The upside of the college admissions cheating scandal

The pearly gates.
The pearly gates.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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There are two competing truths at play in American culture. One is that we live in a meritocracy so anyone with enough gumption can pick themselves up by their bootstraps and make it big. The other is that life’s not fair, a not so secret aristocracy reigns, and that privilege dictates possibilities.

Although ours is an allegedly classless society, there’s no denying the stark disparities that exist between the rich and everyone else and that head starts certainly help. Plus, the wealthy will spare no expense to ensure their children’s success. This is evidenced in part by a scathing indictment, unsealed on March 12 by a Massachusetts district court, accusing about 50 defendants of involvement in a $25 million cheating scheme to secure entry to elite colleges for kids without the scores, skills, or strengths to be admitted otherwise.

Among the defendants were celebrities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, moms who would seemingly do anything for their kids, including commit crimes, according to the indictment. That is important information and we should all welcome the data. It’s good to have evidence, for the record, of the fact that we do not live in a meritocracy exactly, that class is at play, and that the unwashed masses aren’t just bad at life.

The upside of the admissions scandal is that it confirms a sense we already had that the playing field isn’t even, a suspicion which has been confirmed before. In his 2007 book The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, reporter Daniel Golden explains how special access is purchased by the privileged for their kids. The children of the powerful, rich, and famous get special consideration, Golden argues, and he says it explains many of the rejections that less affluent kids get from prestigious schools. The classrooms of elite institutions are stuffed with upper-crust types whose main qualifications are money and a family name.

That the latest development in college admissions injustices is a criminal case, and that the parents involved in the cheating scandal didn’t consider their privilege head start enough and thus were willing to pay for false exam scores and fake athletic abilities for their kids—going so far as to photoshop the applicants’ heads onto the bodies of athletes—only makes the evidence more effective and poignant in the cultural context. Nothing is too absurd or stupid or empty or illegal, really, when it comes to getting kids into a good college.

William McGlashan, Jr., a top executive at the private equity firm TPG, who co-founded a socially conscious investment vehicle with Bono, and allegedly paid $250,000 to make his kid look like an athlete and get into USC, put it best when he said it’s all “totally hilarious.” Indeed, it’s a hoot! And though it doesn’t at first blush seem so, the joke is on the privileged parents and the last laugh is on the kids who “benefit” from this assistance.

What’s sad is that they don’t actually know how to do the things their college applications say they do and that their parents don’t trust them enough to work things out anyway. The students supposedly didn’t know their parents were paying for them to take SATs at locations where proctors could change their test scores—they apparently had no idea how little faith their parents had in them.

According to prosecutors, for example, Lori Loughlin paid $500,000 to ensure that her daughters would be accepted to University of Southern California, in part by pretending they did crew. You’d think with those kinds of resources the actress could have invested in activities that would have made these girls actually qualified for any college at all.

It’s bad news for the ambitious parents and their offspring caught cheating but the rest of us can enjoy the scandal a bit. While we were all working out how to pay for school and then spending the rest of our lives paying off student loans—participating in a $1.5 trillion debt crisis that has transformed the American Dream—a lucky few were nervously skirting the law and working out how to seem less mediocre to perpetuate an illusion of superiority. Now they’ll be working out their charges while the kids try to live down this epic fail.

In reality, it is those who go to school despite financial and other obstacles who are winning, people who are actually doing things, learning, attempting to excel, failing, picking themselves up, and building the skills and character needed to lead an honest, meaningful, strong, and truly successful life, one not premised on lies, shortcuts, and pulled strings.

That’s not to say that the cheating scandal isn’t also infuriating, or that the system doesn’t need fixing. Todd Rose, an author, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and co-founder of the Boston-based think tank Populace, has some ideas about how that might be done. Rose, who dropped out of high school and took his GED before going on to college and graduate school and completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has thought a lot about the US school system and our cultural priorities.

He suggests, first, a temporary fix: the creation of a lottery system for seats in schools. Rose believes this will even the playing field and reveal that youth “are far more talented and interesting and capable than we are led to believe.” As the students who’ve benefitted from these opportunities go on to prove their capabilities in the marketplace, he argues, the public will come to appreciate the need to educate more people, and this will lead to institutional changes. He asks, “Why would we, the people, continue to support tax-exempt universities when they are purposely trying to limit the number of students that they educate?”

In the long term, Rose believes a more expansive notion of success and more access to opportunity for all will ensure that we actually do live in a more meritocratic society someday. He blames the way we define success as a culture—focusing on academic performance, high scores on standardized tests that doesn’t predict real-world outcomes, and getting into the best colleges—for creating a toxic environment. In a statement responding to the scandal, he says, “This kind of zero-sum system guarantees cheating, corruption, and unhappy children.”

Rose argues that we should hold our public and private institutions accountable for supporting a far wider range of talents and paths to personal success than just grades and tests. And because he is one of those people who has transformed, picked himself up by his bootstraps, and proved his own point, he’s optimistic and believes in our ability to evolve societally, saying, “The good news is that we live in a democracy and a market-based economy, so the public usually gets what it wants.”