The college admissions scandal that was exposed last week makes clear what so many of us already know: The much-lauded American meritocracy is a lie. But even though it’s an open secret that wealthy people game the admissions system, ever since I first set foot on a campus — as a first-generation African American student at highly selective Amherst College — I’ve been told that the main problem with the system is me.
“You’re an affirmative-action baby.” “You took someone’s spot.” I heard this in the common room of a dorm weeks after I arrived at leafy Amherst, in 2003, having come from the mostly black, poor neighborhood of West Coconut Grove, in Miami. West Grove was mostly black because of a history of segregation. My mother was a security guard, my brother a janitor, which only confirmed my peers’ impressions that I had received “preferential” treatment.
I heard variations of the theme that I was an interloper when I arrived at Harvard University, in 2008, to study sociology as a graduate student. When I took a job in 2016 as an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I heard similar challenges, and though by this time they were more indirect, they were no less painful. All of this is a rite of passage for many black and Latino youth as we move up the economic ladder.
In 2011, in a ritual that has been repeated on numerous campuses, a Republican group at the University of California held an “affirmative action bake sale,” charging white men $2 for a cupcake, Latinos $1 and African Americans 75 cents. This was supposed to highlight the incredibly unfair treatment of white men wherever affirmative action existed. In 2012, Sarah Siskind, then a Harvard undergraduate, wrote an article in the Harvard Crimson titled, “Affirmative Dissatisfaction,” which included the following assertion: “Helping those with primarily low academic qualifications into primarily academic institutions makes as much sense as helping the visually impaired become pilots.” Although some opponents of affirmative action adopt less incendiary language, her comments reflect widely held beliefs that black, Latino and lower-income students flatly lack the ability to succeed at highly selective schools.
These comments take the wind from your sails. After all, I worked my tail off to get to Amherst, even if my SAT scores were a few points lower than those of wealthy applicants who could afford tutors and coaching. My family knew, and indeed lived, the reality that, as the saying goes, there was often “more month than there was money.” Never mind private tutors: Sometimes we couldn’t pay the electric bill, and I had to stop studying when night fell.
In researching my book, “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students,” I got to know many other low-income students who were academically gifted and fought tooth and nail to make it into college. They faced challenges far more difficult than the absence of expensive private admissions counselors.
For example, Stacy, who attended a distressed public school in Nevada, eventually attended a prestigious private university in the Northeast. (I interviewed 103 black, white, and Latino undergraduates; the terms of my research protocol required that I use pseudonyms.) She had left her abusive mother in her junior year of high school and was in foster care when she applied to college. She lacked Internet access at the group home, and so, resourceful and determined, she would copy and paste college application questions from a computer at school into a Word document. She’d answer the questions at home and then upload the answers at school onto the application website. In the end, her overworked high school counselor was her saving grace. He would leave his key to the computer lab underneath the school doormat so that she could finish her essays before school.
Not all students were so lucky. Nina, who came from a small, segregated town in Arizona, had to walk the guidance counselor at her struggling public high school through the steps for applying to college. Her teachers, too, provided limited help. One of the letters of recommendations she solicited wasn’t even written in “proper English, didn’t have complete sentences,” Nina told me. (She herself learned what she could from Google and online sources such as College Confidential.)
When other students argued that they didn’t belong on campus, people such as Stacy and Nina saw these statements as attacks — and not just attacks on them but on all that their families and communities had done to get them there. I felt that way, too. We weren’t looking for a handout, and we weren’t given one. We just wanted a chance.
The pain such comments conjure fades over time but not entirely. The revelation of alleged illegal acts by wealthy families felt like an old wound being ripped open anew. So many first-generation college students, lower-income students and students of color had to overcome entrenched inequalities to apply to college, often with minimal help. And, once on campus, they often were told they didn’t really belong. Meanwhile, the people indicted last week supposedly decided that wealth and privilege weren’t enough; they allegedly added bribes, faked tests and forged athletic credentials. If these allegations are proved true, these parents literally did steal seats at good schools, the age-old charge against minority students.
They also chipped away at our sense of the hope for equal educational opportunity, which was already less than firm.
Andrew Lelling, the United States attorney for the District of Massachusetts, announced when the indictments became public: “There will not be a separate admissions system for the wealthy. And there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.” It’s a nice sentiment, but as several commentators have pointed out, hardly jibes with reality. Poor and minority students have always been acutely aware that there are separate education systems for them and for the wealthy. And we know money opens doors at admissions time, even when crimes aren’t involved. Let’s hope this exposure of greed and arrogance takes some attention off the alleged unfairness of affirmative action — and turn the heat up on the beneficiaries of unearned privilege.