The college-admissions scandal—in which fifty people have been indicted for scheming to get the children of wealthy parents into top schools—makes for perfect cocktail chatter. It involves a couple of celebrities among those who, prosecutors allege, bribed and cheated their kids’ way into college. It includes bizarre details, like the Photoshopping of photographs of said children’s faces onto the bodies of outstanding young athletes. It bears savoring and retelling, because it says something intuitively obvious but barely articulated about American society: its entire education system is a scam, perpetrated by a few upon the many.
It’s not just that higher education is literally prohibitively expensive (and at the end of it most college graduates still don’t know how to use the word “literally” correctly, as I am here). It’s not just that admission to an élite college—more than the education a student receives there—provides the foundation of future wealth by creating or, more often, reinforcing social connections. It’s not just that every college in the country, including public schools, makes decisions about infrastructure, curriculum development, hiring, and its very existence on the basis of fund-raising and money-making logic. It’s not just that the process of getting into college grows more stressful—and, consequently, more expensive—with every passing year. It’s not just that the process itself is fundamentally rigged and everyone knows this. It’s all of it.
There is an adage of journalism that holds that every story should be written as if by a foreign correspondent. I generally like this idea: coverage of many issues could benefit from a naïve but informed view. I now find myself imagining applying it to the college-scandal story.
I would, of course, begin by explaining that fifty people in six states are accused of conspiring to game the college-admissions system. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars each to have other people take standardized tests in place of their children, to insure that the administration of the test itself would be fixed, and to bribe coaches and falsify their children’s athletic records. Here, the story would get complicated. A reader in any country can understand the concept of a standardized test—in some countries, in fact, standardized tests have been a tool to fight corruption in admissions. But what does athletic ability have to do with college, especially a college considered academically challenging?
Soon, I would find myself explaining the exotic customs of American college admissions. As the parent of two young adults—one recently went through the application process and the other is in its beginning stages—I have accumulated some experience explaining the system to my friends in other countries. (A Canadian academic’s recent incredulous response: “In Canada, people just go to university!”) I would have to explain the concept of legacy admissions: the positively pre-modern concept that the right to an élite education is heritable. I would have to explain that colleges depend heavily on financial donors, whom they cultivate through generations. I would have to explain the growing part of softer criteria like extracurriculars—the race to be not only better-educated than your peers but also better at being a good person in the world—as if education and an initiation into adult civic life were not what college itself is for. I would have to note that it’s essential for parents to be able to afford to pay for their children’s extracurriculars and sponsor their volunteerism.
I would have to explain all that before I even got to the standardized tests. Then I would note that an SAT/ACT tutor in New York City charges between three hundred and four hundred and fifty dollars an hour. I would note that, to make parents feel better about parting with that sort of money, many programs guarantee a precise bump in test scores for their students: about a hundred and eighty points, out of a possible total of sixteen hundred, for the SAT; about four, out of thirty-six, for the ACT. I would note that gaming the test legally is such a well-established practice that children whose parents can’t afford thousands of dollars in test-prep fees will score more than ten per cent lower than those who get tutored.
Granted, the test results aren’t everything. Every college will tell you that it takes a “holistic approach” to admissions. There are essays, for which there is also coaching, and editing, and a formula; the hourly rate for these services can exceed that of the test tutors. There is also additional college counselling, because a guidance counsellor even at the best public school can’t give an aspiring college student the kind of individual attention, or the kinds of connection, that money can buy. And then there are the connections that money buys indirectly: the parents’ friends who teach, or who work in admissions, or who have generous tips on what colleges are looking for in an essay or an applicant’s list of extracurriculars. One of those things is interest in the particular college—an immeasurable quality, to be sure, but colleges like to see that an applicant has visited the campus. Yes, in most of the world, young people go to university in the city where they grew up, but in the United States, I would explain, most young people aspire to “go away” to college, and that means that even a pre-application tour is a costly and time-consuming proposition. I might mention that the dormitory system, a major source of revenue for the colleges, is also a giant expense for the families, but, these days, even colleges that used to be known as commuter schools require first- and often second-year students to live in the dorms, even if their families live in the same city. This is but an incomplete list of reasons that many low-income students don’t even try to apply to selective colleges. The wealthy compete with the even wealthier.
I would explain that many American colleges have made a concerted effort to admit students from more varied backgrounds, but have failed even to keep up with the changing demographics of the country. The top colleges and universities continue, overwhelmingly, to educate the wealthy and white. The proportional representation of African-Americans and Latinos in the population of top colleges has been dropping, with a few exceptions, which are, in turn, determined largely by wealth: only the wealthiest colleges can admit a lot of students whose parents can’t afford tuition. And if they want to keep these students, they have to invest in revamping their curricula and training faculty and allocating additional teaching and counselling resources to help students for whom the culture of élite colleges is alien and alienating.
Explaining why these additional resources would be necessary would in turn require an explanation of how education is funded in this country, how school districts are drawn, how middle-class parents invest in a house in the right neighborhood, where public schools will give their kids a chance at a decent college. The best public primary schools, I would explain, enable graduates to compete with kids who went to expensive private schools. For the socially and economically hopeful, I would explain, raising a child in America is an eighteen-year process of investing in the college-admissions system.