Unpacking the myth of merit: the College Admissions Scandal

At this point, nearly everyone has heard about the college admissions cheating scandal, in which 50 wealthy and influential figures were accused by federal authorities of giving huge payments to William “Rick” Singer in exchange for his help getting their children accepted into elite colleges. Among those arrested were actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, the latter of whom was accused by authorities of paying half a million dollars to get her two daughters into the University of Southern California.

Vox reported in “What the College Admissions Scandal Says About Racial Inequality” that according to a 200-page FBI affidavit, tactics used to make students more desirable to admissions officers allegedly included paying SAT and ACT proctors to change incorrect test answers, faking learning disabilities to get additional accommodations for students and even using Photoshop to create images of students as recruits for sports they never played.

There is not much to be said about the scandal, beyond the fact that throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars around to get an under-qualified student into an elite school is obviously a disgusting use of wealth and privilege. Of course, these things are wrong, but it does not advance the conversation to sit and dwell on how wrong they were. A more productive approach is to use the scandal as an opportunity to discuss all the ways that higher education is unfair in this country.

Some experts and commentators have started to look at the scandal alongside the issues of legacy admissions, which refers to the process where applicants are given preference because their parents attended the school, and donations, where students gain favor in admissions processes is by being related to influential donors to the university. It is common, particularly at elite schools, for legacy admissions and wealthy donors to be one in the same—the more members of a family who attend a college, the more likely the school is to receive generous donations from that family. Legacy admission status is a factor in 42 percent of private and 6 percent of public admissions, according to a survey of admissions directors by Inside Higher Ed. Some top universities, like MIT and Oxford, have done away with legacy admissions altogether.

This cycle concentrates wealth and restricts the availability of elite education…

Other elite colleges, such as Harvard, have decidedly not. According to Harvard University’s own statistics, 14 percent of its student body is comprised of legacy admits. Harvard has defended this policy by stating that most of those students are already in a pool of desirable applicants, meaning they have high grades or test scores or other qualities that the university prefers in admits. But from that desirable pool, legacy status still offered a 40 percent advantage of being accepted over non-legacy students, according to a 2013 analysis by Harvard’s own Office of Institutional Research. An analysis commissioned by Students For Fair Admissions found that legacy applicants are accepted at a rate nearly five times higher than non-legacies at Harvard.

The cycle this creates is one in which a wealthy family sends a student to Harvard, and then they send their children to Harvard, and so on for generations. Because of inheritance and degrees from arguably the most prestigious university in the United States, the family gets wealthier with each generation. This cycle concentrates wealth and restricts the availability of elite education from other applicants, many of whom earned a place with lesser means, like a reversed version of affirmative action. Meanwhile, a studious applicant from a middle-class family may apply to Harvard with the same qualifications as the legacy applicant but not be admitted because the legacy applicant has something the middle-class student does not, and it is not even something he or she earned: a last name or family tradition.

Harvard definitely is not alone in its high number of legacy admits, although the elite reputation of “Harvard men” (and women, I assume, in modern times) makes it a convenient example. The point is to show that while the college admissions scandal is an example of benefiting privileged—and in some cases, seemingly under-qualified—applicants, the more important conversation to be had is how much merit really has to do with getting into college.

It is time to acknowledge that legal and illegal bribery are both wrong, and neither should have a place in college admissions. The idea that wealthy people can in some cases buy their students’ way into colleges is insulting to every student who has to work hard to earn a place in college, every student working jobs on the side to make ends meet, every student huddled over his or her laptop on a Friday night studying for an exam instead of going out.

It’s important to note that this scandal does not just uncover a scandal involving a few B-list celebrities. Rather, it lays bare one of the most shameful inequalities in U.S. society, and one that undercuts our progress as a nation: that no matter how hard you work, even in school, there always will be someone who will get farther while doing less.

In that way, I guess college does prepare us for the so-called “real world” after all.