The Justice Department on Tuesday charged 50 people — including two television stars — with participating in a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme that enabled privileged students with lackluster grades to attend prestigious colleges and universities.
The allegations included cheating on entrance exams and bribing college officials to say certain students were athletic recruits when those students were not in fact athletes, officials said. Numerous schools were targeted, including Georgetown University, Yale University, Stanford University, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California and UCLA, among others.
If you want a superb discussion of what this episode reveals, take a look at this Stephanie Ruhle roundtable:
The incident, one hopes, gives upper middle-class and wealthy whites a full appreciation of what “privilege” and “rigging the system” really mean.
It’s human nature to assume whatever you and your offspring have done has been earned while others got “advantages.” However, you simply cannot treat the legal advantages these parents could have provided (e.g., private schools, tutors, sports coaches, essay counselors, alumni gifts) as part of given, earned success and whatever boost an athlete or poor applicant got in the name of diversity as unearned, unfair advantage. Now, rather than accusing every successful nonwhite student from an elite school of getting preferential treatment, appropriate skepticism should be directed at children of the super-rich who managed to get into elite schools despite less-than-sterling-grades.
Layer on top of that the illegality and sheer chutzpah of these families and kids, the blindness (willful or negligent, take your pick) of university administrators, and you have a galling situation.
In the best-case scenario, the justice system will be a great leveler, handing down stiff sentences for those convicted, although I fear a judge somewhere will declare them to have lived a blameless life previously and go easy on them. We might also compel elite school to look at their egregiously disproportionate admission of the super-rich and their role in widening income inequality. (“Diversity” has to include first in the family to go to college and low family income.) Maybe it will force universities to make their admissions process more transparent, letting us all know just how many legacy admissions (and children of donors) there are. Maybe we could prevail upon college ranking outlets to take offending schools off the rankings and/or penalize schools that take the vast majority of students from the 1 percent. (More radically, the fake student athlete scam is another argument for rethinking the role of college sports).
It is hard not to see this as having political ramifications. At the very least, a whole lot of people would like to know what grades President Trump and Donald Trump Jr. had and what donations were given to elite schools on their behalf. Maybe all politicians need to disclose gifts about a certain dollar amount to schools their kids attended. The federal government can also use its role as student-aid lender to demand more economically diverse recruitment at elite schools.
Widening our perspective, the focus on income inequality must continue and consideration of all available tools (the tax code, K-12 reform, greater subsidies for four-year and alternative postsecondary education, access to child care and expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, etc.). There are good policy arguments to be had about how to attack the problem and which level(s) of government are best equipped to do it. It is, however, time to put away the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats myth, recognize real and substantial inequities, understand that inequities feed anti-democratic extremism, and embrace the idea that we are losing out as a country if mediocre elites get opportunities over more talented non-elites.