A Sad Use of Privilege
We Americans tell ourselves that our society is a meritocracy, and in some instances, this is the case. During my time in the United States Army, I experienced an American institution that recognized and rewarded merit. But the recent college admissions scandal has shaken a major pillar upon which our supposed meritocracy rests.
In March, federal prosecutors charged about 50 people, 50 very rich people, with using illegal means to secure entry for their children into elite universities. Sadly, at least two of these people are from our own town. The list of those charged included actresses, business leaders, heiresses, and others who used their wealth to make sure their kids got into certain universities at the expense of more deserving students.
This scheme was hatched by Mr. Singer of Newport Beach. His pitch was that, given tens of thousands of dollars, he could get your child through a “side door” into the college of the parents’ choice. His methods were indeed odious. By photoshopping a child’s face onto the body of a true athlete, he would build a resume that made the client’s child look like a star athlete. He also had a special “test-taker” who would fly out from Florida and take any and all types of standardized testing required for college entrance. He bribed administrators at testing sites to turn a blind eye so cheating would go undetected.
For 35 years, I watched many of my students at El Toro High School work long into the night to get excellent grades, take part in valuable extra-curricular activities, and compile spotless behavioral records. How many of these students that toiled in the garden of academic honesty got aced out by wealthy parents with no scruples?
Recently, I listened to a podcast of “This American Life” about an experiment using a college student standing at the beginning of a crosswalk. As we all know the pedestrian has the right of way; cars are supposed to stop. The researchers had a rating system for the cars that came to the crosswalk. They were divided into five categories, with the most expensive cars labeled fives, and the oldest labeled ones. During the hours that followed, every single car in the “one” category yielded to the person in the crosswalk. Nearly 50 percent of the fives, the most expensive, blew right through. Hardly a thorough study, but it does bring to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote: “Let me tell you about the rich. They are different from you and me.”
One particular galling image is stuck in my mind. It involved one of the actresses charged. When she made her appearance at the courthouse, people came up and asked for an autograph. Really? More appropriate would have been a gauntlet of outraged people shouting “Shame!”
This scandal has caused a light to be cast on other rather shaky aspects of college admissions. I speak of the so-called “legacy preferences.” If your parents or other relatives attended an elite academic institution, you often get extra-admission consideration. At Harvard, the rate of legacy admissions is five times higher than non-legacy students. Meritocracy at work here? Probably not.
People who are critical of affirmative action in college admissions tend to be quiet about legacy admissions. Some people see a student of color on a college campus and will ask themselves, “I wonder if that person is here because of their race?” It would be equally valid, in view of recent events, to walk across a college campus and ask, “Is that person here because of ‘college advisors’ like Mr. Singer?” or, “Is that person here because is she a legacy?”
If we are who we claim to be, our outrage over this blatant abuse of wealth and privilege should linger a great while.
James Utt is the author of “Laguna Tales and Boomer Wails.” He wonders how many other Mr. Singers have yet to be caught.