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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Tyranny of Merit

What's Become of the Common Good?

Michael J. Sandel

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



In March 2019, as high school students awaited the results of their college applications, federal prosecutors made a stunning announcement. They charged thirty-three wealthy parents with engaging in an elaborate cheating scheme to get their children admitted to elite universities, including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, and the University of Southern California.1

At the heart of the scam was an unscrupulous college-counseling consultant named William Singer, who ran a business that catered to anxious, affluent parents. Singer’s company specialized in gaming the intensely competitive college admissions system that had in recent decades become the primary gateway to prosperity and prestige. For students lacking the stellar academic credentials top colleges required, Singer devised corrupt workarounds—paying proctors of standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT to boost students’ scores by correcting their answer sheets, and bribing coaches to designate applicants as recruited athletes, even if the students did not play the sport. He even provided fake athletic credentials, photoshopping applicants’ faces onto action photos of real athletes.

Singer’s illicit admissions service did not come cheap. The chairman of a prestigious law firm paid $75,000 for his daughter to take a college entrance exam at a test center supervised by a proctor paid by Singer to ensure the student received the score she needed. One family paid Singer $1.2 million to get their daughter admitted to Yale as a soccer recruit, despite the fact that she did not play soccer. Singer used $400,000 of the payment to bribe the obliging Yale soccer coach, who was also indicted. A television actress and her husband, a fashion designer, paid Singer $500,000 to get their two daughters admitted to USC as bogus recruits to the crew team. Another celebrity, the actress Felicity Huffman, known for her role in the television series Desperate Housewives, somehow got a bargain rate; for only $15,000, Singer put in the fix for her daughter’s SAT.2

In all, Singer took in $25 million over eight years running his college admissions scam.

The admissions scandal provoked universal outrage. In a polarized time, when Americans could scarcely agree on anything, it drew massive coverage and condemnation across the political spectrum—on Fox News and MSNBC, in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Everyone agreed that bribing and cheating to gain admission to elite colleges was reprehensible. But the outrage expressed something deeper than anger at privileged parents using illicit means to help their kids get into prestigious colleges. In ways that people struggled to articulate, it was an emblematic scandal, one that raised larger questions about who gets ahead, and why.

Inevitably, the expressions of outrage were politically inflected. Surrogates for President Trump took to Twitter and Fox News to taunt the Hollywood liberals ensnared in the scam. “Look at who these people are,” Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, said on Fox. “The Hollywood elites, the liberal elites who were always talking about equality for all, and everyone should get a fair shot, when here is the biggest hypocrisy of all: That they’re writing checks to cheat and get their kids into these schools—when the spots really should’ve gone to kids that were actually deserving of them.”3

For their part, liberals agreed that the scam deprived qualified kids of the places they deserved. But they saw the scandal as a blatant instance of a more pervasive injustice: the role of wealth and privilege in college admission, even where no illegality was involved. In announcing the indictment, the U.S. Attorney declared what he took to be the principle at stake: “There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy.”4 But editorial and opinion writers were quick to point out that money routinely plays a role in admissions, most explicitly in the special consideration many American universities accord children of alumni and generous donors.

Responding to Trump supporters’ attempts to blame liberal elites for the admissions scandal, liberals cited published reports that Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, had been admitted to Harvard despite a modest academic record after his father, a wealthy real estate developer, had donated $2.5 million to the university. Trump himself reportedly gave $1.5 million to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania around the time his children Donald Jr. and Ivanka attended the school.5


Singer, the mastermind of the admissions scam, acknowledged that a big gift sometimes gets marginally qualified applicants admitted through the “back door.” But he pitched his own technique, which he called the “side door,” as a cost-effective alternative. He told clients that the standard “back door” approach was “ten times as much money” as his cheating scheme, and less certain. A major gift to the college offered no guarantee of admission, while his “side door” of bribes and fake test scores did. “My families want a guarantee,” he explained.6

Copyright © 2020 by Michael J. Sandel