Thursday, March 14, 2019

Why We're Wrong About The Pay-For-College Scandal

This week, in our politically polarized culture, a scandal hit the news that succeeded in galvanizing our collective anger in ways that few things except child abuse and animal abuse can. Fifty people from six different states were accused by federal prosecutors of using large sums of money to buy their rich kids places at elite colleges and universities. Unless you were already a seven-figure donor to your alma mater, you had reason to be outraged. The rest of us worked hard to get ourselves and our children into middling-tier institutions of higher learning. We stayed up late encouraging our pre-teens to finish their science projects. We met with their teachers when they did not receive the grades that they deserved, and we met with those teachers and their principals again and again until they changed them. We spent hundreds of dollars on S.A.T. prep and tutors who would review, revise, and rewrite their college application essays. All these rich parents had to do was write giant checks so that their children could bypass the arena filled with bloodthirsty parents and modestly motivated students from which only the best and brightest emerge with an admissions offer.

Our outrage is our own condemnation. Yes, the tactics they used, which included faking a mental disability to allow an individually proctored college entrance exam from a proctor who helped a student cheat, were dishonest. No, a student whose parents sent in a photograph of another child in a boat, claiming that it was their own, should not have been given a spot on a university crew team because those parents also wired $200,000 into to a special account. But our anger at the parents and, even more so, at the students is not only misplaced but also unproductive as it masks our own complicity in the rigged system.

What started as social media outrage has become mainstream news. A student whose Instagram account featured a video post in which she claimed not to care about school but was only there to party has been identified as the daughter of one the parents who bought an elite admission. I did not learn about it on social media but heard about it on NPR. The video, of course, has been deleted, but screenshots of it with condemnatory comments are easily found on Facebook. And what does that accomplish? Do we think that the only students who care more about getting drunk at Greek parties than the learning process are those whose parents bought them a way into college? Sure, it's a slap in the face to her parents, who paid all that money to get her into a first-rate university, but countless other students, who have failed out or have been brought home by angry parents after a disastrous semester, have shown identical indifference to academia. Why aren't we outing and shaming all of the other students whose penchant for partying has eclipsed their devotion to study? Because we prefer to believe that only students like her, students whose families enjoy a level of wealth we can't imagine, are wasting spots at universities that would otherwise be available to us and our middle-class kids.

So perhaps we should blame the rich parents. These children likely did not ask their parents to pull strings and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get them into the university of their choice. It's the parents who fueled this scheme. But what parent wouldn't do the same? If I thought a $250 S.A.T. prep course would help my child get into Harvard, I would spend it. If I had $2500 of disposable income to send my child to a week-long seminar on writing college essays and perfecting the interview process and I knew it would dramatically increase her chances of cracking the Ivy League, I would spend it. If I was rich enough to send my child to a school that costs $25,000 a semester and was buying a place for her in the prep-school-to-top-university pipeline, I'd take it. If I was fabulously wealthy and could afford $250,000 to be sure that my child would spend the rest of her life with access to the best life has to offer--the best jobs, the best homes, the best schools for her children--an investment that would more than pay for itself over that child's lifetime, I would spend it without hesitation. Sure, the parents in this scandal were not increasing their children's chance at admission; they were buying a sure thing, but can you blame a parent for that? Who wouldn't do the same?

And what about the child whose parents can't afford the $250 prep class? What about the student whose single parent works two jobs to pay the bills and isn't ever home at night to encourage her to finish her science project and can't take her from one extra-curricular activity to another? What happens to her potential, her intellect, her charisma, her God-given abilities if they never get the chance to apply to an elite institution because the test scores weren't as good, the grades weren't as high, and the student activity list wasn't as long?

So it must be the universities, right? I have not read any news that these places of higher learning, which accepted these huge donations in exchange for an admissions letter, are being investigated? Where are the criminal charges against U.S.C. or UT Austin or Georgetown or Wake Forest or any of the other schools whose officers accepted bribes? Perhaps they, too, need to be dragged into court, but I don't know that it's their fault either. Can we blame an institution of higher learning for accepting a student whose parents will fund places for three more? Sure, colleges want bright students, but they also want big donors. They need big donors to keep the doors open, to keep the research happening, to offer scholarships to underprivileged students, and to attract next year's class. What's wrong with giving the children of generous alumni a leg up in the admissions process? Universities, in the interest of providing a diverse student body that benefits the overall learning process, might also extend admissions offers to students whose academic credentials aren't as strong as another cookie-cutter applicant. Maybe the university should be allowed to decide what is best for itself. The problem, though, is when they hide that truth.

If universities are at fault, it's in portraying themselves as institutions that care only about academics--as egalitarian places where learning is all that matters. But those of us who like to cheer at football games have known that's not the case for a long, long time. The truth is that universities are primarily places of learning, but they are also places of social formation, of the free exchange of ideas, and of wealth concentration and wealth generation. Maybe we're the ones who have enjoyed buying into the false belief that the academic institutions we revere--both those we attended and those we were not quite smart enough to get into--only reward with an admissions offer those students whom we would find deserving.

And there's the real problem--us. We are part of a culture that perpetuates the belief that elite institutions produce elites. To some extent, they do. Although a top student in the small liberal arts institution that I attended, I found myself considerably out of my depth--under-prepared and under-resourced--when I went to graduate school in Cambridge. But, as this whole pay-for-college scandal proves, not everyone with an Ivy League degree is worth it. Yet those who hire or give clerkships or offer research fellowships to recent graduates, when sorting through piles of resumes, find it easier to focus on the ones with Princeton, Yale, or CalTech on them. People wear "Harvard" sweatshirts even though they have never been to Massachusetts. Most of us buy into the myth that greatness only comes from greatness, that those who have special abilities or who are especially hard-working, will rise to the top. We believe that because we want to believe it about ourselves.

Since this is a Christian blog, that's the theological claim I want to make. We want to believe in our own goodness and are willing to burn at the stake those who threaten our perception of ourselves. We humiliate twenty-year-olds because their place in an elite university undermines our memory of our own high-school accomplishments. We send their parents to jail because we want to believe that we worked hard for everything we have. We shake our finger at the universities because we wish that they had seen our true talent even though it was hidden. If we want to "fix" the system that rewards legacies and doles out success in exchange for money, we need to start by addressing our own place in that same system. In religion, we call that repentance.

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