The Real Legacy of the College Admissions Scandal And What It Did And Didn't Say About America

We all know parents like Felicity Huffman, the Oscar-nominated actress who pled guilty to mail fraud charges last Friday in a federal court in Boston, and will soon be serving a short prison sentence.

We know the harm they do to their own kids. And, in the end, their own lives. We know one additional simple truth: the vast majority of American parents – rich, middle class and poor alike - would never dream of paying someone to take our college-bound child's SAT. Or bribe a college admissions officer.

And not just because it's illegal. It's atrocious parenting, and will set our kids up for a lifetime of bad decisions and bad outcomes.

Teaching a child to cheat their way to success doesn't just destroy their self-esteem. It teaches them that deep down inside, you don't believe in them and that they're incapable of succeeding without your unethical intervention.

Always, that child will know the ugly truth about their so-called success.

That's why the overwhelming majority of us would never do what Huffman did. Because it would send a cynical message to our kids that success – a good life – can be purchased, the law and conscience be damned.

Felicity Huffman
Actress Felicity Huffman, escorted by her husband William H. Macy makes her way to a waiting SUV after leaving the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston, where she was sentenced by Judge Talwani for her role in the College Admissions scandal on September 13, 2019. Joseph Prezioso/Getty

When the college admission scandal unfolded last spring, the media went wild. So too did progressive leftists. The scandal was proof of endemic white privilege, they cried. Others took the claim a step further, indicting America as a fundamentally corrupt country driven more by wealth and class than merit and hard work.

"One take I haven't emphasized is how deeply this whole thing is tied to the fundamental hypocrisy of US society: we're a class-ridden country that likes to imagine it's a meritocracy," New York Times columnist Paul Krugman tweeted not long after the scandal broke.

The media jumped on the college admissions scandal for many reasons, but the biggest was this: it advanced their narrative that the college system is an extension of the rigged system of unearned wealth and success that is the American capitalist nightmare.

A place where the rich advance while the rest of us are hopelessly mired in stagnation or decline.

But that claim isn't just false. It flies in the face of the life most of us experience.

The vast majority of American kids don't have parents with the means to do such a thing, let alone the desire. The Huffman's are outliers no matter how hard the media tries to assert otherwise.

How do I know? The numbers don't lie. Nearly 20 million students are attending college this fall, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Over 12 million are full-time students, another 7.8 million part-timers. Over 11 million are women, 8.6 million are male, 10.5 million are white, and nearly 8 million are minority students.

A mere 60,000 students attend Ivy League colleges, and perhaps another 60,000 attend so-called elite colleges. The rest – the overwhelming majority of America's students – attend state and local colleges of no particular distinction.

Most go to college to get the skills they need to find jobs, make a living, one day own a home, start a family and live the American Dream. Only a slim, slim minority are legacy kids, and fewer still – an infinitesimal percentage – bribe their way to the local community or state college.

When these millions of students graduate, they'll find employers looking desperately for employees who know how to put in a hard day's work, be a good team player, be trustworthy and loyal, grow with the company – and grow as people, too.

Graduates raised on the values of parents like Huffman are precisely the kind of employee no employer wants to hire. The kind that cheats, that's entitled, that thinks rules are for other people. That's the America we live in.

The narrative that race, ethnicity and class are barriers to mobility in America is another myth peddled by the mostly left-wing media that doesn't square with the facts of American life. Or the latest government data on wealth and income. In the 2016 Census Bureau statistics, Indian Americans ranked number one in household income at $122,026, beating out American Jews, who ranked number two. Filipinos and Taiwanese ranked in the Top 5, with immigrants from communist countries like Latvia, Lithuania and Russia rounding out the Top 10.

If America is a nation driven by white privilege and racism, how did these minorities succeed? They worked hard, studied hard – and studied the right things.

Their success is proof that the American Dream is alive, and thriving. Indeed, Indian, Asian and Jewish Americans should be studied in every sociology department in America peddling the idea that it's dead, or was never really alive.

Let's face facts. It took a certain corrupt values system to do what Huffman did. A certain moral bankruptcy that values the status of unearned success more than the earned variety.

Huffman is paying for her tragic decision. So is her child. She gave no excuse in her public statement after the judge's sentencing. "I'm ashamed of the pain I've caused my daughter, my family, my friends, my colleagues and the educational community," she said.

I keep thinking about Huffman's daughter, and the kids like her who gained entry into college under false pretenses. I include so-called legacy kids in this mix.

It's not a privilege to grow up in such homes: indeed, it's humiliating. And it's a huge competitive disadvantage. Those young people know – really know – they didn't earn their success. Lots of people around them know it, too.

I was thankful I grew up in a middle-class family, and had parents who made me work for what I had. When I stepped on to the grounds at the University of Virginia Law School on my first day of class, it didn't take long to figure out which kids had earned their way in and which didn't.

The legacy kids could be spotted a mile away. None made any real mark. The law review – the school's top achievement – was littered with working-class and middle-class kids with the desire and talent to make it. And the work habits to do the endless studying to make the cut.

Those that got in through the affirmative action channel suffered a similar fate as the legacy students: they were ill-prepared for the difficulties of law school, and the talent pool around them that scrapped their way in on merit, and merit alone.

So many of the middle-class kids I grew up with in New Jersey – sons of bus drivers and salesmen and teachers and mechanics - are now doctors, partners in law firms, business owners, professors, engineers, developers and doing every kind of work imaginable. Best of all, our success was the earned kind.

Arthur Brooks, who teaches at Harvard, has written extensively on the subject of earned success, and why it matters. "Earned success means defining your future as you see fit and achieving that success on the basis of merit and hard work," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal back in 2012. Brooks wasn't finished.

"The link between earned success and life satisfaction is well established by researchers. The University of Chicago's General Social Survey, for example, reveals that people who say they feel 'very successful' or 'completely successful' in their work lives are twice as likely to say they are very happy than people who feel 'somewhat successful.' It doesn't matter if they earn more or less income; the differences persist."

Brooks went on to describe what he called "learned helplessness," a term created by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman. "It refers to what happens if rewards and punishments are not tied to merit: People simply give up and stop trying to succeed," Brooks wrote.

In an interview in The New York Times, Seligman said: "We found that even when good things occurred that weren't earned, like nickels coming out of slot machines, it did not increase people's well-being. It produced helplessness. People gave up and became passive."

Not long ago, champion boxer turned entrepreneur George Foreman visited the Oxford Union to talk about his life.

At the end, he asked the students a question: "What's the deciding factor to success, what's the main thing you have to have?"

"You must be hungry," Foreman explained. "My mom was the daughter of a sharecropper. I was always hungry, never had enough to eat. And then I learned in the '60s that I was discriminated against."

He continued, and with a lesson that more students need to hear in American universities.

"And that was my crown, to be discriminated against and not have enough to eat. That was the dearest thing that ever happened to me. Because it gave me something I hope some of you will get. It gave me hunger," he said.

And that's the thing about the Felicity Huffman's of this country. They sabotage their children trying to buy them everything – including their successes. Children survive getting turned down from the college of their choice. They often thrive.

That's how life really works. The obstacles we face in life sharpen us. They shape us. So, too, do our failures.

That's why the media reporting on the college admissions scandal – and the connections made by the Krugman's of this world - were so irritating to most Americans. Because we all know that kids raised in those environments are the opposite of privileged: they're hungry. Hungry for normalcy. Hungry for parents who refuse to insulate them from the realities of life. Hungry for boundaries and limits, including a moral framework upon which to live a life of meaning and purpose. Hungry for what we all desire: earned success, and the happiness it confers.

All of those things, I'm certain, Huffman's daughter was denied, along with the rest of the children of those morally bankrupt parents.

In the end, it's the children of parents like Huffman who were the real victims of the college admissions scandal. That's the story the media missed. The real – and true – story of America, and the American people. And how most of us raise our kids.

Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network and host of Our American Stories. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.