Some of you may remember the college admissions scandal of a few years ago in which many famous actors and other well-to-people were caught finding ways to game the college admissions process so that their children could be admitted to the schools of their choice. One of those people was actor Felicity Huffman who paid an exam proctor $15,000 to correct some of the incorrect answers on her daughter’s SAT exam so that she would get a better score. I was struck by something she said recently as to why she did what she did.
Huffman, 60, ultimately pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud as well as honest services mail fraud. She spent 11 days in prison in October 2019 and completed 250 hours of community service after becoming the first of 34 parents to be sentenced in the scandal’s fallout.
Huffman on Thursday said: “I know hindsight is 20/20, but it felt like I would be a bad mother if I didn’t do it. So – I did it.”
Elaborating, she said: “I felt like I had to give my daughter a chance at a future. And so it was sort of like my daughter’s future, which meant I had to break the law.”
Huffman described enduring pangs of anxiety and regret as she drove an unwitting Sophia to the exam.
“She was going, ‘Can we get ice-cream afterwards? I’m scared about the test. What can we do that’s fun?’” Huffman recounted to KABC. “And I kept thinking, ‘Turn around, just turn around.’ To my undying shame, I didn’t.”
Note that Huffman said that she felt that she had to “give my daughter a chance at a future.” Huffman and her husband William H. Macy are well-known actors and presumably are wealthy. Because of their ability to pay the full tuition, their child’s future was pretty secure and she was almost guaranteed to get into a fairly good university even with mediocre test scores, not to mention being able to get plenty of good tutors and all the other cognitive benefits that come with having a privileged background, and would have likely done very well in life because of those advantages. Why risk cheating just so that you could get into a slightly better university?
This may be puzzling to many people but I have often seen that kind of thinking first hand. For many years I taught the first year physics courses at my university. Most of the students were first year enrollees but sometimes there were a few who were from neighboring high schools. These were usually academically ambitious students who took a college-level course for a variety of reasons such as wanting to be challenged or because they wanted to impress college admissions officers. They were usually very diligent students.
I remember one year such a student came into my office soon after the college admissions results were released. He was the son of a prominent person in the community. He was devastated because he had not gained admission to Harvard but had been wait-listed, so that he would only be admitted if some of the people who had been admitted decided not to accept. This is low probability for Harvard.
He came to me to see if there was anything I could do to help him gain admission. It turned out that he had applied to about ten of the top-ranked, most selective universities and had been accepted at all except Harvard. Almost any student would have been delighted to have gained admission to those universities but he was devastated. He had set his mind on Harvard and anything else seemed like a major failure.
I felt sorry for him because he was so dejected. He asked me if I could write a letter of recommendation for him to the Harvard admissions office to get them to reconsider. I said that I could and would but told him frankly that the odds of the letter having any effect were small. Most of my efforts were aimed at trying to talk him out of his deep gloom, to make him aware that in the long run, it would not matter which of the ten schools he went to and that he should just pick one and make the most of the opportunity that almost any other student would have been thrilled to receive. I do not know if he was taken off the wait list and got into Harvard. He never came back to my office to thank me so I assume that my letter had not been successful.
His was the most extreme case but I have encountered other students too who by almost any measure had achieved great academic success and got into universities that would give them an advantage over most of their peers, but it was never enough for them.
There is also another factor at play and that is the parents. Sometimes parents try to fulfill their own unattained ambitions through their children and have greater expectations for their offspring than the children have for themselves, making them feel inadequate because they did not meet the goals their parents set for them. Some parents compete with other parents for bragging rights based on the academic success of their child and where they get admitted. This is particularly true of closed communities where people compare notes. Many of the people who were convicted along with Huffman belonged to the same social circle in Hollywood. Close-knit immigrant communities are also prone to feeling this pressure.
I sometimes wonder about these students, whether as they go through life, they view their achievements in any area, even if seen as admirable by others, as never being quite good enough, and thus their lives consist of one disappointment after another even though they have done well.