Jury reaches verdict in first college admissions scandal trial
By Aron Solomon
“There’s nothing to see here, folks. Just rich people getting their kids into great colleges.”
While admittedly paraphrasing the defense position in the Varsity Blues trial, in which the jury handed down a guilty verdict on Friday afternoon. While this was part of the foundation defense lawyers hoped will lead jurors to a not guilty verdict, that was a failed strategy.
Part of the reason that didn’t happen here is because the jury wasn’t comprised solely of peers of the elite school families these defense lawyers are representing. Rather, the jury is closer to the everyperson than any person with the means to bribe their child’s way into an elite school – whether a tony nursery school, K-12, or, as is the case here, a college.
The defense case relied in part on this being a fairly unsubstantial fraud. After all, who cares if a rich kid gets into USC and Middlebury or just USC? But in every elite college in the nation, there are a finite number of spots. What this means in practical terms here is that while the colleges were being defrauded by families who were part of a scheme to falsify their child’s credentials, arguably far more importantly, so were other families.
Part of the mission of the best colleges in the nation today is something that isn’t spoken about as much as it used to be a couple of decades ago. Rather than simply being quasi-academic social clubs for the very rich, there was and still is to an extent a notion that these schools owe a responsibility to “other” families to educate their children. Not in super high numbers (hey, let’s not go nuts here) but kind of window dressing plus, if you will. The notion of success stories of kids who came from little and make it big due in part to an elite college education is the stuff of superb PR.
So these colleges – especially those with massive endowments that don’t rely solely upon tuition review each year to keep the lights on – find ways to use a teeny bit of their institutional wealth to make it possible for kids to attend who can’t actually afford it. Which is why at times this trial has seemed like less of a trial of families who bribed schools and more of an indictment of the college admissions process anyone paying attention already knew was broken beyond repair.
So for every student admitted under the Varsity Blues fraud, there is a good chance that a student who had need and for whom admission to their great and historic institution of higher education would have transformed their lives, simply didn’t get it.
And that is going to absolutely infuriate a jury, as it certainly did here.
The thinking was that more days the Varsity Blues jury deliberated, the better it was going to be for the defense. For those who saw this case as a slam dunk, with each hour that passed, it would have become a layup, then a foul shot, and perhaps eventually a three-pointer. Basketball analogies aside, very few hours passed and this turned out to be what it should have been – an open and closed case for this jury.
The most important thing that will come from the jury is messaging. Will the punishment given to defendants be a wrist slap, a gut punch, or being run over with their massive G-Wagon? That remains to be seen, as the defendants are sure to appeal.
Ultimately, what will change from this verdict if it is upheld? The best guess of the smart money (not the money that pays up to $1 million to get your kid into the USCs of the world) is nothing.
Aron Solomon, JD, is the chief legal analyst for Esquire Digital and the editor of Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in CBS News, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, and many other