The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The college admissions scandal isn’t fair. Nothing about our social mobility system is.

Lori Loughlin, center, with her daughters Bella, left, and Olivia Jade in Los Angeles in August 2017.
Lori Loughlin, center, with her daughters Bella, left, and Olivia Jade in Los Angeles in August 2017. (Jordan Strauss/Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

On Tuesday, federal prosecutors charged dozens of celebrities and lesser-known wealthy parents with counts of bribery and fraud over various alleged schemes to get their underachieving children into elite colleges. The details range from infuriating to bizarre to hilarious: Imposters hired to take standardized tests; a tennis coach bribed to produce a bogus admissions recommendation; hapless children’s faces photoshopped onto the bodies of real athletes. The indicted parents could face prison if convicted. Their children could face expulsion.

News of the scandal has provoked near-unanimous anger, because what these ultra-rich moms and dads did wasn’t fair. But nothing about the American experience of social mobility is fair, and repairing that will require a much more radical reconsideration of society than smashing a pay-to-go racket.

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.

This prosecution notwithstanding, it’s only reasonable to despair over American social immobility. Indicting these parents might have some deterrent effect on egregious cheating, but it won’t make a dent in the widespread and entirely public practices of legacy admissions or donations-for-admissions, which makes college admittance just as unfair as those seedier practices.

So, yes, the college admissions system is unfair on a deep and possibly irreparable level. But perhaps it’s even more unfair, and even less reparable, than this particular scandal and its focus on cash-for-credentials makes it seem. Why are we comfortable with a system that guarantees that some people will wind up much poorer than others for reasons beyond their control — or for any reason at all?

Suppose the children whose parents spent millions to boost them into elite schools had actually been uncommonly gifted, intellectually or athletically. Would their intelligence or performance in sports be any less an accident of birth than the fact of their parents’ wealth? Or put another way: We all seem to agree that being born into money shouldn’t automatically entitle a person to an easy, well-cushioned life (though it mostly does mean that). So why should being born especially intelligent, or especially athletic?

Maybe the answer is that all we want is fair competition, and that rich kids getting spots at the front of the line subverts that. But so does having an unusual talent, even if it arises from genetic instead of financial fortune. Another might be that it’s hard work and commitment that really matter to getting ahead — but each person’s maximum capacity for achievement is still set by unchosen, inborn and external factors.

Or maybe that explanation is that intelligent and athletic people should enjoy significantly better lives than their less-so peers because of the contributions that they make to society. But high school kids admitted to tony universities typically haven’t contributed anything to society; they receive a vast boost to their capabilities and future earnings based purely off the belief that they might one day contribute something special. Nobody loses their Ivy League degree — or its attendant perks — if they don’t end up curing cancer or creating transformative art.

So push all that aside, and what’s left is a fact of inequality. Even if every extra-smart person did create the next iPhone (or at least a really swell app), it’s hard to see how making the best of one’s inborn, unearned talents justifies extremely significant disparities in life outcomes. Ivy League educations do add to one’s expected earnings compared with other schools. But what about those who aren’t cut out for college? And of course it’s important to note that simply having a degree is no guarantee of intelligence, just as lacking one isn’t proof of stupidity.

It’s clear that America’s poorest people often don’t have college degrees and that their lives are much harder than those who do. The life-expectancy gap between the richest and poorest Americans, for example, has been measured as high as 20-plus years — meaning poor people pay for their poverty in precious time, among other things. Should anyone have less time on earth simply because they weren’t born with the kinds of skills that markets reward with money and its privileges — high-quality health care, education and so on? Somehow, the idea doesn’t seem right to me.

The process of getting ahead in America 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 rich to justice, another category in which unfairness reigns — 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 which is fair according to the equality of human dignity, rather than more dubious, less honorable factors.

Read more:

Jeffrey Selingo: What the admissions scandal parents got wrong about college

Molly Roberts: The college bribery scandal is all about a myth

Jennifer Rubin: Why the college scandal matters so much

Gabrielle Bluestone: The college admissions scam is the perfect scandal in the golden age of grifters

Paul Waldman: The pathologies of the winner-take-all society