Illustration by Andrea Nebhut
Over the past week, schools from Yale University and the University of Southern California to Stanford University and the University of Texas at Austin have been embroiled in a college admissions scandal. During these scandals, rich parents — including Lori Laughlin of “Full House” fame and numerous others — have allegedly bribed college coaches and rigged the SATs in their child’s favor. While this scandal did not implicate Trinity University, William “Rick” Singer, the orchestrator of this national scandal is a Trinity alum.
While the connection to Trinity is unfortunate, it provides us a chance to examine how privilege and wealth permit the wealthy to get further ahead and increase their access to elite universities while hurting the poor and marginalized groups. The history of affirmative action and the backlash towards considering race in college admissions is one that is often brought up by the wealthy who themselves are grounded in privilege. While rich elites complain that people who are nonwhite got into college because of “affirmative action” rather than merit, they are themselves blind to the advantages that being wealthy provides in college admissions process, such as going to good schools and being able to afford tutors for the SAT or the ACT.
Moreover, legacy admissions that increase chances of admission if one’s parents went to a given college perpetuate inequality and give advantage to the wealthy who are more likely to have parents who’ve gone to college. This does not even account for the extremely wealthy who donate to universities and thus tip the scales in favor of their child’s admission. All of these elements — including access to better schools, more resources and more integrated social networks — are the legal ways that wealth helps to perpetuate educational inequality.
College admissions, particularly those to wealthy and elite schools, are not a meritocracy; money weighs the scale form birth until matriculation. People with familial wealth are able to work internships that don’t pay and thus are able further advance than people who cannot afford unpaid internships. Wealth removes barriers. Before you ask or imply that someone got into university because of affirmative action, you should look at all the ways privilege and wealth have helped you in both invisible and visible ways. While skill can help you gain admission, it is not always determinative. Indeed, legacy admissions at elite institutions can bring in a substantial advantage when applying.
While Singer and his scam go beyond the boundaries of the law and thus represent something particularly wretched, it is part and parcel of the systems that guarantee better advantages for the wealthy. Rather than helping people who start out less advantaged get into college, Singer and those like him help to establish and prolong generational inequalities. Things like large donations, legacy admission and wealth encourage this continuing issue, whereas affirmative action programs — through consideration of generations of disadvantage — are at least one of the tools meant to level out the playing field. If you are going to say that affirmative action is unfair yet defend legacy admission and other advantages that wealth accrues, you are arguing in bad faith. You want to maintain a system that advantages you rather than others. Rick Singer is just the latest embodiment of an unequal system.