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Felicity Huffman's sentence in the college admissions scandal is irrelevant

It’s clear to everyone that she did something wrong. It's a lot harder to see the iniquity when looking at your own life.
Felicity Huffman at Federal Court in Boston
Actress Felicity Huffman leaving federal court in Boston after a hearing on May 13.Jim Michaud / MediaNews Group / Boston Herald via Getty Images file

In March, when it was announced that the Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and 50 others were being criminally charged with paying enormous sums of money to help their children cheat on the SAT, people were shocked. As the jokes flew fast and loose and we crowed over the delicious details of the allegations (Huffman sitting down and typing the words “ruh roh” after learning her daughter’s school wanted to provide its own proctor for the SAT is, as the kids say, chef kiss), I realized I couldn’t muster up the same rage at these cheaters as I saw whizzing by me on Twitter. That feeling has only continued during the months of the saga up through Friday, when Huffman was sentenced to two weeks in prison. They were obviously wrong and morally bankrupt — so why do I keep thinking it didn’t matter that they got caught, and what their sentences are?

Photoshopping your child onto an athlete’s body is ridiculous, but is it that much more ridiculous than hiring a Hollywood screenwriter to punch up your kid’s essay?

Until recently, I worked in higher education. Though I interacted primarily with graduate students and didn’t have a hand in the admissions process, I still saw the ways in which colleges are primed for this kind of exploitation by the mega and super wealthy. Worse, they run on it. While this scandal was high-profile and brought endless opportunities for schadenfreude, I realized that the bigger issue is and has always been all the perfectly legal ways colleges favor white and wealthy kids. I wish the focus was on those ills, and not just the ones that these celebrities engaged in.

There is a not small part of me that says, I don’t care that some rich people paid to get their kids better test scores, because they’ve been doing it for years and this is just a natural escalation. The examples are endless: the very real, very purposeful segregation of our schools; which kids can afford to have the extracurriculars and sports team memberships and SAT tutoring that opens the doors of exclusive colleges; the degree to which whether your parents went to college increases the chances that you go to college; the fact the affirmative action benefits white women more than anyone else; the list goes on. The deck is already stacked against folks who didn’t have these advantages. Of course, photoshopping your child onto an athlete’s body is ridiculous, but is it that much more ridiculous than hiring a Hollywood screenwriter to punch up your kid’s essay? Or paying $16,000 for a four-day college prep boot camp?

The celebrity admissions scam is easy to talk about because the sums of money are so vast and the court transcripts read like cartoon villainy. It’s clear to everyone that these people willingly participated in a fraud, that they did something wrong. It is a lot harder to see the iniquity when looking at your own life. It’s harder to admit that my (fine) SAT score didn’t come from innate talent or an inner drive to learn the material on the test. Instead, I lived in a very white town and thus had an excellent public school education, and my parents had the money to put me into SAT prep. Sure, they didn’t spend $15,000 dollars to obtain fake SAT scores; I took the test myself, I just used the legal cheats that were available to me at the time. I didn’t have to worry about studying with an outdated prep book borrowed from the library, nor did I have the added stress of worrying that the score I received would tank my chances of getting into college. I had options and I knew that, even then.

Huffman’s daughter would have gotten into a fine college, too. She might not have gotten into Stanford, but she also had options, unlike many others. These students were never at risk of not getting into any college, not really. Does it feel like justice is being served because some celebrities got caught with their hand in the cookie jar? I don’t think so. Had this not been discovered, would those celebrities’ kids have felt unwelcome on campus? Would anyone make a snide remark about how they didn’t belong there? Would they be asked for their ID by campus police while going to the library? Or worried about the dining halls closing during spring break because it meant they couldn’t eat?

It’s not fraud when your parent can donate enough money to build a new building; that’s just the way it is. And it’s not fraud if you get recruited to play for a school that will never pay you, despite making tons of money on you. Being able to afford to take the SAT multiple times isn’t fraud; it’s just another advantage. Felicity and Lori removed the winks and knowing smiles that come with a million dollar gift and went for the obscene. But a much more polite form of cheating lies just below the surface.

Felicity Huffman is guilty, and now she faces two weeks in prison. But the colleges that she was exploiting are guilty, too. They have been for years — and they’ve never been charged. It’s hard to feel like justice has been served when the students who feel like they don’t deserve to be at college are some of the kids who worked the hardest to be there. Felicity Huffman is being sentenced for her crimes. I just wish that it felt like it mattered.