The entitlement mentality of the wealthy

If you want to see the sense of entitlement that rich people have, you could do no better than the affidavit submitted by an FBI agent in support of the indictment. The affidavit contains verbatim transcripts of wiretapped conversations that the parents had with those scheming to falsely create credentials for their children. The transcripts include conversations involving Gordon Caplan, who before the scandal broke, was co-chairman of a major international law firm, and who yesterday issued a statement saying he would plead guilty to fraud for faking his daughter’s disability in order to enable her to get special testing conditions under which she not only got extra time but also enabled the proctor to change her answers to give her a higher score.

Via Kevin Drum, I came across an article by Caitlin Flanagan who once worked at an elite prep school in Los Angeles and experienced first hand these people’s incredible sense of entitlement. In her account, she says that she first taught English for four years and it was the best job she had ever had but then accepted what she thought was a promotion to being a guidance counselor but that this job turned out to be the worst she has ever had. She clearly saw in the story of rich people getting caught bribing and cheating to get their children into the colleges of their choice many similarities to the parents that she had to deal with. It is amusingly written even though she clearly detested that period of her life.

I did not know—even after four years at the institution—that the school’s impressive matriculation list was not the simple by-product of excellent teaching, but was in fact the end result of parental campaigns undertaken with the same level of whimsy with which the Japanese Navy bombed Pearl Harbor.

Every parent assumed that whatever alchemy of good genes and good credit had gotten his child a spot at the prep school was the same one that would land him a spot at a hyper-selective college. It was true that a quarter of the class went to the Ivy League, and another quarter to places such as Stanford, MIT, and Amherst. But that still left half the class, and I was the one who had to tell their parents that they were going to have to be flexible. Before each meeting, I prepared a list of good colleges that the kid had a strong chance of getting into, but these parents didn’t want colleges their kids had a strong chance of getting into; they wanted colleges their kids didn’t have a chance in hell of getting into. A successful first meeting often consisted of walking them back from the crack pipe of Harvard to the Adderall crash of Middlebury and then scheduling a follow-up meeting to douse them with the bong water of Denison.

I just about got an ulcer sitting in that office listening to rich people complaining bitterly about an “unfair” or a “rigged” system. Sometimes they would say things so outlandish that I would just stare at them, trying to beam into their mind the question, Can you hear yourself? That so many of them were (literal) limousine liberals lent the meetings an element of radical chic. They were down for the revolution, but there was no way their kid was going to settle for Lehigh.

When a venture capitalist and his ageless wife storm into your boss’s office to get you fired because you failed to get their daughter (conscientious, but no atom splitter) into the prestigious school they wanted, you can really start to question whether it’s worth the 36K.

Flanagan says that the good news is that only 25% of the parents acted like this. Only? That seems like a lot to me.

She has gone through the supporting affidavit of the indictment and highlights the outrageous stories that were caught on the wiretaps. She also says that those who equate this scandal with legacy admissions are not quite right, because this one provides no auxiliary benefits at all.

Ever since the scandal became public, two opinions have been widely expressed. The first is that the schemes it revealed are not much different from the long-standing admissions preference for big donors, and the second is that these admissions gained on fraudulent grounds have harmed underprivileged students. These aren’t quite right. As off-putting as most of us find the role that big-ticket fundraising plays in elite-college admissions, those monies go toward programs and facilities that will benefit a wide number of students—new dormitories, new libraries, enriched financial-aid funds are often the result of rich parents being tapped for gifts at admissions time. But the Singer scheme benefits no one at all except the individual students, and the people their parents paid off.

The argument that the scheme hurt disadvantaged applicants—or even just non-rich applicants who needed financial aid to attend these stratospherically expensive colleges—isn’t right either. Elite colleges pay deep attention to the issue of enrollment management; the more elite the institution, the more likely it is to be racially and socioeconomically diverse. This is in part because attaining this kind of diversity has become a foundational goal of most admissions offices, and also because the elite colleges have the money to make it happen. In 2017, Harvard announced with great fanfare that it had enrolled its first class in which white students were in the minority.

The article is an interesting read. The main point to always bear in mind is that meritocracy is a sham and that matriculating and graduating from a highly selective educational institution is not a proxy for merit. The people who go to these elite colleges may or may not possess the qualities and abilities that lead to success in life but the very fact of having attended these schools is no guarantee of it.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    The title of this piece reminds me of an article I read decades ago about an art student who would ride public transportation all day and make sketches of other passengers -- then give those drawings to their subjects.

    The better-dressed, he reported, happily accepted their portraits as gifts -- while the poorer asked what they cost.

  2. lorn says

    In my experience dealing with wealthy people and how they handled getting their children into select positions there seemed to be a fairly clear dividing line between liberals and conservatives.

    Liberals were steeped in the ‘everything is beautiful, in it’s own way’ atmosphere but were unable to hear that their kids were not deserving of only the best. If you failed to see this they would cite the good works of the family. When this didn’t work it was a matter of taking advantage of the discretion available to each bureaucrat at each step by appealing to their charity/empathy and asking for exceptions to be made. After all; they are good kids; diamonds in the rough really: from a good family … what could it hurt. It was what might be called the schmooze method.

    Conservatives started from a different point. Their kids were characterized as either so smart and talented that it took a special talent to see this, and you just lacked the discernment, or they admitted, often quite readily, that their heir was dumb as a rock. Either way their passage must be helped along to get them into that prestigious position. There was very little schmooze. It was simply a matter of asking how much it would cost.

    This the story is inherently biased against not so filthy rich liberals who want to indirectly, through social pressure or middle-men, bias things for their children. Very little ink, and even less outrage, is seen highlighting the much simpler but more expensive transactional approach. It is so obvious it hides in plain sight. We take it so much for granted that we aren’t even sure it is wrong. It isn’t clear who might be being hurt. Buy a new wing on the library for ten millions, or establish a well-funded chair for five, and your not-so-bright nephew will be waved through the gate and on to graduation with a string of soft ‘B’s.

    That route is so much much more direct. Fewer people directly involved. Far less of a trail of documents.

  3. Mano Singham says


    It is even worse than that. I recall that after some hurricane disaster when people were marooned on the roofs of their homes, some poor people apprehensively asked rescue crews how much being taken to safety would cost them, while the better off were indignant that it took so long.

  4. Jenora Feuer says

    One of the things being said about this is that, when you get right down to it, the admissions scandal is obviously more about the parents than the kids. In many of those cases, the kids didn’t even know this was going on. It was all about the parents wanting to be able to say ‘My kid got into XXX!’ It was all about the social cachet the parents would get, regardless of whether or not their children even wanted to go to that university.

  5. says

    As an European, what I find most baffling about this is the sports loophole. I mean, it should not even be possible to get into a university because you are (allegedly) good at some sport. Sports should be completely and utterly irrelevant. Any extracuricular activity not directly relevant to the chosen field of education should be irrelevant. It is just as absurd as having extra admissions for fly-fishing or knitting -- unless you are applying to study hydrobiology or design, where it can be relevant.

    I will never get used to the idea that in a first world country and world-leader in science people get into universities because they ride a horse and/or chase a ball around in their spare time.

    It makes me wonder whether US would be able to holds its position in the world without the drawing in the intellectuals from Europe and Asia. Surely system like this is not poised to deliver the best results education-vise.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    @lorn, 2:

    less outrage, is seen highlighting the much simpler but more expensive transactional approach. It is so obvious it hides in plain sight. We take it so much for granted that we aren’t even sure it is wrong

    I don’t think it is wrong. Look at it this way: Donald Grump Sr. knows his son is as thick as treacle, but wants him to go to Harvard. Tarquin Q. Essjaydoubleyou wants the same for his darling daughter, who is so creative but can’t spell that second word without help.

    Tarquin applies subtle pressure and offers to buy the admissions officer dinner and so on. Mr. Grump gets a library built.

    As a parent who might want to send their kid there some day, I view Tarquin as a parasite who should be locked up, and Grump as a hero. Why? Because my son and every other student who goes to Harvard will be beneficiaries of that library. It’s a tangible benefit into the future. In return, all the university has to do is tolerate Donald Grump Jr. for three or four years. The library will be there long after that. It seems a more than fair exchange, to me. As long as you can get incredibly rich people to keep doing things that directly benefit the institution long into the future, I see no problem with entertaining their kids for a few years in return. That’s going to be a small cohort, comparatively. You might even, if you’re going to be transparent about it, decide to have a university policy on “donation admissions”, limiting their total number per year and placing a dollar minimum on the donation required. And if you have more donations that size one year than there are places, make public that only the set number will be handed out. That would effectively lead to a bidding war for places between multimillionaires, with the winner being the university. It would also be quite nice for the rest of the student body to know which among their number were only there because of daddy’s/mummy’s money.

    But what does the university, and by extension my child, benefit from Tarquin’s cheap-ass “influencing”? Nothing. The only people who benefit are the corrupt admissions tutor and the family themselves. I have no problem with that being condemned a lot more.

  7. says

    I’ll argue that sports is no different than theatre, or other arts. Basically a form of entertainment.
    But we have college departments based on the arts.

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