Admissions scandal reveals the deep-seated ties between celebrities and top colleges

Hollywood is fixated on the federal investigation into a massive college admissions scam. It’s a scheme that has all the ingredients of a ripping yarn, a portrait of the corrosive influence of celebrity and wealth in higher education. It’s also a story that has deep links to the entertainment industry. Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, two actresses with squeaky-clean public images, have had their careers tarnished after news broke that they were among dozens of wealthy parents who allegedly paid up to $6.5 million to falsify SAT and ACT scores and represent their kids as athletic recruits.

“I can see getting a friend to write a letter for you, but to pay someone to take the SAT?” said an indie film producer. “It’s unconscionable. Also, what does this teach your kids? As if this town wasn’t a cesspool as it is.”

Another senior film executive with kids was equally blunt. “It’s terrible, and they deserve whatever they get.”

Also indicted in the scandal: Bill McGlashan, a founding partner of CAA majority owner TPG Growth and a co-founder of STX Entertainment. McGlashan has been fired by TPG.

PHOTOS: Inside the college campuses of elite American schools

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Inside the college campuses of America's most elite schools
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Inside the college campuses of America's most elite schools
Palo Alto, CA USA May 20, 2017: University logo at Main Camus of Stanford
This decorative iron gate is the entrance to the Memorial Quadrangle on the campus of Yale University. The gate beneath Harkness Tower, crafted by Samuel Yellin, is the most ornate of his many works at Yale.
Yale University campus at evening, New Haven, Connecticut
Stanford university at sunrise horizontal
PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY - January 5, 2017: A look through one of the many arches at Princeton University
Cambridge, Ma: Students and tourists rest in lawn chairs in Harvard Yard, the open old heart of Harvard University campus in Cambridge, MA, USA.
Arch Harkness Tower Old Campus Yale University New Haven Connecticut. Completed in 1922 as part of Memorial Quadrangle.
Stanford, USA - September 27, 2014. Hallway in the campus of Stanford University. Stanford University is a world famous private research and teaching university located in Stanford, California. It was founded in 1885 in a suburban setting.
Princeton, NJ, USA - October 18, 2008: The tower and entrance to Alexander Hall at Princeton University stand out against a crisp autumn sky.
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Huffman, Loughlin and McGlashan broke the law and could face prison time, but it’s not the first time high-powered figures in the entertainment business have acted aggressively to get their kids into top colleges. They donate money and deploy their star power in their courtship of these institutions, and their overtures are often reciprocated by star-struck college presidents and faculty.

“The colleges have a great desire for children from celebrity and wealth,” said Daniel Golden, the author of “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.” “They love the buzz that it brings.”

Brown University, which is not named in the probe, has historically been one of the most relentless schools when it comes to cultivating ties between the Ivy League and Tinseltown. In some instances, a comb nation of money and klieg lights appeared to factor heavily into being admitted to the school. Golden’s book claims that onetime über-agent Michael Ovitz was able to leverage his connections to get his son Chris into Brown despite his lackluster grades.

Ovitz and a spokesperson for Brown University did not respond to Variety’s request for comment.

“The celebrities would come to parents’ weekend and hold seminars, and it became a big draw. And the parents become more likely to donate to Brown and spread the word about what a great school it is,” said Golden.

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Lori Loughlin and husband Mossimo Giannulli together
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Lori Loughlin and husband Mossimo Giannulli together
LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 18: Designer Mossimo Giannulli and actress Lori Loughlin attend LACMA's 50th Anniversary Gala sponsored by Christie's at LACMA on April 18, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Donato Sardella/Getty Images for LACMA)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JUNE 03: Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli attend 6th Annual Kidstock Music And Arts Festival Sponsored By Hudson Jeans at Greystone Mansion on June 3, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Donato Sardella/WireImage)
MALIBU, CA - APRIL 21: Designer Mossimo Giannulli and actress Lori Loughlin attend the Malibu Lumber Yard grand opening held at the Malibu Lumber Yard on April 21, 2009 in Malibu, California. (Photo by John Shearer/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 20: Actress Lori Loughlin (L) and husband Mossimo Giannulli attend the Saks Fifth Avenue's Unforgettable Evening cocktail reception benefiting Entertainment Industry Foundation's (EIF) Women's Cancer Research Fund held at the Beverly Wishire Hotel on February 20, 2008 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Donato Sardella/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 28: Lori Loughlin and Mossimo attend Louis Vuitton Gala Celebrating the Takashi Murakami Exhibition at Geffen Contemporary at Moca on October 28, 2007 in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by BRIAN LINDENSMITH/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
John Stamos and Lori Loughlin during Target Hosts LA Fashion Week Party for Designer Mossimo Giannulli - Inside at Area in West Hollywood, California, United States. (Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage for LaForce and Stevens)
John Stamos, Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli during Target Hosts LA Fashion Week Party for Designer Mossimo Giannulli - Inside at Area in West Hollywood, California, United States. (Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage for LaForce and Stevens)
Mossimo Giannulli and Lori Loughlin during Target Hosts LA Fashion Week Party for Designer Mossimo Giannulli at Area in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage for LaForce and Stevens)
Lori Loughlin and Mossimo during Saks Fifth Avenues Unforgettable Evening Benefitting EIFs Womens Cancer Research Fund at Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, United States. (Photo by Donato Sardella/WireImage for Entertainment Industry Foundation)
Lori Loughlin and Mossimo during 30th Anniversary Party for Hello Kitty Presented by SANRIO and Target - Pink Carpet at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, California, United States. (Photo by J. Vespa/WireImage for Sanrio, Inc)
Mossimo Giannulli & Lori Loughlin during Mossimo's New Collection Celebration at Moomba in West Hollywood, California, United States. (Photo by J. P. Aussenard/WireImage)
Lori Loughlin & Mossimo during Marc Anthony Pilots Jaguar's Tribute To Style - March 18, 2001 at Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, California, United States. (Photo by SGranitz/WireImage)
381656 06: Designer Mossimo Giannulli with actress wife Lori Loughlin, left, and actress Valerie Bertinelli attend a party to launch the famed sportswear designer Mossimo Giannulli Collection November 9, 2000 at The Drive-In Studios in New York City. (Photo by George DeSota/Getty Images)
Mossimo Giannulli & Lori Loughlin during 14th Carousel of Hope Ball for Barbara Davis Center for Diabetes at Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, United States. (Photo by SGranitz/WireImage)
Lori Loughlin & Mossimo during An Evening of Song & Spirit A Benefit For Gaian Yoga For Life at Private House in Bel Air, California, United States. (Photo by SGranitz/WireImage)
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Golden’s book was published in 2006. But in 2014, in the midst of the Sony hack, Brown was back in the news for its questionable admissions practices. Stolen emails revealed that Michael Lynton, who was then the head of Sony Pictures Entertainment, made a $1 million donation to the university to establish a scholarship, a gift that coincided with his daughter’s college search. In return for his generosity, Lynton was offered a personal sit-down with the school’s president when touring the campus with his daughter.

Lynton declined to comment.

To be clear, there’s nothing illegal about Lynton’s or Ovitz’s actions, but they do speak to the symbiotic relationship between universities and Hollywood elite. It’s a bond that has only grown stronger. The thirst for donations has intensified as colleges become locked in a never-ending series of capital campaigns. They need money, lots of it, to build dorms and labs and add to their endowments, or they risk falling in the rankings of top colleges. Elite universities maintain vast databases on potential donors and parents that estimate their net worth and their potential to contribute; they keep track of every mention of an art purchase or real estate sale, and chronicle each encounter between the university’s administration and the individual.

Experts say that the impulse to exploit any connection and sign big checks to influence the college admissions process is understandable and is the byproduct of parents’ love for their child.

“We as parents want to do everything in our power to take away the struggles our children face,” said Richard Watts, the author of “Entitlemania: How Not to Spoil Your Kids, and What to Do If You Have.” “At every turn we try to make the path as smooth as possible.”

It’s an impulse that gets tied up in the other trappings of privilege. Hollywood is status-obsessed — executives’ success is measured by the zip code they live in and the fancy cars they drive onto the lot each day. In that crucible of competitiveness, a child’s education can be another marker of making it. It starts early. Parents begin leveraging their connections to get their kids into Crossroads or Harvard-Westlake, choice Los Angeles private schools that are supposed to establish a glide path for future accomplishment. Throughout their child’s matriculation, they shell out thousands of dollars for college counselors and tutors in the hopes of working the system to their advantage.

Sometimes they even try to cut corners. Troup Wood, a college prep tutor in Los Angeles, says he’s been offered money to write college essays for his clients’ kids, overtures he’s refused.

“It’s always done with a nudge,” said Wood. “I say, ‘I’m here to help your kids foster their own abilities.’ It doesn’t work. If a college essay is inauthentic, a counselor can smell it a mile away.”

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Felicity Huffman photographed after college admissions scandal
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Felicity Huffman photographed after college admissions scandal
TOPSHOT - Actress Felicity Huffman is seen inside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Los Angeles, on March 12, 2019. - Two Hollywood actresses including Oscar-nominated 'Desperate Housewives' star Felicity Huffman are among 50 people indicted in a nationwide university admissions scam, court records unsealed in Boston on March 12, 2019 showed. The accused, who also include chief executives, allegedly cheated to get their children into elite schools, including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown and the University of Southern California, federal prosecutors said.Huffman, 56, and Lori Loughlin, 54, who starred in 'Full House,' are charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. A federal judge set bond at $250,000 for Felicity Huffman after she was charged in a massive college admissions cheating scandal. (Photo by DAVID MCNEW / AFP) (Photo credit should read DAVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images)
Actress Felicity Huffman is seen inside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Los Angeles, on March 12, 2019. - Two Hollywood actresses including Oscar-nominated 'Desperate Housewives' star Felicity Huffman are among 50 people indicted in a nationwide university admissions scam, court records unsealed in Boston on March 12, 2019 showed. The accused, who also include chief executives, allegedly cheated to get their children into elite schools, including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown and the University of Southern California, federal prosecutors said.Huffman, 56, and Lori Loughlin, 54, who starred in 'Full House,' are charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. A federal judge set bond at $250,000 for Felicity Huffman after she was charged in a massive college admissions cheating scandal. (Photo by DAVID MCNEW / AFP) (Photo credit should read DAVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images)
Actress Felicity Huffman is seen inside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Los Angeles, on March 12, 2019. - Two Hollywood actresses including Oscar-nominated 'Desperate Housewives' star Felicity Huffman are among 50 people indicted in a nationwide university admissions scam, court records unsealed in Boston on March 12, 2019 showed. The accused, who also include chief executives, allegedly cheated to get their children into elite schools, including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown and the University of Southern California, federal prosecutors said.Huffman, 56, and Lori Loughlin, 54, who starred in 'Full House,' are charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. A federal judge set bond at $250,000 for Felicity Huffman after she was charged in a massive college admissions cheating scandal. (Photo by DAVID MCNEW / AFP) (Photo credit should read DAVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images)
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Loughlin’s, Huffman’s and McGlashan’s indictments may have a chilling effect on rich parents who are willing to do something illegal to get their kids into college, but the scandal itself may have exposed something deeper, more pernicious and even more difficult to eradicate.

“When people talk about affirmative action as a preference in college admissions, they overlook the fact that there are many other preferences in college admissions,” said Golden. “Most benefit the white and the wealthy. Here, the rich people and celebrities were taking advantage of vulnerabilities in the college admissions system that tilt toward the affluent.”

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