The Admissions Scandal Illustrates Systematic Flaws

The Justice Department’s revelation of a widespread conspiracy to augment the college admissions of certain ultra-rich children sparked conversations about access to higher education. The numbers were apparently enormous; hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to a University of Southern California athletic director, millions to a Georgetown tennis coach and a handful of wealthy parents who shelled out ludicrous sums to either manipulate testing conditions or enroll their child as an illegitimate student-athlete.

The story permeated the Internet, spawning angry memes and nasty comments in a cathartic rage against the villainous super-rich. A tweet posted by Fox Business host Trish Regan effectively articulated the angsty proletarian anger emboldening the web: “this #collegeadmissionscandal is the pinacle [sic] of #HollywoodPrivilege and elitism.”

For many, the college admissions scandal seemed injurious to their right to a fair shot at college admission. In an idyllic meritocracy, the superfluous wealth of a sub-optimal candidate’s family wouldn’t supersede the suitable qualifications of a less affluent candidate. That a Full House star could seemingly buy her unimpressive child into a prestigious school seemed to signify the fundamental unfairness of the college admissions process.

But while the criminals exposed by the Justice Department investigation illegally offered or accepted bribes, wealth has legally shaped university applicant pools for centuries, systematically disadvantaging those from chronically low-income communities and advantaging the wealthy.

If her shocked condemnation of “#HollywoodPrivilege and elitism” is genuine, Regan’s criticism of the role of wealth in college admissions is certainly hypocritical. Regan attended high school at Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the most prestigious and exclusive prep schools in the country, where yearly tuition, accounting for boarding, reaches nearly $50,000. The incomparable access to top-notch teachers, abundant academic resources and well-structured curricula Regan gained from her enrollment at Exeter undoubtedly contributed to her admission to Columbia University. While she was apparently angered by the privilege exercised by the wealthy parents at the center of the scandal, Regan failed to account for the role of her own familial wealth in financing her elite high school education. While Regan’s parents didn’t bribe a football coach to enlist her as a make-believe punter, they did pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into her pre-collegiate education. Why would they have done so if not to advantage her?

The systemic inequality which keeps many communities chronically poor while enriching the wealthiest among us shapes the demographics of college campuses. Poor communities almost never boast a successful school system, as underfunded schools are forced to cut the valuable extracurriculars which enthuse and inspire young students, and well-qualified teachers are unlikely to seek employment in low-paying districts. Conversely, wealthy families are likely to settle in districts with successful school systems, and their affluence provides for the arts programs, clubs and sports which engage the minds of their children while attracting the nation’s best teachers with good pay. When public schools don’t meet expectations, wealthy families can often afford private schools with specialized teaching strategies, or extracurricular resources such as tutors and test-prep courses.

In the United States, community boundaries and their apparent wealth disparities are often highly racialized; post-segregationist government policies and housing practices explicitly limited the neighborhoods available to black, Latinx and Asian families throughout much of the twentieth century. De facto segregation, headed by nominally progressive gestures such as the 1968 Fair Housing Act, exacerbated existing racial tensions propagated by whites and ensured white privileges in social positioning, employment and access to important social and legal programs. As a result, disparities came to exist in the quality of education offered to white and non-white communities, precipitating a garishly disproportionate demography of students at selective universities today.

Lori Loughlin should not be the face of college admissions inequity. White students of Non-Loughlin descendant are systematically afforded advantages based on the historical systems which ensured the successes of whites and the contemporary policies and narratives which implicitly maintain them. Those viscerally shocked by the admissions scandal should consider support for sweeping affirmative action plans in college admissions offices across the country. Offering distributive justice to those disadvantaged by the legacies of chattel slavery, Jim Crow and de jure and de facto segregation, among other explicitly and implicitly harmful conditions, is necessary if privilege and elitism is to be effectively confronted in college admissions and elsewhere.