As a freshman at the University of Southern California last year, Matteo Sloane surely never imagined making the 2½-hour drive from Los Angeles up U.S. 101 to visit his father at the federal prison in Lompoc, California. Then FBI agents came to the family’s house at 6:15 a.m. one day. Seems that Devin Sloane, guided by a scam artist to the stars, had paid a quarter-million dollars to get Matteo admitted to USC.

Matteo now devotes time to his mom, lest she feel isolated while his dad is doing time. Matteo’s reflection after visiting Devin at Lompoc: “He is sorry. I didn’t ask for any of this and he feels sorry for that.”

Lompoc inmate Devin Sloane isn’t as famous as actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, three among the dozens of parents caught up in the college admissions scandal of 2019. Huffman and Loughlin were among those accused of cheating their children’s way into select colleges. The scandal’s diabolical details, and its coast-to-coast scope, has rocked a higher education industry that portrays college admissions as a sacrosanct process.

It’s a saga of arrogant crime and humbling punishment: wealthy and celebrity parents paying big bucks to get their children into schools such as Georgetown, Stanford and Yale. All of us knew of legacy admissions for the descendants of alumni, and of acceptances for the slow-witted grandchildren of donors who erect campus buildings. Yet this megacheat, orchestrated by admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer, was in a breathtaking league of its own.

BEYOND SCHADENFREUDE

There’s more here for the rest of us, though, than a plump serving of schadenfreude – secret satisfaction over a downfall of the rich and famous. There’s also a warning to ambitious parents of all income brackets and status cohorts. None of us wants our families to end up like these.

We offer that conclusion with gratitude for a recent Wall Street Journal story that explores how profoundly the parents who cheated for their children have wound up cheating, yes, their children. The story speaks of families attempting to reassemble bonds frayed by parents’ lies and deceit.

It’s commonly accepted now that while some of the young people knew their parents were bribing them into colleges, many others did not. One example of the toxic fallout the latter group may never outlive: Later on the day FBI agents came for his father, Matteo Sloane had his own piercing interrogation for his dad: “Why didn’t you believe in me? Why didn’t you trust me?”

Every parent wants to help his or her children succeed. As Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley put it in the 1970s when city business went to an insurance firm where a son worked, “If a man can’t put his arms around his sons, then what kind of world are we living in?”

A TWISTED DEFINITION OF ‘PROTECTION’

Devin Sloane, before receiving his six-month prison sentence in September, wrote to the judge that he wanted to protect Matteo from the pain and disappointment he had felt growing up in a family that endured turmoil and financial problems.

But the college admissions scandal shows how much damage that parental sentiment can do to its alleged beneficiaries. And who, truth be told, are the beneficiaries? For all of us tempted to clout our kids into an internship, a school, a job, there’s the obvious question, “Would my intervention to help my child be right or wrong?” But there’s also the self-auditing follow-up, “Would I be doing this for my child – or for my bragging rights, my stature, my pride?”

Among the families where such questions didn’t get due attention:

• Huffman was arrested after paying $15,000 to have Singer’s proctor boost daughter Sophia Macy’s SAT score without the girl’s knowledge. Huffman pleaded guilty. Her two-week sentence surely was easier than confessing in open court that, after the arrest, Sophia had told her, “I don’t know who you are anymore, Mom.”

• The Journal reports that vintner Agustin Huneeus Jr. pleaded guilty to paying $50,000 to fix his daughter’s SAT score and $50,000 to help slide the teen into USC – and to agreeing to pay an additional $200,000 on her acceptance before authorities exposed the plot. “I realize now that cheating on her behalf was not about helping her, it was about how it would make me feel,” wrote the father, now inmate No. 25453-111 serving five months at a federal penitentiary in Atwater, California.

• Jack Buckingham twice had taken the ACT exam, finishing in the 92nd and 94th percentiles – but not high enough to placate his mother, Jane, a youth-marketing consultant and author. She reportedly worried about his uneven grades. So she agreed to pay Singer $50,000 to have a proctor take the exam in Jack’s name but without her son’s knowledge. Before receiving her three-week prison sentence, she wrote, “I committed this crime for myself. Not because I wanted my son to go to any particular school, but because I needed to make myself feel like a better mother.”

LET CHILDREN PILOT THE HELICOPTER

Circle back with us to Matteo Sloane, who for the rest of his life can ponder why Devin Sloane didn’t think his son had the ability to make his own way, or the resilience to rebound if he stumbled.

The temptation to helicopter parent – to hover overhead, blowing debris from life’s path – is strong. So is every parent’s reluctance to accept that for a child, at some point, most steps ought to be steps away, toward independence.

This admissions scandal thrived because parents wanted to fly the helicopter – illegally, and for way too long. In Matteo’s vernacular: “It’s honestly, like, kind of gross that they’re trying to live their kids’ lives.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.