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What the college admissions scandal reveals about the psychology of wealth in America

The scandal could break down misconceptions about money, merit, and status — if Americans are willing to listen.

Designer Mossimo Giannulli and actress Lori Loughlin attend the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 50th Anniversary Gala on April 18, 2015 in Los Angeles, California
Designer Mossimo Giannulli and actress Lori Loughlin attend the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 50th Anniversary Gala on April 18, 2015, in Los Angeles.
Getty Images for LACMA
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

When the Department of Justice revealed on Tuesday that dozens of people were accused of participating in a scam to bribe and lie their kids’ way into colleges, one question kept coming up: why?

These parents — actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, casino executive Gamal Abdelaziz, and vineyard owner and Democratic donor Agustin Huneeus among them — were generally wealthy. Their kids did not need a degree from a selective college in order to support themselves — Loughlin’s daughter Olivia, for her part, didn’t particularly want to go to school. So why risk criminal charges just to get your child into college?

Of course, some rich parents may go to extraordinary lengths to get their kids admission because they believe a university education will be good for their children. But for some of the families accused as part of the admissions scandal, something else may be at play. A degree from a selective college is “a marker of status, kind of like a Maserati or living in the right neighborhood,” Paul Piff, a psychology professor at the University of California Irvine who has studied social class, told Vox. “It’s this kind of rat race of constantly trying to preserve and seek out these status symbols that showcase to others that you’re doing well.”

For some parents, getting a kid into a good school — even if they have to break the rules to do so — may function as a kind of proof that their wealth and social status are well-deserved. But the results can be damaging, both for the children of the wealthy and for other students who actually earned their spots in school. Ultimately, the admissions scandal could prompt a reexamination of society’s misconceptions around wealth and merit — if enough people are willing to pay attention.

Even for rich people, a child’s admission to college is a marker of status

According to federal indictments unsealed on Tuesday, William “Rick” Singer ran a college counseling business through which he helped get students into top universities — sometimes by bribing officials and falsifying application materials. The parents implicated in the scam were wealthy, high-profile people. And at least according to the indictment, they had enough money to pay Singer five or six figures to get their kids into college.

Loughlin, who played Aunt Becky on the show Full House, and her husband, designer Mossimo Giannulli, paid $500,000 to Singer and $50,000 to a USC official to get one of their daughters into the California school, according to the indictments. They did so by claiming the teen was a crew coxswain, even staging a photograph in which she poses with a rowing machine, the documents say, and they later repeated the process for their younger daughter, claiming she was also a rower.

Loughlin and Giannulli face fraud charges and have been released on bail.

Giannulli started the clothing company Mossimo, which had a longstanding partnership with Target — Mossimo’s first three-year contract with the retailer was worth $27.8 million, according to the Wall Street Journal, and it was extended several times. The couple put their Bel Air mansion on the market for $35 million in 2017; according to, it was one of several homes they have renovated.

Many parents may see college for their kids as a ticket to a good job and financial stability. But parents in the income bracket that Loughlin and Giannulli appear to occupy can already offer their kids financial security, with or without a college degree. So why break the law to get a child into a selective school? (USC reported a record number of applications in 2018, and an acceptance rate of 13 percent.)

College isn’t just about getting a job, Piff explained. It’s also about social standing.

“Money is but a small part” of class and privilege in America, he said. “Another big part of that is belonging to the right clubs, knowing the right things to do when you go to a restaurant, knowing the right kinds of restaurants to go to, having read the right kinds of books.”

“An education is a marker of all sorts of important forms of privilege that are really, really valued,” he added.

That’s especially true for people who became wealthy without going to college, or without going to a selective college, said Lisa Birnbach, editor of The Official Preppy Handbook, a humorous guide to wealthy WASP culture. “I believe there is a sense that this will elevate you,” she said.

Olivia Giannulli, known as Olivia Jade on her popular YouTube channel, has said that neither of her parents went to college. According to Town & Country magazine, Mossimo Giannulli attended USC but dropped out without graduating.

The willingness to pull out all the stops to get children into college may be particularly pronounced among baby boomer parents, according to Birnbach.

“Sometimes I feel like there was a memo that was sent to people of my generation,” she said, “and that memo said stop at nothing, be insane, your children’s college admission and placement and degree is a total signifier of your place in the social strata of this country.”

It’s “not that we loved our kids more than our parents did, but we catered to them, we hovered over them, the way our parents didn’t,” Birnbach said.

“Today’s parents, especially mothers, are spending more time and money on their children than any previous generation — on things like lessons, tutors and test prep,” Kevin Quealy and Claire Cain Miller reported at the New York Times. In a survey conducted for the Times by the technology and media company Morning Consult, 76 percent of parents of children ages 18 to 28 said they had reminded their children of deadlines, and 74 percent said they had made doctor appointments for their adult offspring.

Meanwhile, people of higher socioeconomic class are more likely than others to believe that their positions are “fairly determined and just” as well as part of who they are as people, Michael W. Kraus, a social psychologist at Yale who studies inequality, told Vox. Getting your children into an elite school may be a way to maintain that belief, he said.

“You may be wealthy now, but if your kids don’t achieve the same level of success that you did, maybe that’s evidence that it was luck,” he explained. “That kind of personal threat is a piece of what can motivate you” to engage in subterfuge like what Loughlin and Giannulli are accused of.

Bribing your kids’ way into school perpetuates the myth of meritocracy

Parents may have justified using Singer’s “side door” for admissions as “business as usual,” Kraus said — especially since there are plenty of legal ways that people with money can de facto buy their kids’ way into school.

But in addition to taking up spots that could be filled by students who worked hard for them, the practice of gaming the system to get your kids into college may reinforce some of Americans’ most deeply held misconceptions about wealth and social standing, experts say.

The idea that wealthy people have all worked for and deserve their wealth is “a sacred value in this country,” Piff said.

“That’s kind of baked into the American dream,” he explained — and if we believe that rich people earned all their money, we’re more likely to put up with a big gap between rich and poor.

By allegedly paying to get their kids into schools they wouldn’t have been admitted to on their own, parents accused in this scandal may have been perpetuating this myth of meritocracy.

Many parents who worked with Singer kept their efforts secret from their children, according to indictments. As a result, Kraus said, the children of wealthy families may have ended up in college with no awareness of the unfair system that got them there.

“You have, basically, a lot of unearned privilege for people at the top who don’t even know that they have unearned privilege,” he explained. “And then other people have to interact with them.”

But now, Piff said, the admissions scandal could cause a lot of people to reevaluate their beliefs about wealth and success, as Americans realize how rich people can buy things — like college admission — that others have to work hard to get.

“The moment we start kind of questioning the idea that this is a meritocracy,” he added, “our tolerance for economic inequality begins to kind of crumble.”