When I hear the phrase “college admission scam” I reach for my copy of George W. Bush’s resume. This gem started to circulate not long after his first interviews when he ran for President, straining to recall the names of foreign leaders and stuttering through a series of painful contortions about the issues of the day. His alleged C-average at Yale hardly demeans the quality of this institution which like many private ones keeps slots open for legacy admissions. But his quite-average resume, earned before being elected President, offers the opportunity to reflect on the myth about the supposed superior value of an elite education.
The obsession with scoring an elite school is to a great extent about rubbing noses with future Presidents and banking the blue pigment in as many institutions as possible through life, getting admittance to a rarefied culture that dispenses extraordinary privileges.
Of course this all comes with no guarantee, but if you play your cards right your resume lines with bad business ventures, like Mr. Bush’s, might convert like alchemy into entrepreneurial gold for well-connected financial wizards, even lead to early golden parachutes.
Studies show that the cream of the upper class, the relatively small number of mostly males who wield the power to influence the direction of the country, is overwhelmingly educated at elite private schools, and they constitute a virtually inbred family (Kloby, Dye). They attend the same prep schools that are bridges to the Ivy League. They major in wealth-maintenance subjects to manage their significant inheritances. They hang at the same exclusive clubs and intermarry. They command the kind of wealth that gives them perpetual lobbying power to make sure the rules stay the same.
If you want to be a Supreme Court justice don’t go to a state college or university. The vast majority of appointments to this prestigious institution since its inception have been from five Ivy League schools.
Studies also reveal the value of the elite sheepskin in competing for positions. A lower GPA and lesser-resume applicant from an Ivy League school will tend to get the job nod over the more qualified one with a mere public-school diploma. A less-credentialed ivy doctorate will often get the edge in academic appointments.
A colleague who taught at a private school in the east, not an Ivy League one, did some research on its appointments while teaching there. It was quite common in the Humanities and Social Sciences to give tenure-track slots to ivied applicants who hadn’t even begun dissertations and in many cases before they had completed their orals, while state-school applicants with research records and even books published often got the visiting slots. This pecking order repeated itself through the tenure process to the point when most of the research trails vanished anyway—hence the low aggregate figure of only twenty-some percent of faculty actively engaged in research—replaced by entrepreneurial forays into unrelated corporate ventures.
Central to the American Dream is the notion that education in its most basic form can vault you over obstacles of all kinds, especially the extra advantages that elite degrees can bring. We mostly ignore these advantages, deferring to the powerful myth of the individual. Our democratic ethos inspires the idea of equal opportunity, the idea that anyone who can give it a try and get credentialed is welcome as long as they can spring for the tuition or get a grant or scholarship.
The possessor of something less than an elite degree certainly has a chance, but the existence of this mostly invisible strain of privilege considerably weakens this mythology in endowing a segment of our society with many more votes to secure their needs and desires. Their advantages breed more and more of the same. Their awards and accolades can pile up almost exponentially, monopolizing the field and expelling many potentially qualified contributors from consideration. This constitutes a kind of affirmative action from the top.
So it’s no surprise that those with power and wealth will do everything they can to maintain it. If the means exists to influence the conditions that will keep it, there’s little chance that lofty moral sentiments will put the brakes on the process. The privileged work hard and spend well to reproduce the advantages they have, reaping rewards to pass on.
But this is ancient history. What do we make of these recent scams?
It seems the privileged have decided their advantages aren’t sufficient, and they’re devising new ways to game the system they already virtually own. Moral outrage at parents spending a half-million dollars to get their unqualified offspring into school by fabricating resumes and test scores (able to spend lavishly on prep tests—learning to pass entrance tests!—was not enough), doesn’t quite suffice to lend closure to this issue. Are such choices by highly successful people, and especially media celebrities, now viewed as natural? Has a new sense of entitlement been socialized into the cultural fabric, reinvested our ethical foundations? Where has this authority come from?
Over the past few generations the media’s profusion of stories that privilege wealth, virtually eliminating those from the lower and middle sectors of society, has made it seem like there’s nothing else, and that accessing it is easy and natural and will lead to the possession of unlimited power. Has the effect of snuffing the background noise from these stories—that the spike in wealth during a particular moment, from the early 80s forward especially, was the result of a lot of well-connected people lobbying in all the right places—encouraged more and more to slouch toward Hollywood to be reborn with an upgraded birthright that brings with it a whole new stream of advantages?
Paying a consultant to fabricate resumes is not far removed from paying legislators to vote in a law that benefits them or, to bring this up-to-date , actually funding the drafting of legislation (by such organizations as ALEC, for example) to be rubber-stamped by elected representatives. There appears to be a fine line indeed between lobbying and bribing, and we certainly owe such a distortion of the institution of pluralism, recently at least, to Citizens United vs. FEC. This case surely opened the floodgates to an immoral contagion.
Where did they get all that extra cash to spend on education when so many budgets for education all over the land are still strained; when so many students’ futures have been mortgaged to excessive loan debt? Austerity is still the norm in many state systems some eleven years after the Great Recession. How many proactive parents are out there who’ve made these epic donations and haven’t been indicted yet (apparently many more indictments are on the way), or who would have before the scandal broke? If we add up this amount and add it to the amounts that have been transferred from the public tills into private accounts since the inception of a neoliberal order that brokered the shift toward education-is-a-privilege, there might be enough value to substantially soften these austerity regimes, if not cancel them, freeing up slots for more students and alleviating the considerable pressure to secure special ones.
The neoliberal order dates from the mid-70s so this could be a pretty hefty sum. This shift occurred just prior to the revamping of the tax code with Reagan’s arrival in office that considerably reduced the rates for the top bracket earners, subsidized by increases for the lower ones and cuts to social programs that have become the norm since.
This transfer of wealth to the upper tier created a virtual super class that prepared the way for the current 1%. What’s especially notable is that today’s trustfunders are to a great extent the progeny of these beneficiaries. This swelling group of inheritors has squatted in the major cities, like Venice, CA, a subdivision of LA, free to ratchet up property values, making it difficult for many to survive. This new class—the parents in many cases of the up-and-coming college generation—is set, having little need to work, beneficiaries of another tax cut for the top tier thanks to Trump’s Congress, while the nickel-and-dimed economy demands that more and more work several jobs, often without benefits, to survive.
The reduction of estate taxes has helped to entrench the positions of these beneficiaries, producing more means to lobby them away, clearly the long-term trend.
It should be mentioned that a very significant adjunct of the neoliberal shift, the weakening and virtual non-enforcement of anti-trust laws, has helped pad the finances of the privileged. Letting companies merge and acquire each other at will has led to an appropriation of wealth through monopoly pricing, and the killing of small businesses. The birth of Walmart-type companies crystallized these trends and others, especially the extraordinary power of stock equity concentrated in fewer and fewer hands that has mandated low-wage, non-benefit work for parents scrimping to send their kids to college.
These trends are disturbing. They give an elite group flush with cash the power to carve out spaces, tenured systems, where they will be guaranteed results without having to compete. They threaten to hollow out the democratic ideal where everyone has a shot, certainly not an equal one, but a shot, if they can measure up to the standards of performance, weakening what’s left of our meritocracy. As those aspiring to the American Dream increasingly witness some securing gains out of proportion to their contributions, or getting immunity from prosecution for their vile deeds, a corrosive skepticism about the fairness of the system takes root, breeding ideological extremism.
It’s further weakened when suspicions arise about the quality of the work delivered by those who’ve monopolized the power to avoid competition while rendering the competitive unqualified. It’s interesting that more and more seem to be securing positions of power who have limited qualifications to perform their positions. President Trump has made several appointments that fit this formula. His recent nomination of Stephen Moore for the Fed was especially flagrant. He was forced to withdraw it as the pressure mounted about his lack of qualifications.
Those absolved from competition can interchange positions at will, and above all refuse to innovate, reproducing variations on the way it’s always been, factoring another sequel to the sequel. A beyond-competition plutocracy functions like an inbred royal family. It becomes increasingly self-reflexive, oblivious to the rationalities of the outside world, slipping ever so predictably into some form of pathology. Soon the leader starts to babble a language of bloopers, mispronunciations and botched quotes to a base group of loyalists in perpetual rapture…
John O’Kane teaches writing at Chapman University. His most recent book is Jukebox Confessionals.