Home > Uncategorized > How the 1% Stay the 1% – posted 3/17/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/24/2019

How the 1% Stay the 1% – posted 3/17/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/24/2019

Sometimes a story comes along that exposes deep, dark realities that typically remain hidden. Such a story is the college admissions scandal the FBI code-named Operation Varsity Blues.

While popular mythology and conventional thinking tout America as a meritocracy where anyone can get ahead based on their hard work and talent, this scandal presents a very different picture. It reveals that admission to elite colleges in the U.S. is a stacked deck, rigged to benefit wealthy white students.

According to the New York Times, at 38 top-tier colleges including Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania, there are more students from the top 1% of families by income than there are from the bottom 60 percent. Both class and racial inequalities are reflected in which students are admitted to and graduate from our nation’s elite schools.

It is not a simple story; there are always exceptional students from low income families who get into elite colleges, but they are the exception to the rule. The larger pattern though is about class privilege and about how rich families are given preferential treatment or are able to game the system.

Rich people who are born into privilege already have a big edge in college admissions. Maybe it is stating the obvious but elite colleges have become extremely expensive. Even with some financial aid, just to be able to come up with a means to pay the cost at many colleges, let alone elite colleges, is daunting. The cost is too much for many prospective candidates. Having the means to pay full freight is no small thing since otherwise we are talking significant debt.

A close look at Operation Varsity Blues provides a window into the elite college admissions world. The FBI arrested 50 people, including some Hollywood stars and 13 college coaches. The gist of what was going on was very wealthy people paying a guy named Rick Singer, who billed himself as a college counseling consultant, big bucks to buy entrance into some of the most prestigious colleges.

Singer’s clients were paying him between $100,000 and $6.5 million based on a guarantee that he could get their child into an elite school. Most paid between $250,000 and $400,000. Singer had quite an array of schemes. While the allegations against Singer have yet to be proven, here are some of the alleged frauds.

Singer paid ringer stand-ins to take the ACT and SAT test. He bribed test proctors and arranged for them to correct wrong answers. He instructed parents to lie and say their children had learning disabilities. Then kids were given accommodations to take tests in individualized settings, sometimes over two days, with only a proctor present.

Singer also paid bribes to college sports coaches. He would get students designated as recruited athletes, even when they were not athletes. He and the parents would photoshop faces onto athletic bodies and would create fake athletic profiles. Singer made about $25 million from this business.

I thought the sharpest comment about the scandal that I have seen came from Susan Dynarski, a professor at the University of Michigan.

“This scandal is just the extreme, the illegal extreme, but it’s a continuum with legacy admission, with Jared Kushner, with all these other thumbs on the scale that wealthy kids get that are legal.”

Dynarski described legacy admission as “affirmative action for people who’ve had a very privileged life”. She has written that legacies (children of graduates) at Harvard are accepted at five times the rate of non-legacies. That pattern likely holds true at other elite colleges.

A recent lawsuit against Harvard’s admissions revealed that the college maintained a secret list of applicants who are relatives of major donors. Students on the donor list have a 40% acceptance rate. Harvard accepts 4.6% of students who apply.

Legacy admission is really a form of bribery. Colleges see such students as revenue generators for their institution. If a student who is a legacy cannot be accepted, elite colleges may ask them to take a “gap year” and enter a year later. This is called “Z-listing”.

The fact of Z-listing came out in a recent affirmative action lawsuit against Harvard. For years Harvard denied the existence of Z-listing. Z-listing is, in fact, a preferential program for white, wealthy and well-connected students.

Even if you are not a legacy, if your parents can cough up a major donation, your chance of admission skyrockets; the larger the donation, the greater the certainty of admission. Consider Jared Kushner. Kushner’s father gave Harvard $2.5 million around the time of his admission to the college.

In his book, The Price of Admission, Daniel Golden quotes administrators at Kushner’s private high school, the Frisch School, in Paramus New Jersey.

“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard. His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen.Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted.”

The Kushner example represents a form of corruption that is deeply unfair to hard-working low and middle-income students with better grades and SAT scores. Money talks though and inferior students like Kushner bribe their way into Harvard. It is pay for play. Donations by wealthy parents, in effect, rob other students of their right to a fair shot at admission.

The corruption aside, the other advantages of wealth deserve mention. If you are rich enough, you will have coaches, tutors, test prep courses, opportunities to play more expensive and exclusive sports like water polo, squash, and golf and you will have social networking connections. Maybe you belong to the same country club and you get to socialize with alumni who can put in a good word for you. All those things are an edge in a competitive battle.

Private prep schools also have long-standing connections with the admissions offices of elite colleges that grease the path to admission. The great majority of public schools have none of that.

Another dimension of the separate college admission for the wealthy is how admission at a top-tier college catapults students into high-powered positions in the corporate world and finance. Part of the conceit is that they are the best and the brightest when the truth is they are instead the better connected and richest.

This scandal also points to how misplaced criticisms have been about affirmative action for minority students where there was an effort to remedy a historic injustice. The real and much more widespread affirmative action has been on behalf of wealthy white students. That has played out in front of our eyes for decades without drawing the scrutiny and criticism it deserved.

This story is about how the ruling class in America reproduces itself. Whether you call it the ruling class, the 1% or the power elite, this class of people has an enormous sense of entitlement. For some of them, it was too risky to chance admission to the Harvards, Yales, and Princetons. They had to buy it. Maintaining power and privilege is not only about the cash, it is also about opportunity-hoarding.

For the 99%, we need to recognize this aspect of an ongoing class struggle that we have been losing for decades. Understanding the continuing and accelerating inequality in our society today is just the first step to working for change so that fairness and equality for all will one day disrupt and destroy the prevalence of wealthy white privilege.

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