College admissions have long been shrouded in mystery with policies constructed to favor the privileged. Correspondingly, it has been rife with malfeasance. As we continue to struggle to define meritocracy in college admissions, one thing has remained stubbornly clear: the wealthy play by a different set of rules. From donating buildings to endowing chairs, the privileged have long enjoyed an advantage placing their offspring into our best academic institutions. Indeed, even as getting into college became more competitive (but not nearly like the recent chaos), it was hardly uncommon for people like the Kennedys; the Bushes; Al Gore, a mediocre prep school student who applied to only one school, Harvard; Jared Kushner (whose NYU alum father, Charles, donated $2.5 million to Harvard in time for Jared to apply and be accepted as an undergrad), and countless other prominent Americans have used family connections, wealth and legacy to circumvent paths to elite schools. We view this as normal, if unfair.
What continues to vex, however, is that most critics of college admissions singularly target nearly all their wrath and legal vengeance at Black and brown students. In a K-12 system that is largely stacked against them, making it to an elite college should be viewed as an achievement. Instead, many privileged students question the legitimacy — the merit — of Black students, as if learning how to take (or cheat on) a standardized test is the paramount indicator of merit. Meanwhile, the wealthy continue to find ways to exploit the system. Parents, counselors and development and admissions staff participate in activities that Americans label bribery and corruption when it occurs in the developing world.
The latest scandal to beset elite-college America is the disclosure that in a Donald Trump era, when the outrageous has become commonplace, even this scheme is grotesque in its audacity. Once again, it has placed college admissions in an unflattering light, where access and privilege are the deciding factors.
To take stock of some previous scandals in their various iterations: We’ve had SAT test-taking scandals on Long Island, and elite colleges manipulate SAT data to make themselves appear more selective (Bucknell, Claremont Mckenna, Emory, and George Washington University come to mind). The University of Illinois engaged in blatant preferential admissions for less-qualified but well-connected applicants. Currently, many institutions actively encourage unqualified students to apply to boost the schools’ selectivity perception. And we’ve had full-on cheating scandals involving athletes recruited for their athletic instead of academic prowess at sports factories doing academic business as a side hustle, while clinging to their disingenuous branding of players as “student-athletes” to avoid paying them.
The latest charade involves wealthy students pretending to be athletes for guaranteed admission to an elite school. The illegality involved rich, powerful and famous parents, college coaches, test proctors and a fixer who made it all happen. (Full disclosure: William Rick Singer, the fixer, attended my undergraduate college, but I do not know him.) It included six-figure payments, standardized test cheating, photoshopped athlete pictures, fake recommendations, fake essay biographies, and ready-made cover stories if someone questioned any of it. It is jaw dropping in its daring. Its perniciousness and scope underscore how disturbing it was. Further still, it may possibly only be the tip of a deeper-rooted problem.
Now imagine if Black parents and students had perpetrated any one of these transgressions. Undoubtedly, there would be calls for an overhaul in the extreme. Officials would also reexamine every student's admission portfolio and possible continued matriculation at said college. I am angered by these revelations for the obvious cheating, which deprived all applicants who played by the stated rules and which placed them at a disadvantage from the outset.
Equally troubling is the continued scapegoating of low- and modest-income students of color who often end up on the losing end of the elite college game. I volunteered as a mentor for seven years at a Harlem-based youth development nonprofit helping high school seniors navigate college admissions. Many would become first-generation college students who were wide-eyed and largely naive about the details. For many, before being matched with a mentor, most schools they dreamt of applying to often were the ones the nonprofit took them on field trips to visit. Mentors helped students broaden their focus beyond local colleges to attend more select colleges. Still, they would confront challenges once in school.
Affirmative action opponents are unrelenting in messaging that someone who “didn’t work as hard took someone’s spot,” something children of privilege rarely confront. Every Fall, well-qualified students of color matriculate on campuses where more privileged students question their legitimacy to be there. Nonetheless, there are more qualified students of color who do not go to the best colleges they can, because no one helps them navigate the admissions process, even though studies confirm their likelihood of graduating increases significantly by attending one.
Even before authorities exposed this scam, the system’s unfairness is not surprising. The New York Times published a sobering interactive of who attends school and where. That the top 1 percent are highly disproportionately represented at a select set of colleges (and at several, outnumber the entirety of the bottom 60 percent of students) is enough to give pause to who gets admitted to top schools and under what criteria. Sadly, we accept as normal a bifurcated, wholly unequal education. It takes the obscene to really get our attention.
In a country that mythologizes merit and grit, it is telling that many discount these qualities when it comes to Black students who exhibit them. Yet we afford children of the wealthy the privilege of crafting über human personas via their college essays, videos, and recommendations after having spent a week in Malawi feeding the poor or saving sea mammals off the Galápagos Islands. In the wake of many documented admissions scandals, maybe we shouldn’t. As a Black student at UCLA said, “Now they can't tell us s*** about how we got in here...To see the script flip like that, it kind of feels good to be honest." Indeed, now it is time to examine the admissions game in its entirety and perhaps question the legitimacy of many others to be on campus.
— Craig Mills (pictured), is a New York City-based freelance writer and editor. He teaches writing and research at NYU and reports on social issues, education, and politics.