KEIGAN VANNOY—On Tuesday March, 12, 2019, the FBI announced that 33 individual parents from some of the wealthiest families in the United States would be indicted and criminally prosecuted for various acts of bribery and fraud. Those parents collectively paid $25 million to buy admission slots for their children at prestigious and selective universities across the country. The $25 million were allegedly used to bribe SAT test proctors and athletic coaches, who assisted the parents in getting their kids into these colleges through a “side-door.” The indictment further alleges that these parents pulled “crazy stunts – like having stand-ins take college entrance exams or photodoctoring to paste a student’s head onto the body of an [actual student] athlete.” [sic.] Unfortunately for these concerned parents, these methods of getting their kids into college are not allowed by federal law.
On the other hand, gifts and charitable donations to American colleges and universities are not only allowed by the law, but often actively encouraged by the institutional beneficiaries. Television and film have further perpetuated the idea that wealthy families need only “donate a library” to an Ivy League university to secure a coveted admission spot for that family’s college-age spawn. For example, some critics have pointed out that Jared Kushner, a real-estate investor and developer, was admitted to Harvard shortly after his father donated a perfectly legal $2.5 million to that institution.
Since students from affluent families seem able to get into prestigious universities on legacy or donation scholarships, why should the federal government be concerned about Becky from Full House spending her money to get her child into a prestigious, career-securing institution in a different way? In other words, what is the material difference between a bribe and a charitable donation to the school?
The technical answer is an esoteric concept in criminal law: intent. The federal bribery statute prohibits people from offering or promising “anything of value to any public official . . . with intent to influence any official act; or . . . to influence any fraud.” In other words, if a person gives something of value to a public official without the expectation of return, that is considered a gift; whereas, a bribe is the exact same thing, but given in the hopes of inducing some act or benefit. It is the givers’ intent to influence that separates generous alumni from wealthy criminal elements.
Are we reaching the same result by different means? After all, in either situation, it is the wealthiest families in America that get the leg-up. Whether it be a donation of a new classroom or a large sum of money given to an athletic coach, it is still the richest kid that gets the admission boost. Is it really a material difference if the rich kid still gets into Harvard either way?
First, a big difference is who has control in either situation. Donations are supposed to be made with no implicit or explicit contractual obligation imposed on the institutional beneficiary. If the university chooses not to admit a donor’s child, the donor would not be able to enforce any agreement in a court of law. In the case of a donation, the universities’ apparent control over the admissions process remains mostly intact. However, in the case of a bribe, the institution loses its control over the admissions process because an individual employee is subverting the admissions process and using side channels to corrupt the system.
Second, the difference in the recipient matters. “A donation is made to a college, while a bribe is paid to an employee who, in effect, is stealing an admissions slot, hawking it, and pocketing the proceeds.” Donating a library benefits the university as a community. In contrast, securing one spot by paying an individual, benefits only that individual and the admitted student. In fact, when these 33 families doctored photos to get non-athletes into universities on athletic scholarships, the families took away admission spots from actual student athletes. In turn, this could actually hurt the institutional community. Donations promote the interests of all of the students that go to an institution, while bribes benefit one student at great cost to the community.
Further, wealthy families do not need bribes to be favored during the admissions process. In a world where college admission scales are already tipped towards the wealthiest among us, donations add an extra thumb on the scale. Donations continue to be a legal tool utilized by affluent families to secure matriculation. Thus, public policy supports that wealthy families should be prevented from using illegal channels to add a third thumb on the scale. It is important that the federal government continue to police non-merit-based or corrupt admissions processes where it can; that is why it is essential that the 33 families be indicted for using bribery, even if donations often reach the same or similar results.
While it is important that the federal government police bribes like those at issue, the federal and state governments may also want to take a more active role in regulating admissions processes at public universities. Additionally, as the federal government and the FBI are able to expose more corrupt admissions processes, it may behoove the privately-run universities to take affirmative actions to maintain their institution’s reputation and credibility.