thought of themselves in such binary terms until their arrival on campus, where they find themselves in cautious proximity. In this way, college is both the method of perpetuating the aristocracy and the aristocracy’s temporary exposure to “real people.” (When colleges talk about “diversity,” they are not only signaling to underrepresented groups that they should apply, they are also letting rich white kids know they’ll be getting something “authentic” for their money.)

Most contemporary campus fictions—On Beauty, The Idiot, the Method Man/Redman vehicle How High—deal in some fashion with the high-low collisions of college life. One recent entrant to the genre confronts the topic with particular directness. In Normal People, Sally Rooney’s second novel, Connell, whose mother is a house cleaner, has an affair with Marianne, whose mother employs Connell’s, in their last year of high school. Trinity College—the Harvard of Ireland—is Marianne’s birthright, whereas Connell, being poor, is more likely to end up at a regional college in Galway. But Marianne scores a 590 on her entrance exams and Connell scores a perfect 600. They both get in, he on a grant. What is often referred to in America as the “college admissions game” is popularly viewed as a matter of playing one’s cards right, but in Rooney’s reality it’s more like receiving the results of a DNA test, finding out what you already have, learning your fate.

Rooney understands that for Connell, college is a continual waking-up to the differences between his life and Marianne’s, a slow and often painful revelation. Spring arrives and he loses his part-time job. “It looks like I won’t be able to pay rent up here [in Dublin] this summer,” he tells Marianne.

“You’ll be going home, then,” Marianne says. “You’ll be back in September, I assume.”

Connell feels like crying: He had intended to ask Marianne if he could stay with her, but this option seems not to have occurred to Marianne at all. “I’m not dropping out, don’t worry,” he says. Within a few weeks, Connell learns that Marianne has started seeing Jamie, an aristocrat. (“Jamie’s dad was one of the people who had caused the financial crisis,” Rooney writes. “Not figuratively.”)

Marianne has more power, but Connell, the novel argues, has something Marianne lacks. What attracts her to him is his lithe, athletic sexiness and native intelligence, attributes that his relative poverty, by placing them against a blank rather than a gilded background, only enhances. There is a stream of envy that runs from the rich kids to the scholarship kids, because the rich kids imagine the scholarship kids are unburdened with a secret. This is half-true. The scholarship kids are burdened by a secret that is losing its power to shame; their luck, if they have any, is astral, not engineered. “Connell was so beautiful,” Marianne thinks, watching him standing on a green soccer field.

Jesse Barron is a writer based in Los Angeles.