Gene Lyons

If it's news to you that social climbers see buying their children's way into fancy, name-brand colleges as the functional equivalent of wearing Rolex watches or driving Maseratis, then I don't know where to start.

That is, those expensive private (and some public) universities are fashion accessories and bragging points. It's the aura of exclusivity the parents are after. Status symbols to be dropped casually into conversations at Beverly Hills and Manhattan dinner parties. Nothing to do with academic achievement. It's kind of laughable, actually.

Consider our Ivy League president, the guy who can't spell "hamburger." Or his esteemed son-in-law, who probably can, although he'd never have gotten anywhere near Harvard University if his (felonious) father hadn't made a $2.5 million donation as young Jared's application was being considered.

Otherwise, he might have ended up at some proletarian outpost like Rutgers (where I matriculated) or another of the nowhere state schools whose basketball teams fill everybody's NCAA basketball tournament brackets this week.

For guys like Jared, Harvard functions as a kind of tycoon finishing school. They meet a lot of other devious guys with rich parents; also some truly accomplished ones, who can come in handy later in life. You know, in case they end up needing brain surgery or a first-rate criminal defense lawyer.

The vacuous party girl whose parents bribed her way into Southern Cal would almost surely have been better off at Arizona State. You know, the one with the big YouTube following, who expressed enthusiasm for football weekends and parties, but admitted, "I don't really care about school." As I write, the school some cynics call the "University of Spoiled Children" has pondered expelling her.

Is that more or less likely because Olivia Jade Giannulli spent spring break cruising the Bahamas on a yacht owned by the chairman of USC's Board of Trustees? It'd be hard to say. The girl returned home to Los Angeles after news of her parents' arrest for conspiracy to commit wire fraud broke.

I mention Arizona State because her father made a sneering remark about the school in an email about the kinds of colleges that weren't good enough for his daughter. That's pretty rich, considering that neither of Olivia Jade's parents appears to have attended college at all. The daughter says her father, Mossimo Giannulli, tricked his parents into paying tuition at USC, but used the money to start his successful clothing business instead.

So here's a guy who sells shirts, and he thinks his kid is too cool for State U. Only in America. The girl's mother, Lori Loughlin, starred in some TV sitcom I've never watched. Anyway, don't get me wrong. He sells shirts; I buy shirts. I'm neither envious of nor scornful about the couple's wealth.

As I say, the whole scandal -- conspiring with a con artist to bribe their kids' way into college, then deducting the "donation" from their taxes -- strikes me as more ridiculous than offensive. Did some earnest striver get cheated out of a rowing scholarship because of Olivia? Maybe so. But what's a university doing sponsoring a rowing team anyway?

I agree with Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn that colleges would be better off dropping minor sports with no fan base. By far the best athletic experience I had in a long, inglorious career was playing rugby, a club sport. We played for fun.

I guess I'm also less outraged than I should be by all the loud lamentations, like a Washington Post column from an African-American Harvard professor who says the scandal "makes clear what so many of us already know: The much-lauded American meritocracy is a lie."

Except in his case, of course.

I'm sure it was painful encountering people who assumed he was an "affirmative action" student who didn't really belong, but it's best understood as a function of their own insecurity.

Writing in his blog The Daily Howler, Bob Somerby points out that most Ivy League colleges now report that minority students outnumber white ones on their campuses. The same is true for many highly selective public universities, such as UCLA and Texas-Austin.

Even back in the day, my Rutgers freshman dorm was like a World War II movie platoon, hyphenated-Americans all: Irish, Jewish, Italian, Polish, Russian, etc. Nearly all of us were first-generation college students. Many had parents or grandparents who spoke a foreign language in the home. We'd sit up late telling family stories. Living there was an education in itself.

The awful truth is that what we really love about this latest college admissions scandal is making fun of these dimwit kids and their pathetic parents.

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