When I first read about the college admissions cheating ‘n’ bribery scandal, my first thought was not shock that such blatant admissions-buying schemes existed, but why they bothered to break the law at all. The only surprise here is that rich people resorted to illegal means to accomplish what they could have done legally, if they’d written the fat check to the college instead of someone taking an SAT test under someone else’s name. Wouldn’t that have been easier – and less criminal?
What I find most outrageous about this scandal isn’t the idea that rich people can buy a spot at an elite university. It’s that the tactic has long existed alongside affirmative action programs, the college admissions policy that gives students from underrepresented backgrounds a boost in consideration for admission. But it’s only the latter that gets criticized for allowing “undeserving” minority students to take away a seat from a more deserving white student.
The dirty open secret about college admissions is that affirmative action has always existed for the rich. Being a legacy, donating a building, endowing a chair – those are ways to guarantee additional consideration, if not an outright placement. In a 2017 study, the New York Times found that at 38 colleges and universities in the U.S., including five Ivy League schools, more students were from the top 1 percent of income than from the entire bottom 60 percent. Almost one in every four of the richest students went to an elite, highly ranked university. The Harvard Crimson last year found that the school admitted over 42 percent of students to the Class of 2022 whose families were donors. Its overall acceptance rate for applicants for that year’s class? Less than 5 percent.
Strict rules govern race-based affirmative action programs in colleges; the Supreme Court has ruled that race can only be considered if the result benefits all students by creating a racially diverse college atmosphere, and race is the only way to get there. The programs have been and continue to be challenged in court.
But no such rules exist to govern how legacy admissions or donations can be considered. No rules exist to keep privilege in check.
Critics of affirmative action say the program disadvantages whites and Asians and dilutes the process by giving “their” place at college to someone who’s not qualified, specifically students of color. The implication, of course, is that a minority student from a poorer background inherently doesn’t deserve to be at an elite institution. But what those critics don’t understand is that affirmative action, as Washington Post writer Theresa Vargas put it in a recent column, “simply broadens the definition of worth.”
Who’s worth a place in college? Maybe it’s time to look at who’s actually benefiting the most from affirmative action – and who should be.
People of color have long known the deck was stacked against them in almost every area of American life, from employment to financial security to housing. For decades, African-Americans were shut out of college, period. The college admissions scandal is just one more example of how, if you combine socioeconomic privilege and institutionalized racism, all doors are open, whether you deserve them – or even want them.
Minority students are already made to feel as though they don’t belong at elite institutions. Their ability to perform, their very presence in the classroom is questioned, even though they often are the ones who have had to strive the hardest, work the longest and prove extraordinary ability before they’re even considered adequate.
More than likely, students who got in through affirmative action benefited from being exposed to world-class thinkers, from making professional contacts and getting advice from mentors who could help her later in the workplace. Meanwhile, those kids whose parents cheated to get them into college would probably have been fine anywhere. But they actually did take away a spot from someone who might have benefited more.
Exactly what critics of affirmative action have complained about. But to my mind, they’re complaining about the wrong group getting a leg up. In this case, the well-off got into college by paying for the advantage they possessed all along.
As the college bribery scandal just showed us, college admissions is not a meritocracy. Too often, it’s actually a financial transaction at a level most of us just can’t play.
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