Hollywood is fixated on the federal investigation into a massive college admissions scam. It’s a scheme that has all the ingredients of a ripping yarn, a portrait of the corrosive influence of celebrity and wealth in higher education. It’s also a story that has deep links to the entertainment industry. Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, two actresses with squeaky-clean public images, have had their careers tarnished after news broke that they were among dozens of wealthy parents who allegedly paid up to $6.5 million to falsify SAT and ACT scores and represent their kids as athletic recruits.
“I can see getting a friend to write a letter for you, but to pay someone to take the SAT?” said an indie film producer. “It’s unconscionable. Also, what does this teach your kids? As if this town wasn’t a cesspool as it is.”
Another senior film executive with kids was equally blunt. “It’s terrible, and they deserve whatever they get.”
Also indicted in the scandal: Bill McGlashan, a founding partner of TPG Growth and a co-founder of STX Entertainment. McGlashan has been fired by TPG’s parent company.
Huffman, Loughlin and McGlashan broke the law and could face prison time, but it’s not the first time high-powered figures in the entertainment business have acted aggressively to get their kids into top colleges. They donate money and deploy their star power in their courtship of these institutions, and their overtures are often reciprocated by star-struck college presidents and faculty.
“The colleges have a great desire for children from celebrity and wealth,” said Daniel Golden, the author of the 2006 book “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.” “They love the buzz that it brings.”
Brown University, which is not named in the probe, has historically been one of the most relentless schools when it comes to cultivating ties between the Ivy League and Tinseltown. In some instances, a combination of money and klieg lights appeared to factor heavily into the children of entertainers and executives being admitted to the school. Golden’s book claims that onetime über-agent Michael Ovitz was able to leverage his connections to get his son Chris into Brown despite his lackluster grades. Ovitz did not respond to Variety’s request for comment.
“The celebrities would come to parents’ weekend and hold seminars, and it became a big draw. And the parents become more likely to donate to Brown and spread the word about what a great school it is,” said Golden.
That wasn’t Brown’s last brush with bad headlines. Stolen emails from the 2014 Sony hack revealed that then-chairman Michael Lynton planned to establish a $1 million scholarship in memory of a close friend. Eyebrows were raised in the press at the time when in one of the emails, the president of Brown told one of Lynton’s Sony colleagues that the university would “certainly look at [Lynton’s college-bound child’s] application very closely.” A source close to Lynton says the press accounts were inaccurate, there was no relationship between the two actions, and the scholarship was established long before the application was filed.
“Given the strong integrity of our admissions process, the fact that these false and discredited claims continue to resurface speaks to a difficult moment of certain groups seeking any opportunity to advance a negative narrative about higher education, even in cases when it is completely false,” a Brown spokesperson told Variety of the matter.
Lynton’s and Ovitz’s situations speak to the symbiotic relationship between universities and Hollywood elite. It’s a bond that has only grown stronger. The thirst for donations has intensified as colleges become locked in a never-ending series of capital campaigns. They need money, lots of it, to build dorms and labs and add to their endowments, or they risk falling in the rankings of top colleges. Elite universities maintain vast databases on potential donors and parents that estimate their net worth and their potential to contribute; they keep track of every mention of an art purchase or real estate sale, and chronicle each encounter between the university’s administration and the individual.
Experts say that the impulse to exploit any connection and sign big checks to influence the college admissions process is understandable and is the byproduct of parents’ love for their child.
“We as parents want to do everything in our power to take away the struggles our children face,” said Richard Watts, the author of “Entitlemania: How Not to Spoil Your Kids, and What to Do If You Have.” “At every turn we try to make the path as smooth as possible.”
It’s an impulse that gets tied up in the other trappings of privilege. Hollywood is status-obsessed — executives’ success is measured by the zip code they live in and the fancy cars they drive onto the lot each day. In that crucible of competitiveness, a child’s education can be another marker of making it. It starts early. Parents begin leveraging their connections to get their kids into Crossroads or Harvard-Westlake, choice Los Angeles private schools that are supposed to establish a glide path for future accomplishment. Throughout their child’s matriculation, they shell out thousands of dollars for college counselors and tutors in the hopes of working the system to their advantage.
Sometimes they even try to cut corners. Troup Wood, a college prep tutor in Los Angeles, says he’s been offered money to write college essays for his clients’ kids, overtures he’s refused.
“It’s always done with a nudge,” said Wood. “I say, ‘I’m here to help your kids foster their own abilities.’ It doesn’t work. If a college essay is inauthentic, a counselor can smell it a mile away.”
Loughlin’s, Huffman’s and McGlashan’s indictments may have a chilling effect on rich parents who are willing to do something illegal to get their kids into college, but the scandal itself may have exposed something deeper, more pernicious and even more difficult to eradicate.
“When people talk about affirmative action as a preference in college admissions, they overlook the fact that there are many other preferences in college admissions,” said Golden. “Most benefit the white and the wealthy. Here, the rich people and celebrities were taking advantage of vulnerabilities in the college admissions system that tilt toward the affluent.”