When I was in the ninth grade, I applied to boarding schools. The applications required that I take the SSAT, a version of the SAT for high school admissions. My parents were professionals, well-off but not extremely wealthy. They were also immigrants, unfamiliar with the American system of testing and nervous about my performance. So they sent me to a tutor to prepare for the exam. My tutor gave me a series of practice tests. The day I sat for the exam, I read it with astonishment: I’d taken this test before. I knew all the answers. When my mother picked me up, she asked me how I’d done. I told her that something wasn’t right. She agreed. We informed my middle school, and I took the test again — this time, one I hadn’t seen before. Though my scores weren’t perfect the second time around, they were mine. Other families in the tutoring class kept their mouths shut; they were getting what they’d paid for.
Federal prosecutors announced indictments and arrests Tuesday of rich families and celebrities who the FBI says paid anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of dollars to get their children into elite colleges. In writing checks to William “Rick” Singer — who authorities say orchestrated a range of illegal actions, from faking students’ participation in athletics to having impostors take SATs for them — they allegedly broke the law. Some, no doubt, thought they were doing nothing wrong: This was just a little extra insurance for what their kids truly deserved. It’s a textbook case of entitlement, closely intertwined with a logic that undermines affirmative action. For while children from wealthy families float to college on rafts of invisible advantages that we pretend are talents, minority kids are constantly told that they don’t really deserve to be there.
When I read the news of the arrests, I thought these families’ mistake wasn’t what they’d allegedly done but how they’d done it. The problem wasn’t the money they’d given; it was who they’d given it to. Writing a big check to the university development office would have greatly increased the odds of their children being admitted, with no criminal liability. It may have even garnered them some praise. Donating a building or endowing a scholarship is a tax-deductible act of philanthropy. Paying Singer is fraud.
Maybe that shortcut to admissions — what Singer allegedly referred to as the “back door,” as opposed to the “side door” he offered — was too expensive for the families accused of paying for his services. We should prosecute Singer and his clients, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves: These families are a red herring, a drop in an ocean of purchased advantages. And even without Singer, the students who come in through the “front door” at elite colleges, by simply applying and being accepted, have also often bought their way in.
Rich parents spend millions on their children to make them “better” than others. They send them to private schools with squash programs and crew teams and ballet classes that increase their chances of college admission; they pay for bassoon lessons that help serve a “critical need” for university orchestras. They pay so high schoolers appear truly extraordinary, with richly financed expeditions helping to bring fresh water to poor foreign villages, or use their social connections to set them up with summer positions at places like the United Nations. Parents deploy their wealth to make their children look interesting and have the right “talents.” It works: Children from the top 1 percent are 77 times more likely to attend elite colleges than children from the bottom 20 percent.
For the super-rich, the legal scam of buying your child a spot at an elite school through, say, giving a building is a secret so open it’s hardly a secret at all. Nearly 15 years ago, while researching elite schooling, I spoke to someone who’d worked in development at a boarding school that had long served as a feeder to the Ivy League. At the time he told me that to get into an Ivy school, you need to give about $5 million. Of course, all the Ivies will deny this. They don’t sell slots. But ask them if development officials have ever mentioned the relative of a big donor to an admissions officer, or the provost, or the president, or the dean — or if the child of a donor has been inquired about by a powerful member of the community — and you’ll be received with an awkward silence. They may not even be able to talk about this: It’s become standard to require admissions officers to sign nondisclosure agreements.
If you can’t imagine this happening, just look at how Jared Kushner reportedly got into Harvard. Not a year before he was admitted, his father, Charles Kushner, pledged $2.5 million to the school, even though the elder Kushner had gone to New York University. Jared Kushner was admitted despite an academic record later described by journalist Daniel Golden, citing officials from Kushner’s high school, as “less than stellar.” Kushner has objected that he graduated from Harvard with honors, but since about 90 percent of his class did, too, that hardly proves he was more deserving of admission than people whose families didn’t have $2.5 million to give.
Elite colleges pursue rich families. Golden’s work showed that while Harvard accepted about 11 percent of applicants in the late 1990s, when Kushner was admitted (the admission rate is lower now), more than half of the members of the Harvard Committee on University Resources — made up of some of the school’s biggest donors — had children then at the university, and many had sent more than one there.
Harvard isn’t alone. Harrison Frist, a son of former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, received the lowest possible evaluation of his qualifications for admission to Princeton, Golden reported. But the Frist family had given tens of millions to Princeton and stood to give more. Harrison was, of course, accepted.
The irony is that the few families accused by the FBI were allegedly doing what truly rich families have long done on a much larger scale. Those caught up in the scandal apparently weren’t quite rich enough or savvy enough to distribute their money in a way that’s celebrated rather than prosecuted. Based on my research, I’d bet that there are orders of magnitude more students at elite colleges who took the “philanthropy” route to admission rather than the bribery one.
But the true tragedy is that almost all rich families buy their kids into elite colleges by purchasing advantages they pass off as talents, whether by way of sailing lessons or elaborate vacations planned with an eye on admissions essays. We view these vastly overrepresented children of the rich as having earned their spots. And that’s the great American delusion we call “meritocracy.”
My own tutor, in explaining what happened to my family, said he had administered an SSAT to a student with a disability who required extra time; he illegally photocopied the test that was entrusted to him. He used it as a practice test for me and many other students. What he did was wrong. But the fact that families can pay for a leg up on a supposed “aptitude” test often goes unquestioned; after all, they’re just giving their kids what they deserve. My parents gave me a lot I’m enormously grateful for: violin lessons that cost thousands of dollars a year, trips to museums and sites in foreign countries. My boarding-school classmates enjoyed much more: prestigious unpaid internships, interview coaching and tutors who helped with the work of every class.
My parents were doing what all parents want to do — enriching the lives of their children and giving them a better chance at success. They had more of an opportunity than most to do so. Inequality helped: The more the rich have to invest, the less the poor can do to keep up.
The accused families aren’t the only ones to blame, either. Elite schools take more students from the top 1 percent of families than they do from the bottom 60 percent. The universities play into this ruse, pretending they’re choosing based on talent rather than on the ability to pay full tuition — or in some cases, the capacity to give a building or endow a scholarship that brings in enough poor kids to make the whole operation look legitimate.
This is the real scandal. The 1 percent — more than 1 million American households — have more and more money, and they’re using huge sums so their children can get a leg up on the rest. Those students escape questions about whether they deserve to be there, unlike people who benefit from programs like affirmative action, which could help moderate those advantages. Instead of thinking about this as a problem inherent in the system, we call it the virtue of meritocracy. And we look to the poor and middle classes and ask, “Why aren’t you more talented?”
Read more from Outlook: