From the age of 14, I knew one thing: I wanted to go to Brown University.
Going to an Ivy League school, for me, was in no way a given. I grew up middle class in Syracuse. I attended a large public high school in the city, where the graduation rate hovered around 50%. No one in my family, on either side, had ever attended an Ivy League School. Even if I were accepted, I would need tens of thousands of dollars in financial aid.
Looking at the acceptance numbers, my parents kept warning me the odds were powerfully against me ever getting in.
On Tuesday morning, I read the news of rich parents, including famous actors and actresses, who were involved in an elaborate cheating and bribery scam to get their kids into elite colleges and universities.
The revelation is troubling, for sure, and even more disturbing when you think of the hardworking kids across the country who were not accepted to make room for the children of rich people who, quite simply, do not deserve it.
Yet this is hardly surprising to anyone who attended an “elite” college or university. Rich people essentially buy their children spots at these schools all the time. Usually, it’s not through some elaborate racket like the one revealed today, but rather through a much more blatant transaction, directly with the school.
Here’s how it goes: Wealthy families make a sizable “donation” to the school. When the time comes, the school makes room for the children of these families to attend.
Certainly, I know plenty of students from wealthy backgrounds who worked hard and deserved to be there. Yet during my time at Brown, there was an open understanding – vividly reaffirmed in the classroom – involving which students were admitted because of academic merit, and who was there because their parents had written a check.
With some of my friends who, like me, made it there through financial aid, we often ask this question: Is it ethically justifiable for elite colleges to accept the donations of parents who might de facto buy admission for unqualified rich students, if that money might then be used to finance the education of hardworking students who otherwise would not be able to attend?
That begs the question: What about exceptional students of less means who don’t get in at all?
People often rationalize the courting and accepting of rich donors as a necessity for these schools. Still, how much money is enough for these institutions? At the end of August 2018, Harvard’s endowment was $39.2 billion, Yale’s endowment was $29.4 billion, and Stanford’s endowment was $26.5 billion.
That seems more like some kind of bizarre financial arms race between each other than any necessity for institutional survival.
Beyond the most egregious examples of people writing checks that usher their children onto campus, there is another problem with pretending we exist within some academic meritocracy. Scoring high on standardized tests, like the SATs, is easier for rich students who go to private schools, where they are taught how to excel at such testing from a young age.
As many of my wealthy friends explain to me, these tests are even easier to navigate when your parents spend thousands and thousands of dollars on tutors. Beyond that, you can have a pretty impressive resume, involving world travel and prestigious summer programs or internships, when your parents are well-connected and can foot the bill.
At the same time, their working and middle-class peers are spending their summers at minimum-wage jobs, because they need to earn some money.
Elitism in the United States is a complicated issue, and certainly many children from all ranges of wealth earned their admission to an “elite” school.
What I find deeply troubling is how little we speak of these realities even as we still give Ivy League and elite universities this kind of inherent prestige that maybe they don’t deserve. As a society, we see that someone went to Harvard or Yale, and we still make the assumption that person must be brilliant, exceptional.
The truth is, it’s an open charade. It simply is not always true.
Certainly, it is good that the explicit abuses laid out by federal investigators have been brought to light. But for those who are shocked, so utterly shocked, I have a bridge to sell you, leading to the Ivy League.