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The Myth of the Meritocracy (Part 2)

Last month I wrote a post about the way in which people from privileged backgrounds often receive tremendous advantages, which are invisible to the outside world. Little did I know that my argument was about to get a very public boost by a national cheating scandal that once again shows just how much the rich and powerful can find “side doors” into America’s elite education institutions. “There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy,” said Andrew Lelling, the United States attorney for the District of Massachusetts when he announced the charges.

Alas, we know that there is, and we also know that what his office unearthed is just the tip of the “side door” iceberg. As Frank Bruni wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

It may be legal to pledge $2.5 million to Harvard just as your son is applying — which is what Jared Kushner’s father did for him — and illegal to bribe a coach to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, but how much of a difference is there, really? Both elevate money over accomplishment. Both are ways of cutting in line.

It may be legal to give $50,000 to a private consultant who massages your child’s transcript and perfumes your child’s essays, and illegal to pay someone for a patently fictive test score, but aren’t both exercises in deception reserved for those who can afford them?

And while ghostwriting, whether by consultants or parents, may not be detectable or at least provable, it happens all the time and contributes to applications as bogus as the ones that came to federal prosecutors’ attention.

What a message it sends to the children: You’re not good enough to do this on your own. You needn’t be. Your parents and your counselors know the rules, and when and how to break them. Just sit back and let entitlement run its course.

As someone who has taught at the university level and the father of a fifteen-year old son about to start the college admission journey, I agree with Bruni that the sleaze unearthed this week is only the illegal dimension. The legal side doors are more prevalent and just as bad. College athletic scholarships, as this latest scandal yet again underscored, is by far the worst culprit. Everyone knows that thousands of academically underperforming students get into great schools every year, keeping out better students in the process. We know about the donations, visible and invisible, that get mediocre legacies into the same schools.

It’s a disgraceful system, and it shames the schools while at the same time devaluing the real accomplishments of the great majority of students who get in on merit, talent and hard work.

Of course, this being the U.S., the lawsuits came quickly, both by rejected students who claim the named institutions engaged in fraud in their admissions processes and by alumni upset at the reputational hit to their degrees. While normally not a fan of frivolous lawsuits, I do hope the universities get the point of their actions and how they reverberate throughout society.

I also hope that corporations, that are among the most important destinations for the graduates these schools create, will also weigh in with pressure. After all, one would think that HR executives want admission to elite schools to mean something on a CV, not just that the person was lucky enough to have parents who knew how to game the system.

In my last post, I noted that change is coming to higher education. The more universities fail to clean up their own houses, the more they hurry along their demise. This latest debacle only reinforces my belief that the current higher-education model in the U.S. is in dire need of a revolution. I hope all of us trying to effect that wave of change, inside and outside, use this latest sign of corruption to increase our efforts to create an educational system that moves us closer to, and not farther from, a real meritocracy.


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