Paul Prather

Save your bribes — your kids’ swanky colleges won’t make them successful

Perhaps you’ve been following the bizarre tales of education fraud headlining the news.

Federal investigators have indicted 50 television stars, business titans, athletics coaches and college-admissions consultants who allegedly conspired to help the offspring of rich and famous people gain acceptance into prestigious universities.

Parents involved in the scheme are said to have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps even more, to ensure their children could enter the hallowed halls of schools such as Yale University, Georgetown University or the University of Southern California.

Now those parents, along with the coaches, the fake test-takers and the consultants who abetted them, are possibly facing prison time.

The biggest question is: Why?

What were the parents, particularly after? Did they believe they were buying their children’s future success by getting them into a top school? The abettors plainly were after the parents’ money.

A quirk of my life is that I have by happenstance rubbed elbows with any number of men and women who went on from college to became huge successes.

I attended the University of Kentucky in its party-school heyday, the 1970s, when it was obligated by statute or policy or bad thinking to accept any person with a diploma issued by a high school inside our Commonwealth, test scores be darned.

It wasn’t a place people had to claw and connive their way into.

If you were a parent, regardless of what manner of dunce you’d raised, you needed not bribe anybody to get your precious darling matriculated at the old Blue-and-White.

And if you were the student, UK’s academic standards were, shall we say, obligingly flexible. You wouldn’t suffer a nervous breakdown from the academic competition.

If worse came to worst and you couldn’t hack the curriculum for any other degree, you could always design your own course of study and aim for a nebulous Bachelor of General Studies diploma, colloquially known as the Blue Grass Special.

Yet I can’t tell you how many of my UK drinking acquaintances have gone on to glory. They include a CEO of a major corporation, big-time developers, a bank president or three, a partner at a white-shoe Wall Street law firm, poohbahs of the thoroughbred horseracing industry, doctors, judges — pretty much any variety of millionaire or swell you can name.

All with degrees from UK, including a smattering of Blue Grass Specials.

The most successful person I’ve known didn’t go to UK. Now an internationally renowned executive, she was, the last year for which I’ve seen a published figure, paid $73 million. (Yes, you read that right.) While working in England, she was named a Dame Commander of the British Empire. She hangs out with royalty and movie stars.

For the record, she’s also a thoughtful, kind human being who, with her husband, once went out of her way to haul me around New York City all day, show me the sights and lift my spirits when I found myself stranded up there and feeling blue.

She graduated from Ball State University. That’s also David Letterman’s alma mater. He didn’t do too badly himself.

Truth is, while a degree from Yale or Georgetown might look swanky on your resume, a sheepskin from UK or Ball State can serve you about as well.

Success or failure depends on your innate abilities, your ambition, your energy and your luck. Ten years into your career, you’ll find nobody cares what your SAT scores were, where you got your degree or what your grade-point-average was.

It’s mainly about what you can actually do.

Why then, would wealthy parents shell out six-figure bribes and risk felony charges to scam their offspring into a prestigious college?

I can’t read those parents’ minds, but I suspect this is way more about the parents’ own longings and sense of entitlement than the kids’ futures.

This is about adults who gain bragging rights by being able to say, “Oh, we can’t come to your beach house this weekend — we’ve promised to visit Junior at Princeton.”

Because all their neighbors’ children are at Princeton. Or Yale. Or Georgetown.

It wouldn’t do if Junior was studying over at Central Podunk Community College, even if that’s where he ought to be.

This is about cachet for the chronically insecure. It’s a social marker. It’s like obsessively building bigger and bigger mansions or buying a second yacht. It’s consumerism run mad, with your children as the ciphers by which you prop up your own self-esteem.

Or maybe these folks simply know that Junior is marginal and are, like desperate parents of all strata, looking for some way to give their struggling child a helping hand.

Or, again, maybe it’s none of those things. Maybe it’s something a middle-class, middle-brow peon like me can’t comprehend. I can’t say.

What I can say is, if you don’t have a spare half-million with which to buy your kid’s way into the Ivy League, don’t despair.

Help them get through UK or Morehead State or Ball State or wherever they’re accepted, and rest assured that if they’ve got the goods — if they’re as brilliant as you believe they are — they’ll end up fine.

And know that if they don’t have the goods, even Yale couldn’t help them much.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at