Oscar-nominated actress Felicity Huffman received a 14-day jail sentence in the U.S District Court in Boston on September 13. Huffman spent thousands of dollars to fraudulently boost her daughter’s SAT score in an attempt to increase her chances of being accepted into an elite university.
In addition to her jail time, U.S District Judge Indira Talwani sentenced Huffman to one year of supervised release, 250 hours of community service, and a $30,000 fine — only a fraction of the actress’ $45 million net worth.
Huffman’s crime represents just one piece of the largest college admissions scandal in history. It has garnered a great deal of media attention since the investigation was made public on March 12, 2019. She is one of 33 parents accused of paying over $25 million collectively between 2011 and 2018 to William “Rick” Singer who orchestrated the inflation of standardized test scores and the bribery of college officials. According to Federal authorities, Huffman admitted to paying $15,000 in 2017 for a college counselor to correct wrong answers on her oldest daughter Sophia's SAT.
However, while prosecutors call Huffman’s sentence a “crucial win” in rectifying the injustices of the college admissions scandal, her punishment is hardly a consequence for deliberately exploiting the weakness of an already broken system.
Huffman cited her maternal sympathy as her main motive for cheating, in which she desired to boost her daughter’s chances as a result of her learning disability. In a letter to the court she wrote: "In my desperation to be a good mother, I talked myself into believing that all I was doing was giving my daughter a fair shot. I see the irony in that statement now because what I have done is the opposite of fair.”
Judge Talwani was not persuaded by her emotional appeal, declaring that Huffman "knew it was a fraud" and that "it was not an impulsive act."
While only a small fraction of people can afford a $20 million real estate portfolio, many parents around the country can relate to the stress of guiding their children through the arduous college application process. This shared experience bridges the gap between Huffman—a wealthy superstar—and the general public.
U.S Assistant Attorney Eric Rosen challenged the excusability of Huffman’s crime, stating that, "With all due respect to the defendant, welcome to parenthood ... what parenthood does not do is it does not make you a felon, it does not make you cheat… most parents have the moral compass to not step over the line. The defendant did not.”
While Huffman expressed deep regret of her actions, her superficial apology fails to acknowledge her deliberate exploitation of the college system. Not only does this undermine the students who work hard to get into college and the tremendous financial sacrifices many parents make, but it reveals a sense of moral entitlement.
"The outrage isn't the harm to the colleges," Judge Talwani said of the case. "The outrage is the system that is already so distorted."
Wealthy families spending thousands of dollars on private tutoring and counseling in the hopes of increasing their children’s chances of attending an elite university reveals a greater systemic problem in the college admissions process. With the growing competitiveness of applicant pools each year, many parents will stop at nothing to increase their chances of winning the college admissions game. This cutthroat culture has created a multi-billion dollar industry in which test prep and college consulting companies profit off of the anxieties induced by U.S News and World Report rankings and the mystique of the admissions process.
Today, many parents start as early as middle school to map out their children’s educational trajectories so they can best market themselves to college admissions officers. According to Dr. Katherine Cohen, founder of IvyWise—college consulting company based in New York City—many families can spend “upwards of $100,000 to $200,000, depending on their chosen program and services.”
This lack of transparency in the college admissions process grants an enormous advantage to children of affluent families while systematically excluding those with less financial resources. Not only does this rat race for seats at the nation’s top colleges and universities undermine equally legitimate educational paths such as trade schools and community colleges, but it is also representative of a larger societal obsession with arbitrary notions of success and status. The illusion that career success is dictated solely by the prestige of one’s undergraduate education has created a culture in which a child’s ability or inability to gain entry into a top-ranked school is used to quantify both their success and the success of their parents. This societal narrative drives the college application process, giving elite schools disproportionate power in shaping the cultural expectations for higher education.
Consequently, in order to progress towards a more equitable system of higher education, as a society we must recognize not only the unfairness of specific exploitations of the college admissions process, but also the inherent injustice of the current system.