Useful Myths

In the age of the “hot take,” few stories have as much to give as the college admission “scandal” – which is one-percenter for “crime” – involving, among others Aunt Becky and Dana Whitaker.

The story is both a Rorschach test and blank canvas on which people see or project what’s bothering them about higher education and American society in general.

While a lot of the commentaries aren’t worth the zeros and ones they are “published” on, there are exceptions. (Whether this commentary is such an exception, I’ll let you decide.) Farhad Manjoo highlights an important but likely-missed part of this story: Rather than a story about the privileges of the incredibly rich, “the true story here concerns the petite charms of the slightly less bougie. Rather than the perfidies of billionaires and hundred-millionaires, the charges illustrate the anxieties afflicting people who are just below society’s tippy-top rung.”

Whereas most applicants to highly selective school have to come in through the “front door,” i.e, the normal application process, and the extremely wealthy can come in through the “back door,” as described in this Vox article, and in the book “The Price of Admission,” the “slightly less bougie” went in through the “side door” of bribery and cheating.

Elizabeth Bruenig provided much-needed context by telling readers that while the actions of Aunt Becky, Dana Whitaker, and the other parents weren’t fair, “nothing about the American experience of social mobility is fair.”

Bruenig was specifically referring to how access to higher education, especially at highly selective schools, is largely dependent on factors that are beyond the applicant’s control, starting with who your parents are.

Even if they behave honorably and follow all the rules, affluent parents are able to provide their children with advantages that improve their chances of getting into the kinds of schools that Aunt Becky, Dana Whitaker, and the company they used tried to get into through the side door.

In some instances, their kids can qualify as “legacies.” They can afford to participate in what’s been called the “pay for play” youth sports racket.

In this scheme, the goal – pun not intended – of all those expensive youth soccer or lacrosse leagues isn’t to become the kind of player who could play collegiately. It’s to get into a selective school even if your grades and test scores don’t quite “measure up,” whatever that means.

That’s why it is not unusual to have 30 or 40 players on college soccer or lacrosse teams, most of whom “will never play,” and why women’s crew teams “often have more than 100 rowers,” most of whom “will never get into a boat.”

Remember that this is the “front door.” And if Justin and Lauren are total klutzes, not to worry. Affluent parents can buy everything they need to squeeze through that “front door” SAT prep, tutoring, internships, and voluntourism that make their kids sound more caring and decent than they really are.

None of these things, especially SAT prep and help with the application process, are unethical, much less illegal. In fact, they are kind of expected from parents who want their kids to attend an elite college or university.

What they are is incompatible with two cherished American myths: equality of opportunity and merit.

Americans fetishize the idea of “equality of opportunity.” Most of the time we mean it in the sense that former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan used it: “Instead of focusing on equality of outcomes, we should be focusing on equality of opportunity.”

That distinction is, to borrow a word from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, σκύβαλα. More often than not, it rationalizes the existence of poverty and gross inequality as the natural outcome of a kind of Spencerian “survival of the fittest.”

It does so by defining “equality of opportunity” in a formalistic way that brings to mind Anatole France’s quip “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

There are no formal barriers that keep kids from East Los Angeles, New Orleans’ Ninth Ward or Mingo County, West Virginia, from applying and being admitted to elite schools. There don’t have to be – the informal structural barriers are doing the job just nicely.

What is “the job?” The perpetuation of the power and privilege of our elites. “Elites,” as I have previously noted, is a fuzzy word, so let me be a little more specific: I’m referring to, at the very least, in the 90th percentile of annual household income. That’s, on average, about $180,000 a year.

Obviously, not everyone attending an elite school comes from families making $200,000 or more. The people in charge of the institutions consider themselves to be liberal or even progressive. Ensuring a certain amount of “diversity” (yes, those are scare quotes) is in keeping with their self-image. The whole “United Colors of Benetton” vibe is a way of signaling their benevolence and magnanimity.

When I call merit a “myth,” I don’t only or even primarily mean “meritocracy.” Even before “Operation Varsity Blues” sprung its trap, any person who thought about the subject for a minute couldn’t not know that “meritocracy” is a pernicious fantasy.

What’s equally empty is the idea of merit itself, at least as Americans, shaped by a toxic individualism, use it.

“Merit” comes from the Latin participles meritus, merita, and meritum, which mean “earned,” “deserved,” “due,” etc. This raises the question: “Earned,” “deserved,” and “due” on the basis of what?

In the competitive world of elite college admissions, the answer is a combination of grades, test scores, and extra-curricular activities. These are supposed to substantiate your claim to be worthy of admission.

Let’s stipulate that grades and test scores have some predictive ability. There are two problems with this credentialism. The first is the same as that of “equality of opportunity”: the ability to accumulate credentials is, as with equality of opportunity, in significant part, a function of who your parents are. Thus, your credentials say as much about your family of origin as they do about you.

The second problem can be summarized by the question: What is the real-world difference between 1512 and 1375? The first is the average SAT score of Harvard’s freshman class.

The second is a lot more interesting. For years, elite schools have defended the lack of socioeconomic diversity on their campuses by insisting that they had traversed the streets and lanes of every city, town, and village inviting the “poor and crippled and blind and lame” to apply, and this was the best they could do.

Carol M. Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard set out to see if that was true. In their study “The Missing One-Offs: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students,” they estimated that there were, at a minimum, between 25 and 35 thousand low-income students “with SAT and ACT scores and grades that place them in the 10 percent of all students.”

What SAT score puts you in the top 10 percent? That’s right, 1375. Given what a poor kid has to overcome to score 1375 on the SAT, the idea that there is any meaningful difference between 1512 and 1375 is risible.

The simple truth is that the number of kids who can do the work at selective colleges far exceeds the number of spaces available: Harvard and Stanford admit less than five percent of all applicants. USC, which admitted Aunt Becky’s kids, admits less than 18 percent.

Thirty years ago, Harvard admitted around 15 percent, Stanford around 17 percent, and, as recently as 1999, USC admitted 37 percent of all applicants.

Our ideas about “merit” are an artifice of supply and demand, some of it artificially induced, and have virtually nothing to do with whom has earned or is due anything.

An intellectually honest approach to selective college admission would be, as Malcolm Gladwell has suggested, a lottery. Set minimum requirements, reserve some slots for truly exceptional, however the school defines “exceptional,” candidates, and put everyone else’s name in the proverbial hat. Maybe call it the “sorting hat” and make every applicant wear a robe.

Obviously, this isn’t going to happen. There is no constituency for it: not the institutions, not the people for whom the system works just fine, and not even the woman suing aunt Becky and company for $500 billion (!) alleging that her son was denied what he had earned and was due because of their fraud.

Myths die hard. Especially the pernicious ones.

 

Roberto Rivera is a Senior Writer for BreakPoint

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