From Hallmark actress to Hot Pockets heiress: unlikely participants who (allegedly) cheated higher education

By now, most are likely familiar with “Operation Varsity Blues,” an FBI investigation that recently uncovered a pay-for-services scheme to provide unqualified candidates enrollment into top-tier universities. To date, over 50 people in six different states have been identified as participants in a network where parents paid fees ranging from thousands to millions of dollars to guarantee their children an elite college education.

It’s no secret that wealth provides privilege, and in the case of higher education, money appeared to guarantee one access to USC, Yale, Stanford, Harvard, Georgetown, Duke and Wake Forest, according to ABC News. Walter Pavlo, a personal finance writer for Forbes who specializes in white collar crime, notes that the person at the forefront of the scheme is William Singer, founder of The Edge College & Career Network (The Key) and the associated non-profit organization, Key Worldwide Foundation (KWF), which operated under the pretense of serving underprivileged children. Wealthy parents who were desperate to see their children accepted to elite colleges allegedly made direct payments to KWF for a guaranteed slot through test score manipulation, false sports team recruitment, and altered college essays.

The New York Times reported that those charged in the scandal include parents, exam administrators, athletic coaches and private admissions counselors. Some of the more well-known celebrity parents include actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli as well as actress Felicity Huffman. The laundry list of influential parents includes captains of industry, such as Agustin Hueneeus (Napa Valley vineyard owner), David Sidoo (lithium explorer and developer), and Douglas Hodge (former chief executive of Pimco, one of the world’s largest bond fund managers). One of most intriguing participants is Michelle Janavs, heiress to the Hot Pockets fortune. Janavs is accused of paying $100,000 to have KWF “fix” her daughter’s college admissions exam so that her child could attend USC, as well as presenting the daughter as a standout volleyball recruit. Lori Loughlin, of “Full House” fame, and her husband allegedly paid $500,000 to have their daughters labeled as crew team recruits, although neither is a rower. What boggles the minds of many is why parents with incredible financial resources resorted to unethical and illegal means to accelerate their children’s educations. Surely the family of one of America’s favorite hand-held ham and cheese snack innovation could afford a tutor? The short answer: payouts are quick and easy.

In my recent COM 419 class, students weighed in on this case with insightful questions, including:  “Since some of the students were apparently unaware of their parent’s intervention, is it fair to have them expelled from these colleges?” “This investigation could be the tip of a very large iceberg. If investigations from, let’s say, five years ago identify other such nefarious college acceptance manipulation, should the universities rescind those degrees? One of the most profound is “What do these schools say to students who worked their butts off, achieved a 4.2 GPA and didn’t get accepted”? This question is particularly daunting when one reads a post from Laughlin’s daughter, social media influencer Olivia Jade: “I don’t know how much of school I’m gonna attend but I’m gonna go in and talk to my deans and everyone and hope that I can try and balance it all. But I do want the experience of like game days, partying … I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.”

It’s unfortunate that Jade’s apparent lack of appreciation for her education adds fuel to a volatile fire. It remains to be seen what will become of the parents and students involved in the Varsity Blue case. Lori Loughlin has already experienced the fallout from this scandal: The Hallmark Channel cancelled their contract with her for the series “When Calls the Heart” and she has been dropped from the Netflix series, “Fuller House.”

In the meantime, what can be said is that our Marist students have something that cannot be discounted: their talent, hard work and dedication to succeed brought them here, and their success is well-earned.