The Real Victims of the College Admissions Scandal

Fiorella Beccaglia   Opinion Editor

Having heard the news on the American college admissions scandal I, like many others, felt outraged. I was lost for words over the extent to which people abuse their privilege and use money to rob others of opportunities and experiences. I understand that they remain allegations—nearly 50 people, including actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, have been charged in what authorities say was a $25 million racketeering scheme to help wealthy Americans get their children into top U.S. universities. But it’s understandable, too, why these allegations have caused widespread outrage.

For one, they go straight to the core of our very common sense of fairness. Cheaters take more than they are supposed to at the expense of others. This kind of theft is based on not just greed but also corruption—and the victims are those who play by the rules or who do not have access to that sort of purchasing power. How unfair it must have been for those who got into these schools through traditional hard work and their own merit.

But what about the “legacy places” – favoring admission for those whose parents or siblings have attended the same institution. To add to that, even among the legacy places it is also accepted that preference is given to alumni who have made donations over those who did not. That, too, is perfectly legal, just like endowment donations that universities, as well as the donors, benefit from. And while we’re on this train of thought, how about the now very commonplace and very expensive SAT/ACT tutors, education consultants and advisers that charge hundreds of dollars an hour? These are all lucrative and legitimate businesses that help prospective college students get into school, all of which are inaccessible to those who do not find them affordable. They open doors that are not available to the disadvantaged and the underprivileged.

How does this not ruffle our sense of fairness? These translate into spots that others without the privilege of wealth and connections could have had. Should we not be outraged by them as well? We are challenged to take on the harder questions this easy outrage has inevitably raised. Have we legitimized less outrageous practices without considering their impact? Competition has become more valued than honesty, integrity and fairness.

Education may have once been thought of as the only ticket out of the chain of poverty. To believe that now is to be naive enough to believe that cheaters never prosper. Education systems that tolerate, create or even encourage lucrative tutoring and college prep businesses play an important role in perpetuating the cycle of inequality.

News of the scandal has provoked unanimous anger, because what these ultra-rich moms and dads did was simply unfair. But nothing about the American experience of social mobility is fair, and repairing that will require a much more radical reconsideration of society. It makes sense that people are outraged. The prospect of working hard, getting into a good school and building an excellent life atop one’s own hard-won accomplishments is the last, abstract vestige of the American Dream. And all of this undermines it: Apparently, as common sense probably dictated to most people anyway, you can get ahead simply by having rich parents, and elite credentials aren’t strictly the fruit of grit and skill.

The process of getting ahead in the U.S. isn’t fair and likely never will be fair, as long as it’s premised on the kinds of calculated bets and competition it currently rests on. And though prosecutions such as this admissions-fraud case are good (they at least subject the wealthy to justice) they won’t solve the structural issues that doom some Americans to poor lives and elevate others to excellent ones. Only ensuring the equal delivery of some of our most basic social needs—health care, housing, living wages and child care among them—will we begin to create a society that is fair according to the equality of human dignity, rather than more dubious, less honorable factors.

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