The 50 people who federal prosecutors allege took part in a college-admissions cheating scheme involving some of America’s most prestigious universities put a new spin on an injustice that’s been dogging Ivy League schools and other institutions for generations.
The admissions system at many elite schools has always been rigged to benefit the rich, powerful and well-connected, like the parents in this current scandal who’ve been accused of paying up to $6 million each to fraudulently get their children coveted enrollments at Yale, Stanford, USC, UCLA and elsewhere.
The former “Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman allegedly contributed a $15,000 “donation” to a sham organization that purported to help disadvantaged students prepare for college entrance exams, the very sort of students who really do need greater access to our country’s top schools.
The confessed mastermind behind the scheme, William Rick Singer, reportedly told investigators that he created a “side door” to help wealthy people swindle their kids into those schools.
Historically, though, the rich and connected haven’t needed a side door into schools such as Yale, Princeton and Harvard. Those schools allowed the country’s economic elite to pay and hobnob their way through the front door.
“Until the 1930s, just about any wealthy, white male could get into college with little more than a handshake and a check,” former Amherst College admissions officer Willard Dix wrote in Forbes magazine last year.
The New York Times reported in 2017 that at Ivy League schools Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn and Brown — plus 38 other colleges — more students came from the top 1 percent of the economic spectrum than from the entire bottom 60 percent. Those figures were based on a survey of students born between 1980 and 1991 but not a lot has changed, given that the rich have gotten richer in this country in the intervening years and the poor have gotten poorer or bumped along.
It’s not just that students from wealthier families are better able pay for college. Top schools around the country have traditionally considered “legacy” — having a close relative who is an alum of the school of choice — in deciding whether or not to grant enrollment. And guess what? Legacy enrollees tend to be rich and white.
Nearly 30 percent of Harvard’s graduating class of 2021 is made up of legacy students.
I say all of this because just as the feds have uncovered the largest college-admissions cheating operation ever — a combination of fraudulent donations, bribery, test cheating and phony student profiles all aimed at giving rich students a leg up — affirmative-action programs aimed at expanding opportunity for historically excluded minority students are once again up for debate.
Washington voters will get to decide whether to repeal the 1998, voter-approved ban on race-based affirmative action programs in this state when Initiative 1000 appears on the ballot in November. In the school year after the ban, known as Initiative 200, went into effect, the University of Washington saw steep enrollment declines for African Americans (40 percent), Latinos (33 percent) and Native Americans (23 percent), author Jamillah Moore notes in her 2005 book “Race and College Admissions: A Case for Affirmative Action.”
Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democratic presidential candidate, supports bringing back affirmative action.
An even thornier issue sits at the heart of a suit against Harvard University. A federal judge will soon decide a case that accuses Harvard, which considers race as a factor in admissions to diversify its student body, of discriminating against Asian-American applicants.
Asian Americans represent 5 percent of public high-school students but nearly 23 percent of that university’s freshman class; they have higher average SAT scores but a lower admission rate than if SAT scores were considered alone, according to a Time magazine report.
Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of excitement around the idea of free college tuition to help middle-class and lower-income students pay for their higher education, thanks in large part to the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The outrageous cost of college is one crisis that needs tackling. Getting in is a whole other one.
America’s colleges and universities have worked hard to open their doors to communities that have been shut out of higher-education opportunities since the days when all you needed to do was give a handshake and a check to get your kid into an elite school — and when African Americans, women and other groups were denied access to many schools altogether. It’s worth noting that these programs help create a culturally vital academic environment for every student who goes to college.
I’m a beneficiary of that broader effort, having attended the University of Kentucky on an academic scholarship designed specifically to increase minority enrollment at my home state’s overwhelmingly white flagship school.
But as today’s admissions scandal shows, some traditions die hard. Institutions of higher learning have a lot more work to do to make their admissions processes fairer — but also inclusive.
It’s not an enviable task but their legitimacy depends on their ability to strike a livable balance between the two, while weeding out the sort of under-the-table shenanigans that swept up Lynette Scavo from “Housewives,” Aunt Becky (actress Lori Loughlin) from “Full House,” college athletic-department officials and standardized-test administrators.
And it’ll require progressives and conservatives alike to engage in an honest discussion about privilege in this country, and what more it will take to dismantle a college-admissions system historically inclined to favor one socioeconomic group above all others.
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