I have devoted my entire professional life to the education of Black children. I have declared from my earliest days of public school teaching to the conclusion of my career in the academy that Black children are capable of learning and possible of academic success. I have argued that because of the incredible education debt the nation has accumulated toward Black students (and other students of color), the students would regularly face an uneven playing field when it came to opportunities related to education.
This debt is historical — we have always failed to provide quality education for some groups. The debt is economic — we have always provided less financial resources for some groups. The debt is socio-political — we have always worked to disenfranchise some groups. And, the debt is moral — some things are just plain wrong!
This week, we learned that in addition to White skin privilege, financial resources, access to better schools, and all kinds of social and political connections, some of the society’s wealthiest families found yet another way to cheat in order to ensure their children get admitted to some of the nation’s most prestigious institutions — Yale, Stanford, USC, and UCLA among them.
The fact that wealthy kids get into elite colleges and universities is not news. People who give lots of money to institutions can expect that their children will get greater consideration. People who are alumni of colleges and universities can expect that their alumni status will give their children a boost in their admissions profiles. People whose children are elite athletes can expect that their children will also receive special consideration in the admissions process.
For example, Stanford (a school I know a little about as an alumna) is regularly lauded as a school whose athletes are also good students. That is true. The Stanford athletes are “good” students. However, they are not necessarily “great” students. In fact, the disparity between Stanford scholarship athletes and the general Stanford student population is greater than the disparity between Big Ten scholarship athletes and the Big Ten general student population. But the story that hit the news yesterday was not about gaining an advantage because of any of the above-mentioned conditions (donors, alumni, elite athletes). It is about rich, White folks buying admission and cheating their way into elite colleges and universities.
The Justice Department handed down indictments to Hollywood celebrities, high profile executives — lawyers, business people, etc. — who paid money under the table, cheated on standardized tests, and defrauded colleges and universities to make sure their children got into their preferred schools. The scam included having people taking college entrance exams for their children, paying psychologists to say their children had learning disabilities to be able to get accommodations for additional time while taking either the SAT or ACT. One of the most bizarre parts of the scam included pretending that students were athletes — making up bogus prizes and accolades and even photo-shopping students into athletic pictures. This scam included administrators, coaches, exam proctors, SAT/ACT administrators, and 33 parents.
This scam piques my interest because I have heard more than enough arguments about why affirmative action is unfair. Black students are regularly told they don’t belong in college because they are unqualified. They are told they are taking up space that some “more-qualified” student (read, White) should have. They are told they need to learn to compete in a “meritocracy.” This week, we saw how the so-called meritocracy actually works. People with enough money and power can (and do) bend systems to their will. They don’t play by the rules because they see themselves as people above the rules. This same attitude is characteristic of what we now see in our political sphere. People who already have every advantage find it necessary to cheat to guarantee they get what they want.
What eventually happens to those children who got admitted to elite schools under fraudulent circumstances? I speculate that they will end up sitting on our school boards, on our city councils, in our state legislatures, in our governor’s mansions, in our House of Congress and US Senate, and perhaps in the White House. And, they will occupy those positions claiming that they got there based on merit.