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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Fraud is a galling ticket to college

Some parents give kids every advantage, but outright cheating crosses a red line.

A college campus.

A college campus. Photo Credit: iStock

The grim truth of success in the United States is that there will never be a level playing field. If the playing field got level, rich folks would refuse to use it and would build their own with brighter lights, top coaches, high fees and vibranium bats.

Some kids have tremendous advantages, or disadvantages. Some children grow up hearing perfect English from parents and Mandarin from the nanny, with “All Things Considered” on the car radio and “Jeopardy!” on the TV. Others hear gunshots and poor grammar, get too little sleep and food, and too much exposure to violence and horrid TV and music.

Dads and moms are destiny, to a point. And it’s the desire to provide advantages that can drive us to work harder, to toil for the right house in the right school district. Long Island is a capital of this kind of parenting. If you can afford a math camp, violin lessons and SAT tutors, sailing regattas and immersion mime programs, why not? A summer trip to Africa to help build a library? Heck yeah, as long as the hotel has internet and a Starbucks.

All this — while it can get crazier than a terrier puppy with a cocaine chew toy — is not immoral. What’s immoral is parents who, failing to turn their kids into athletic prodigies with superb standardized test scores, cheat.

Dozens of parents have been charged with buying their kids a resume that every advantage did not enable these offspring, as pampered as Westminster poodles, to earn. And as many as 20 coaches at elite colleges and employees at private schools are charged with accepting bribes to help these kids by lying and cheating.

That’s terrible. But the line between preparing your children and putting in the fix for them is not a fine one at all.

This scam is breathtaking in its audacity. The central player, William Singer, who has admitted guilt, used a college preparatory business and a nonprofit organization to pull in $25 million from 2011 to 2019 by charging parents to get kids into college. The parents are quite wealthy and, in some cases, famous.

Singer kept a lot of the money, and said he used the rest to bribe coaches in various, often lesser-known sports (crew, sailing, water polo) at Yale, the University of Southern California, Wake Forest, the University of Texas, Stanford, UCLA and others. The coaches told admissions officers they were recruiting kids as athletes, often for sports the students did not play. This meant creating fake internet profiles to document imaginary athletic exploits. Other money went to ACT and SAT administrators, and a ringer, to fake test results.

My daughter, a high school senior, is waiting on admissions decisions from schools enmeshed in this scandal. And she’s on the privileged end of the scale, having enjoyed literate (if batty) parents, good schools, great camps and a tutor or two. Throughout the application process, we’ve talked about how hard it would be without such advantages.

Against cheaters, it’s impossible. And again, it’s not a fine line, just as it wasn’t with the SAT cheating scandal in Nassau County in 2011.

What’s fair is giving kids every possible bit of training to help them crush tests, pen gorgeous essays, vanquish violas and rock regattas. What’s grotesque is conspiring to pretend students can do these things, whether that means paying someone to write an essay, take a test or invent an athletic career.

It’s naive to expect a fully level playing field, but it’s damn reasonable to expect even rich kids to take their own at-bats.

 Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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