Aidan Turek ’20
The recent college admissions scandal is horrifying and unsurprising. On March 12th, about a dozen parents were indicted by Justice Department officials for participating in a scheme to land their children admission into various colleges. One man at the center of this scandal, William Rich Singer, was paid between $250,000 and half a million per student to bolster admission chances. His cover was “The Key,” a company that purported to ‘open the door’ for college hopefuls, with an elaborate web of allies at some of the most prestigious universities in America, including the University of Southern California, Stanford, Yale, UC San Diego and UC Los Angeles, in addition to many more.
The methods used to fluff student applications were diverse but included elaborate photoshopping to create a false rowing team history, for instance, or straight fabrication and falsification of SAT and ACT scores. To give just one further example of the sort of fraud practiced by Singer and his patrons, NPR reported that a former Yale soccer coach was paid $400,000 to name one of Singer’s students as a potential recruit for Yale’s team, despite her near complete lack of competence at the sport.
SAT scores were boosted by bribing proctors and hiring students to take SAT tests in the place of Singer’s students—giving out up to $75,000 per test. Singer was good at what he did, managing to land his very often unwitting students at some of the most prestigious campuses, all while making bank from wealthy patrons. One of his clients, Lori Anne Loughlin (Aunt Becky from Full House), purportedly paid half a million dollars to get her two daughters into the University of Southern California (USC), while expressing the desire to see them at an ‘elite’ university. One of her daughters, Olivia Jade, is facing backlash after revealing she attends few classes at USC, focusing instead on her 1.9 million YouTube subscribers.
The lack of any noticeable hint of work ethic—aside from pitching the latest Sephora product—speaks to the fact that for the wealthy, prestigious universities are a vehicle for maintaining wealth. Names like Harvard, Yale, or Stanford communicate the longevity of inherited wealth. Studies, including by a team from Harvard, have found that elite schools don’t ensure happiness or life satisfaction, but they do ensure wealth.
Education is the greatest potential mechanism for equality and meritocracy. Where intelligence, hard work, and due diligence are absent, money makes do. The result is the promotion of the profoundly incompetent to positions of influence and power, making an utter mockery of higher education in our nation. This isn’t hyperbole. Wealth is an ever-present factor in our culture, hardly a bad thing in itself. The American dream is success built on generations of hard work, and the enjoyment of that wealth is more than a natural reaction.
Conspicuous consumption is an enduring aspect of Americana. It is only when higher education comes under the sway of wealth politics that the American ideal breaks down. Education is at its core a meritocracy. Only the smartest are admitted to elite universities, people who can make the best use of such an opportunity, at least in theory. Instead what we have is the domination of families with money who perpetuate their wealth through prestigious education. Ivy League grads beget more Ivy Leaguers. Most troubling for me isn’t the scandal. Interviews with UCLA students revealed a deep-seated cynicism that detracts from any sense of surprise. As put by one student, “my first reaction was ‘why all of the sudden are they facing repercussions for it?’ That’s the part that was surprising to me.” That’s the plain truth. The few people who use illegal methods are merely the tip of an iceberg, wherein wealth is translated into bigger and bolder applications. For every one Olivia Jade Loughlin, there are two hundred students taking fourteen week summer SAT prep courses, or paying to fly to exotic countries justly derided as ‘voluntourism,’ or paying for a private college consultants, many of whom benefit from insider connections, or paying to visit college campuses, an absolute luxury Trinity has only just started to tackle.
These few illegal cases should not distract from the vastly unjust system we’ve already got that benefits the rich and sidelines the poor. It’s impossible for me to draw the line between using money to explore options and using money to exploit the would-be meritocracy, but I cannot help but agree that this scandal is surprising not for its content, but for its selectivity.
I cannot help but conclude that the prestige and weight carried by elite universities in this country are products of the utter debasement of any academic inclination, and rather than uphold some ideal of a virtuous meritocracy, elite universities merely perpetuate the inequality that defines our America.