Over the past two days, a far-reaching college admissions scandal has dominated the headlines. An FBI investigation, comically named “Operation Varsity Blues,” uncovered that parents (including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin) paid around $25 million to a consultant to illegally guarantee their children spots in elite universities.
William “Rick” Singer, founder of a college counseling company, charged parents tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to doctor student test scores. Singer also collected millions of dollars as payment for bribing university coaches and administrators to falsely designate their students as recruited athletes. Unsealed court documents reveal that officials at eight elite universities are implicated in the scandal, including Georgetown, the University of Southern California, Stanford, Yale, and Wake Forest University.
Many columnists have been quick to point out that this case is only a particularly brazen and illegal instance of rich parents exploiting their wealth to give their children a leg up in the college admissions process. There are many legal means by which the wealthy give their kids a better shot at getting into top schools, from paying big for test preparation services to making sizable donations.
Yet focus on this point, correct as it is, threatens to obscure even deeper problems with elite US colleges and universities. Even setting aside the ways the rich consciously buy advantages for their children in college admissions, the prestigious, highly selective universities reproduce broader social and economic inequalities. In doing so, they bestow a false legitimacy on an unjust system.
Gaming the System
Some of the details of the Varsity Blues scandal are humorous: some students’ faces were photoshopped onto athletes’ bodies, for example. (The involvement of Aunt Becky from “Full House” is on its own enough to make one chuckle.) But the rich regularly employ less harebrained schemes to get their kids into the best schools while staying within the bounds of the law.
For instance, one can legally donate to a university in exchange for getting a “second look” at your child’s application. At Harvard, for instance, donors’ applicants get a huge boost in the application process. Presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose father donated $2.5 million to Harvard, benefitted this system in a particularly egregious way.
In addition, the mere fact that your parents graduated from the school often increases your chance of getting in: “legacy” applicants are given preference in admissions at a number of schools, including Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, and others.
There is also the huge test preparation industry catering to parents willing to pay to boost their childrens’ SAT and ACT scores. There are expensive college admissions consultants, who guide privileged students through the admissions process from start to finish; and people who will write your child’s application essay — for a couple thousand dollars.
The Roots of Inequality
However, looking only at the wealthy’s blatant efforts to game the system misses the forest for the trees. A 2017 study found that, at many elite schools, a higher percentage of students were drawn from families in the top 1 percent of US income-earners than from families in the entire bottom 20 percent. (This is true of several of the schools implicated in the recent admissions scandal, including Yale, Stanford, Wake Forest, Georgetown, and USC.)
At the nation’s eighty most elite schools (as ranked by Barron’s), students from the 1 percent are better represented than students from the bottom 40 percent.
The wealthy’s conscious attempts to get a leg up in the admissions process can’t account for all of the inequality in college admissions. Even setting aside the advantages provided by cheating and test prep, one’s chances at getting into a prestigious college — or going to college at all — are highly influenced by one’s race and class.
These factors affect students’ ability to get into top colleges in a number of ways. To name a few:
- Poorer students and students of color have less access to the extracurricular activities that elite schools look for in their applicants, including many sports.
- The SAT itself has a racial bias.
- Whether one graduates from high school in the first place is significantly influenced by the wealth of the neighborhood where you go to high school.
- Childhood poverty tends to hinder brain development, according to recent research.
Even if the rich weren’t trying to manipulate the admissions process in their favor, we could still expect to see racial and class inequalities reflected in who gets into elite schools.
The Deck Is Stacked
Worse still, these institutions replicate the inequalities we see in society at large, while lending credence to the myth that American society is basically fair and meritocratic.
A large percentage of graduates from the most elite schools go on to get high-paying jobs, often in finance. Top universities thereby reproduce existing inequalities by taking in disproportionately privileged freshman classes and then feeding alumni into the most lucrative jobs.
At the same time, the selectiveness of schools like Yale, Harvard, and Stanford lends credence to the idea that their graduates represent “the best and the brightest.” Schools’ byzantine and “scientific” admissions processes — reliant as they are on “neutral” indicators like GPA and SAT scores — make it appear as if their students are admitted purely on merit. These students’ later high-powered positions in the corporate world then seem to be the product of their superior intelligence and work ethic. Consequently, their position at the top of the socioeconomic ladder must be legitimate.
These ideas blind us to the unfairness endemic to the college admissions process. The truth is that the deck is stacked in favor of wealthier children from birth.
Perhaps more importantly, the myths of fairness and meritocracy obscure the brutal reality of class under capitalism: the power and wealth of capitalists and their ultrarich lackeys is due not to their special merit, but the domination and exploitation of the working class.