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College Scams and the Ills of Capitalist-Driven Education

My first reaction to the recent college admissions scandal was, “Who is Lori Loughlin?” I had never heard this name and not having watched American television until 2007, I also blanked on the name of the TV show which was her claim to fame. My second reaction, however, was simply one of dismay as to the naïveté of those who were surprised by the tactics being used by parents desperate to see their children enter into elite universities.

Coming from academia and having taught at universities around the world, I have gained a healthy skepticism for the university systems in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom where entry to these universities is generally quite expensive aside from admissions processes which often disadvantage anyone from lower class backgrounds. Or, a quick review of the Harvard admissions process trial last Fall shows us that not only can anything be bought, but standards can be skewed any which way to produce the desired “personal rating” for the intake of new students. While the Rolling Stone story on this issue outlined the facts of this case, one statement from the U.S. District Attorney for the state of Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, unwittingly spoke volumes about the larger structural problems: “We’re not talking about donating a building so a school is more likely to taker your son or daughter….we’re talking about deception and fraud.” I cackled reading this line since Lelling clearly sees a moral and legal distinction between these two acts where most of us simply do not.

It is this difference which serves as the paradigmatic basis for reading university admissions today: those of us who were accepted to universities for having taken prerequisite tests and having achieved certain high school grades—many despite great odds—and then the rest. And this rest not only includes the elite families who can afford to send their children to private schools and elaborate summer programs that tick all the right boxes, but failing this these parents have the means to hire someone to sit their children’s exams, create fake photos of their daughter on a rowing team and the money to purchase a building or endowment to ensure their progenitors will have easy admissions to the institution of choice.

The discrimination lawsuit against Harvard University last Fall revealed just this as the campus paper, The Harvard Crimson revealed a 2013 email where a former Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School David T. Ellwood (1975) thanked the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, William R. Fitzsimmons (1967) for his help admitting a groups of students with the financial reward of a building: “Once again you have done wonders. I am simply thrilled about the folks you were able to admit… [Redacted] and [redacted] are all big wins. [Redacted] has already committed to a building.” In another email, Associate Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development, Roger P. Cheever (1967) reflected on the another Harvard applicant whose family had donated $8.7 million to the University whose worth was being evaluated to the admissions process: “[Redacted] was a devoted [redacted] Chair and generous donor…Going forward, I don’t see a significant opportunity for further major gifts. [Redacted] had an art collection which conceivably could come our way.”

There are several things about last week’s revelation that escape me entirely and they generally begin with a feeling that this isn’t new or news. This is really part of a very long paradigm of people with money ensuring that their own clan members will continue to inherit all the self-entitled wealth that these families feel is owed them. You know, feudalism in the 21st century and all. It’s almost as if Engels had never penned Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) wherein he discusses precisely this sort of relationship between the accumulation of private property and the centralization of wealth in the hands of a tiny minority along with the “increasing impoverishment of the masses and an increasing mass of impoverishment.”  Engels analyzes how power and wealth function back to Athens and Rome, “the new aristocracy of wealth, in so far as it had not been identical from the outset with the old hereditary aristocracy, pushed it permanently into the background.” From a building here to a photoshopped crew team there, it’s all pretty much the same story recycled throughout history: one aristocracy is replaced by the wealth-owning class. It’s not coincidence that in 2002 Harvard reported accepting 40% of applicants who are children of alumni while only 11% of general applicants were accepted. And from 2009 to 2015,  legacy students represent 34 percent of the undergraduate population at Harvard as opposed to non-legacy admissions which came in at  5.9 percent.

Despite all this data, one has to wonder why some of the wealthiest people in the country are pulling such scams to aid their children’s entrance to elite institutions today. I mean, were the many years at college preparatory schools not enough? Was it not even enough being raised in the economic lap of luxury in all senses of the word? While it might be the case that we are witnessing the wealthy living the fear of their offspring not being able to keep up with class expectations, worried that their child might also be relegated to being a barista or a food prep intern, we need to understand that what Felicity Huffman and many others committed to was both unethical to a certain ideal of the college entrance system, but it was completely in line with what has always been. To see Rita Wilson wax positive about the hard work involved in getting into college. But this too is partly true and partly myth. 

The struggle and hard work of getting into a good—or any—university mostly begins at high school for most of the students in the US and the UK.  It’s is no coincidence that more than 60% of Oxford University students went to private or grammar schools or that those attending Ivy League institutions in need of student loans (28 percent) are not receiving the perks of very large financial endowments ($39.2 billion at Harvard as of 2014).  So, let’s not pretend that these Ivy League student or cash-strapped graduates are going to need much reprieve from crippling student loans that most students face. Let’s not even go through the charade of pretending that a degree from an elite institution doesn’t help one enter the job market or secure a far higher-paying job than graduates from public institutions.

Let’s face it: the most secure and best-paid employment opportunities are going to those graduate from the Ivy League and Oxbridge and the lie is in pretending otherwise. These institutions are the social and political gatekeepers of wealth and power and Loughlin, Huffman et al know it all too well. If anything, it is the university where our children will attend that will be the barometer for their future economic wealth and even success, depending on how one measures success. And in today’s economic times, the university is the gatekeeper not only to wealth, but to healthcare, housing, and survival.  The reality is that these schools are making a killing in the economic hierarchy gatekeeping and if it isn’t William Singer who is getting paid off by wealthy, worried parents, then it’s Harvard, Princeton and Yale making the money.

The question to me why did these parents undertake unethical maneuvers to ensure their kids enter an elite university, but why the system in place ensures that only the elite will hold these places. If it isn’t showbiz or CEO kids, it will certainly be another show biz or CEO offspring who steps into that place. Is it that these children aren’t working hard enough or that the system in place is guaranteed to ensure the myth of meritocracy so prevalent in countries like the US and the UK. But if money really is the key here, why not follow the advice of The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah who proposed: “For that amount of money, just buy a smarter kid!”

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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