In the days since news broke that 50 people, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, allegedly paid millions of dollars to lie and scam their kids into elite universities, many people have been trying to reckon with how a scheme of this scale could've gone down. Details reveal that William Singer, founder of a college-prep business called The Key, and his associates Photoshopped students' faces onto athletes bodies, hired people to proctor standardized tests for students, and funneled money from parents in the form of "donations." Singer plead guilty to four charges in federal court on Tuesday.
This scandal was, for the most part, reportedly all the parents' and Singer's doing; in some instances, the kids had no idea that their parents had embellished their applications. The parents, many of whom are high-profile figures, presumably felt pressure to get their children into prestigious schools — such as Yale, University of Southern California, Stanford, and Georgetown — that would elevate their status, and eventually help their kids' future job prospects.
While some people aren't surprised that wealthy individuals pay their kids' way into schools (hiring a "college consultant" to help with applications and test prep is normalized in many circles), the extent of the criminal activity is shocking to many. How could perceived societal pressure warp people's moral compass to an extent that they feel compelled to commit a crime?
While we don't know what exactly drove these parents to seek out Singer's services, or whether or not they knew their actions were illegal, a tool called the "fraud triangle" could help us understand what goes through people's minds when they commit fraud. The "fraud triangle" was created by Donald Cressey, a sociologist who specialized in organized crime, as a way to illustrate how "trusted persons become trust violators," he wrote. It consists of three parts: pressure, opportunity, and rationalization. Technically, the fraud triangle is used in the context of occupational fraud, defined as fraud committed by employees against an employer. That's not exactly the same thing that happened here, but it does help get inside the mind of a scammer.
The top of the fraud triangle signifies the person's motivation for fraud, which is "pressure." Usually, people have a problem they need to solve (in this case, the "problem" is getting into a competitive college), but can't through "legitimate means," so they look into illegal stuff. Then, in one corner of the pyramid is opportunity, or a solution that's illegal, but is secretive enough that it won't get them caught. (Singer's business, The Key, would count as the parents' opportunity.) And then, there's rationalization, or a way that people can justify the crime to themselves and others. Here, the parents had seemingly the ultimate rationalization: wanting to provide their kids with what they consider a good education to better their futures.
We might all be doing legal things that are actually not optimal, but this is just not the same as deliberately trying to break the rules that you know most everyone else abides by.
Jennifer Baker, PhD, associate professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston
This particular type of scammer often believes that they're a morally good person who’s in a sticky situation — in other words, they believe the end justifies their means. But in Operation Varsity Blues, as the FBI named the scandal, money and privilege add a layer of awareness and unfairness. For example, you could argue that an underprivileged parent who breaks some rules to get their kid into school has an "excuse" for their behavior, says Jennifer Baker, PhD, associate professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston who specializes in ethics. It’s easier to sympathize with someone who wants to do what’s best for their child with the resources they have, she says.
"The parents in this case, though, I think are clearly 'cheating,' taking a spot from another student precisely because they do have other resources, and have had them for some time," Dr. Baker says. Despite having plenty of opportunities to pursue a sport or get a fantastic education, for example, they took a shortcut, and lied on their kid’s behalf. "That they also were willing to do so many unethical things at once shows their intentions were not good," she says.
To be fair, the entire collegiate system, which gives wealthier families who donate money to schools a leg up in the application process, is worthy of critique, Dr. Baker says. But people who openly ride on donations are at least doing something legal that they don’t need to hide, she adds. "We might all be doing legal things that are actually not optimal, but this is just not the same as deliberately trying to break the rules that you know most everyone else abides by," she says.