Patti Bacchus: Why we love to hate the college-admissions scandal

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      There was a distinct whiff of schadenfreude—“pleasure derived from another person's misfortune”—in the air last week when the U.S. Attorney’s office released new college-admissions scandal documents, including bizarre new details about charges against wealthy Vancouver parent David Sidoo.

      It’s the case we love to hate, featuring very rich people paying to build their kids’ brands in lieu of developing their characters. It has swept up sitcom celebrities and their Instagram-influencer kids, who are throwing public temper tantrums about losing their sponsors (boo-hoo).

      It has pulled back the covers, exposing how the privileged and powerful buy their kids' way into prestigious schools, stealing seats from students who actually work for them the old-fashioned way.

      Who isn’t sick of seeing cheaters prosper? Who doesn’t love it when they get caught? We all know those with money can game the education system, but until this scandal broke, most of us had no idea how brazen the game-fixing gets.

      The new details include a claim that Sidoo paid someone to write a college-entrance essay on behalf of one of his sons, including a made-up back story about the son being held up at gunpoint by a violent Los Angeles gang.

      Sidoo, a former Canadian Football League player, is a well-known figure in B.C. investment-banking circles and is also known for his generous donations to a variety of local causes, including the B.C. Liberals (who, in turn, awarded him with an Order of B.C. appointment).


      Sidoo is one of more than 50 parents who are alleged to have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to enable their kids to cheat their way into prestigious American universities. Dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, the FBI investigation into the scandal includes charges against actors Felicity Huffman (who pled guilty and served a brief jail sentence) and Lori Loughlin, who is pleading not guilty.

      This case, and all its sordid details, rubs salt in the inequality wound and is a grotesque and infuriating reminder of how the deck is stacked in favour of kids from wealthy families and how their parents can pay to steal opportunities away from kids who actually deserve them.

      Sidoo, and several other parents caught in the scandal, face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty, and I don’t get the sense there’s much public sympathy for them.

      Hardworking kids who aren’t affluent are at a disadvantage long before it's time to fill out university-entrance applications.

      Those with the means can start early, with quality preschools, private music lessons, and after-school tutoring. Wealthy families like the Sidoos can enroll their kids in exclusive private schools with small classes and rich program options. They can start resume-building early, while other families scrape together money to pay for soccer fees.

      A few ago, I was surprised to see Facebook advertisement pop up in my feed for one of Sidoo’s sons, promoting him as a candidate for a newspaper’s award for people who’d overcome adversity, citing his athletic accomplishments after being born with club feet (a fairly common birth defect that affects about one in a thousand babies and is usually treated soon after birth.)

      What struck me as odd was that someone was paying for online ads for a youth to win the award. It was weird.

      It turns out there’s a thriving industry around helping rich kids start early to push to the front of the line when it comes to their personal branding, with the goal of getting into name-brand universities.

      I don’t know if that was the motive for the paid ads, but it would explain it. An award like that would make a sweet addition to a kid’s resume and university application.

      Resume-building starts early, for those who can afford it

      When my kids were in high school, I ran into a friend who told me they’d spent months going back and forth from Vancouver to West Van to work with a consultant on her Grade 12 son’s application to an American university. I instantly felt like an inadequate parent: I didn’t even know such services exist and was counting on overworked public-school guidance counsellors to advise my kids about postsecondary options.

      One local “university admission planning and education counselling” firm’s website advises that “grade nine is not too early to begin the preparation process”. That preparation might mean signing up for the right summer “experiences” and trying out for the right teams. It might also include setting up opportunities for the kids to be featured in publications, giving charitable donations to less-fortunate children.

      If you’re just a hard-working kid trying to balance your studies with a part-time job flipping burgers, with nothing left over to hand out to poorer kids and no public-relations firm on retainer, well, good luck to you.

      I’ve never met a parent who doesn’t want the best for their kids. Parents will do what they can to help their kids get the best chance possible in life. That’s part of the job of being a parent.

      For most, that means reading to their kids when they’re little, feeding them healthy food, helping out with homework when they can and maybe signing them up for some community sports. It means teaching them good values, like being honest and working hard to get ahead. It means encouraging them to get involved in extracurricular activities and maybe doing some volunteer work.

      Most parents can’t hire consultants to spend months—or years—creating a winning university application, and they shouldn’t have to.

      Crossing the line

      What’s different about the college-admissions scandal is that the parents allegedly crossed the legal line and got caught.

      My first thoughts when the charges broke was what a horrible thing that would be to do to your kids. What ever happened to encouraging kids to do their best and being proud of them for who they are?

      What does it tell teens when parents spend small fortunes to get them ahead of others who are doing it all on their own hard work? That they’re not good enough and parents need to pay someone to make it appear they're as good as those other kids?

      Sidoo has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire-fraud charges and conspiracy to commit money-laundering, and it will be up to the courts to decide whether he’s guilty or not. He faces up to 20 years behind bars and has stepped aside as CEO of two companies. Regardless of the outcome, he has sullied his sons' reputations—who I am not naming in this column, as they are not being charged with anything and, as far as I know, are innocent victims of this sorry scandal—which he worked so hard to build.

      The cheating scandal, and its connection to a well-known Vancouver family, drives home the frustrating fact that kids born on third base have a much easier time getting to home plate than kids who are just as smart and work as hard—or harder. Unless their parents go too far and it all comes crashing down.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.