Prison Is the Price of Guilt – The College Admissions Scandal

By March 20th, 2019

Blog No 95 
March 20, 2019

College Admissions Scandal

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Prison Is the Price of Guilt 

By Mack W. Borgen
Author, National Award-Winning Dead Serious and Lighthearted – The Memorable Words of Modern America – Volume I (1957-1976), Volume II (1977-1993), and Volume III (1994-2015) (Published 2018-2019)The Relevance of Reason – The Hard Facts and Real Data about the State of Current America – Volume I (Business and Politics) and Volume II (Society and Culture) (Published 2013-2014).
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The college admissions scandal has been the talk of the nation for the last week. The list of alleged offenders includes numerous wealthy people — CEOs; corporate founders, owners, and officers; an actress and a fashion designer; a casino operator and a vineyard owner; a doctor and a lawyer; multiple fund managers and venture capital executives; and, just for good measure, a parenting advisor and author.

The reasons for the wide media coverage are both understandable and deserved because the scandal is unique in so many respects.

First, the scandal touches universities, communities and families from coast to coast – from Yale to University of Texas to USC. It is not an isolated hurricane in Houston or a foothills wildfire in California. It is not a political fight in D.C. or financial debacle from Wall Street. No, the college admission scandal is geographically widespread. It is everywhere. It affects and offends nearly all Americans.  

Second and worse yet, the scandal tampers with our families. It affects our kids. It squelches our and their dreams. It fans our cynicism. For some, it diminishes their (last and best) hopes. 

Third, and possibly most importantly, the scandal is easy to understand. It is not twisted by complexities. It does not get lost in the numbers. Instead, the cheating is simple, straightforward, and down-home dirty. And it is readily, albeit tragically, believable.

As a result, the reactions of nearly all Americans are similar, if not unanimous. Unlike so many issues of our social, cultural, political, and economic lives, the offensiveness of the college admissions scandal is unique because it is easily understood;  because it is similarly viewed; and because our shared reactions are this time unburdened by predisposition or personal bias.

Scandals in America are a dime a dozen. They clutter out headlines. They dominate the Internet. But most thoughtful Americans usually want to first know the facts and understand the details. What happened? How did it happen? Who was involved? Are there two sides to the story? Was there justification or provocation?

But that is not the case with the cheating scandal. We admittedly don’t know the details, but we feel we know the facts. We feel like we know what happened. We feel like we already know the facts. And this level of certainty is unique.[1]

We do not need to rely upon commentators to explain what happened. We do not need lawyers to detail the crimes. We do not need to listen for code words or weigh excuses and defenses. There are none.

Thus, once again, this scandal is easy to understand. It stinks, and, worse yet, it underscores all of those deep-rooted cynicisms which many of us so steadfastly try to set aside.

But one aspect and one huge risk of the college admissions scandal have not yet been addressed. To some Americans, these two matters will be seen as posing a serious threat and potential harm to our country. To other Americans, these matters will be seen as the long, awaited and triggering opportunity for “fix” our country.

The Drift from Frustration to Anger

Normally, social, cultural, political, and economic tensions bubble for years; for decades; sometimes for centuries. But sometimes, a single event triggers “everything” – the shooting of an obscure Archduke triggered World War I; the Black Monday Crash of 1929 brought on the Great Depression; the 1957 beep–beep of an orbiting basketball-sized Sputnik which led to formation of NASA and the acceleration of the Cold War; the assassination of JFK ended Camelot and sobered a nation overnight; Reagan’s exhortation to Gorbachev echoed throughout so many corners of the USSR that it accelerated the long-awaited demise of the USSR. More recently and more tragically emphatic, there was 9/11. It, too, just one horrific event, changed everything.

The college admission scandal certainly would not rival these events except when it is placed in the context of America’s growing fears about income and wealth inequality. America is not panicked about the fact that the top 1% of wealthy Americans now holds the same wealth as the “bottom” 95%.[2] But American’s are angry. They are pissed. And, in that context, the college admission scandal feeds the narrative. It confirms worst fears. It insults us with the hard reality that the playing field is more unequal than ever.

And though it is not yet obvious, the college admissions scandal has the potential to change everything. The scandal, almost by itself, may greatly accelerate the demands for serious change in this country. This is not offered as the screech of an alarmist, but again, because this scandal is unique.

Exactly because of the scandal’s notoriety and its wide-spreadedness (not a word, but it should be) and because of the massive media coverage, the scandal may, in time, come to be viewed as one of the sober beginnings of a tectonic shift in American politic and social life.

It will further our country’s drift from frustration to anger.

One certainly can argue that there are many components of American society which beg for change. The role of government will be debated until long after the cows come home. Racial tensions are sad, tragic, and wrong, but they will continue to be cynically viewed by some Americans as NIMBY-containable. Maybe The Wall needs to be built. Maybe it doesn’t. But the truth is that I, like most of you, haven’t been to a Texas border town in years. Health care issues are serious and important. But there are pros and cons to weigh with respect to almost every reform proposal. Even debates about the quality of education in our schools are burdened by the many-sided complexities of funding, student-teacher ratios, curriculum selection, and, more recently, even school safety issues.

But, the college admissions scandal is again unique due its confirming clarity. And when it is so publicly confirmed that rich people buy their kids’ way into some of America’s finest schools by simple cheating and bribing – then hell can break loose. Alumni ties and donor contributions have long been understood to open admissions gates — but proof of bald-ass bribery and cheating at some of America’s finest schools is hurtful news.

Admittedly, it is too early to know the lasting consequences of the college admissions scandal. However, it is here suggested that the college cheating scandal may accelerate the drift of the American people from frustration to anger.

But there is one more aspect, which this author refers to as a “risk, which will soon be become a major and lasting component of this scandal.

Prison Is the Price of Guilt.

Fines Are Merely the Cost of Errors.

The Real Risk of the College Admissions Scandal – Monetizing Our Judicial System 

Over the years, I have written on numerous occasions about the monetizing of our judicial system; about how the imposition of fines are too readily and too often used in the place and stead of good old-fashioned incarceration. See, for example, my article “Money Can Be Paid – But Time Must be Served – The Misuse of ‘Deferred Prosecution Agreements’ and How Guilty Corporate Executives Avoid Prosecution and Incarceration.”[3]

But the risk of fines rather than incarceration will soon be before the courts in the context of the college admissions scandal. Judges will soon be asked to approve plea agreements or impose sentences. And these plea agreements and sentences must include incarceration.

If this country is going to routinely send young poor men and women to prison for using drugs or for robbing a 7/11 in order to punish and send a message, then it must likewise send older rich men and women to prison for bribery and theft in order to punish and send a message. The subject of the theft is unimportant – cash from a till or an admission slot to college. They are merely different kinds of products.

And thus, prison incarceration must be a component of the imposed sentences —- because prison is the price of guilt. Fines are merely the cost of errors.

We have all paid fines and their many variants – parking and speeding tickets, late fees and overdraft charges, tax penalties and interest. But prison is where guilt is paid. That is where one “does time” for his or her misdeeds. One has to go to the “up the river” “to the big house.” My use of such jargon is not intended to trivialize the need for prison time to be imposed. Instead, it is used to underscore the massive difference between fines and prison.

It’s downright sweet that Felicity Huffman, aka Defendant Felicity Huffman, found it necessary to retain a crisis public relations team this week, but that both misses the point and is the point. The college admissions scandal is not a matter of public relations. It is not a mere civil wrongdoing. It is criminal.

The courts cannot be distracted by the defendant’s charitable contributions; by the fact that their crimes may be first-time offenses; or even by the fact that these people on paper may have led “blameless lives.”

As noted above, it is sad that the defendants includes a doctor, a lawyer, an associate professor, a fashion designer, a casino operator, multiple corporate and equity fund CEOs and managers and multiple corporate founders and executives, a vineyard owner, and maybe worse of all, a parenting author. But who cares? They are now defendants. And when given a number, they will all sound the same.

Thus, the forthcoming risk of the college admissions scandal is that if these cases are dismissed by the mere imposition of fines, this would further confirm the monetization of the criminal justice system. Instead, America cannot allow wealthy individuals to buy themselves out of trouble any more than it can allow them to buy their kid’s into college. Thus, even though fines must be part of each sentence, they cannot be all of the sentences.

And while it is far beyond the scope of this article, this author should note that it may be a “fine” time (pun intended) to follow the lead of other countries and to discard fine amount schedules. Instead, the amount of one’s fine should be based upon one’s income or wealth. Variations of this have been done for years in Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Great Britain, and even Argentina. While there could be some initial constitutional challenges to such income- or wealth-based impositions,[4] this author believes that these objections can and should be easily overcome. As well and recently said by one writer (admittedly in the context of mere traffic fines) “a billionaire and a nurse shouldn’t pay the same fine.”[5]


This author readily acknowledges the heated words of this article. Normally, I do not comment upon such recent and current events. Furthermore, in full disclosure, this author has a son who will soon be applying for college admission.

However, the subject of income and wealth disparity and the dangerous slant of our legal and judicial system have been addressed by this author on many occasions – and the college admissions scandals embodies everything about which I have been writing.

Lastly, my viewing of the widely-reported passions attendant to the college admissions scandal – both in and of itself and as a last straw – convinces me that there may soon be a further shift — from frustration to anger.

It is time to act responsibly. But it is also time to act.


[1] This level of assured and ready disgust is unusual because, as noted in one of my earlier books, The Relevance of Reason, America is usually (and almost unavoidably) a separated nation. In the context of most scandals, we are separated — by geography, by age, and by generational association. We are normally separated by the circumstances of our birth and by the strength or weakness or even presence of our families. From an early age, we become further separated by what each of us has seen and by the sense of hope which may (or may not) have been instilled in us. We are also separated by the quality and (later) the extent of our respective educations and by the availability of opportunities. Many of us are separated by a wide array of ethnicities, heritage, race, creed, and color and even by our height, weight, gender, health, tastes, and religious associations.

Even more, we are separated by our attitudes, by our dispositions and inclinations, and by our varying levels of empathy. Usually by early adulthood, we are further separated by the whims of luck, by our respective accumulation of experiences, by our jobs or professions, by our finding of love and possibly by the blessing presence of children and close friends. Time and money allowing, we welcome, but are again separated, by our various hobbies, sports, affiliations, and interests.

But, as noted above, all of these “separations” disappear in the context of the college admissions scandal.

The Relevance of Reason – The Hard Facts and Real Data about the State of Current America – Volume I (Business and Politics) and Volume II (Society and Culture) (2013).

[2] Interesting comparative note: At the beginning of the Great Depression and even after the increase in wealth disparity which resulted from the Roaring ‘20s, the top 1% of America’s wealthy families only held an amount of wealth equal to the bottom 30%. Thus, that 30% has now grown to 95%. In other words, on an averaging basis, wealth disparity in America has grown worse by about 7.5% per decade for nine decades. There’s finally almost no wealth left to be taken. 

[3] Mack W. Borgen Blog No. 56, February 23, 2015 at .

[4] The Constitutionality of Income-Based Fines, 85 Univ of Chicago L. Rev 1869 (Dec., 2018).

[5]  Schierenbeck, A., “A Billionaire and a Nurse Shouldn’t Pay the Same Fine for Speeding,” The New York Times, March 15, 2018.


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This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 20th, 2019 at 11:59 am and is filed under American condition, Crime and Punishment, Mack's Books, Parenting. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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