To an outsider (Canadian) like me, the United States college admissions system is bizarre. First there’s the byzantine distinctions between community colleges, state schools, private colleges … as opposed to Canada, where university and college have distinct meanings. It’s not just the vise-grip of the standardized testing agencies on students’ futures … it’s the whole ranking system, the prestige, and the intense competition among post-secondary schools for money and athletes. As an educator, I look at this with no small amount of fascination. So when the 2019 college admissions scandal broke, I immediately knew I would be reading the inevitable book(s) that followed. Every few months, I checked to see if I could get a hint of a book in the works. Imagine my surprise when, last weekend, my search revealed that Melissa Korn and Jennifer Levitz’s Unacceptable had just been published. Not only that, but it was available to read on NetGalley without requiring approval! (So yes, disclosure: I got this book for free in exchange for a review.)
Unacceptable starts with a cast of characters, the sprawling length of which is our first hint at the astounding scope of this scandal. As Korn and Levitz emphasize throughout the book, this scandal is notable not just for the amount of money that changed hands but for its breadth. This wasn’t a handful of parents and one or two institutions. This affected schools across the entire country, and the list of defendants is lengthy indeed.
The star of the show, if this show indeed has a star, would of course be Rick Singer. This is where Korn and Levitz begin, with your typical exposition of Singer’s early days: his small private counselling ventures, his other businesses, his marriage and his divorce, and then his return to private counselling in the form that would lead to this scandal. Singer has many of the classic traits of the con artist; in particular, he gets a gambler-like thrill from “winning” his game. Yet that’s one of the most intriguing things about this story: it’s not your typical confidence game. Singer wasn’t scamming parents by promising to get their kids into college, then absconding with his money. No, this was much worse: he was actually getting their kids into college in exchange for large sums of money.
This was unadulterated capitalism in its finest form.
Singer was running a business, plain and simple. He had all manner of packages for parents to choose from. Some were legitimate, straightforward private counsellors who advised kids about their applications. Other routes were less legitimate: cheating on standardized tests, faking athletic profiles, and greasing the wheels through hefty donations to coaches. It’s not that these parents were buying their kid’s spot—although, in a way, they were—but they were paying to obtain their kid a spot through, as Singer pitched it, “the side door.”
Reading this book, it’s really hard not to conclude that the college admissions system is broken. As Korn and Levitz carefully tease out, Singer is not really a mastermind so much as an opportunist: he didn’t create these flaws in the system; he merely exploited them. Don’t get me wrong: Singer is totally culpable. But when you read Unacceptable, you understand why the Attorney General’s office chose to flip Singer and target the parents (and coaches) rather than just shut down his operation, prosecute him, and call it a day. Singer was a symptom of a larger problem.
Getting to follow this whole story from beginning to the arrests, hearings, and sentencing is one of the best things about this book. Korn and Levitz provide context to the prison sentences for high-profile defendants like Felicity Huffman. They interpret and explain the judge’s rulings, helping us to understand why some defendants received prison time while others only received probation. Along the way, Korn and Levitz emphasize that prosecutors were wrangling with an optics problem: they didn’t want to be seen as “going easy” on wealthy defendants; yet the defense lawyers charged that this meant they did the exact opposite. We also get to find out what happened to many of the kids caught up in the scandal too!
As a result, Unacceptable provides more than just the juicy details of the scandal. It begins with the story of a single man’s attempt to make a slightly dishonest living and ends with the story of a frayed and flawed justice system grappling with its inability to quantify loss in this situation. Not only does this book expose flaws in the college admissions system, but it also shines a light on limitations the US justice system.
Above all else, Korn and Levitz do their best to render their subjects fairly and in a very human way. Singer is not an evil mastermind. Huffman and the other parents are not evil rich people. Neither is anyone an innocent victim here. They knew what they were doing was wrong, and perhaps even illegal, yet they persisted because they believed it was necessary for their child to gain entry into a prestigious institution.
At times, I found the prose a little too stylized for my liking. They overuse the phrase “well-heeled” to describe the wealthy defendants at the heart of the case. Similarly, they spend a fair amount of time describing what these defendants wore to each hearing (though, I should mention, they do this for men as well as women, which is a nice departure from the sexist obsession with describing what women of interest are wearing but ignoring men’s appearances). I understand that this helps to humanize them and also emphasizes their state going into each hearing … but it always rubbed me the wrong way as I read. So it goes.
Unacceptable highlights cracks in the system. More than that, though, it provides a concrete example of how the growing wealth disparities in the United States create a cocoon of privilege that distorts how the wealthy view opportunity and status. While some of the parents pleaded guilty and even fewer truly understood the severity of their crime, the fact remains that Singer had no shortage of clients. For a certain echelon of American parents, this was simply the way it is done—at least, that’s what Singer liked to emphasize. Korn and Levitz delve deep into the details of so many facets of this story. For me, however, that was the enduring takeaway, and it’s what we need to change if we want to avoid more people like Singer opening the side door.