In light of Felicity Huffman’s recent trial and sentencing, we’re forced to reconsider whether the measures taken after the college admissions scandal were enough. The simple answer is no. As long as we aren’t addressing the structural power issues that allow the rich and unfair advantage in academia, we haven’t fixed the problem. Because the problem isn’t the college admission scandal, it’s the structure of the entire academic system.
When I first heard about the college admission scandal, I laughed. I was in the grungy kitchen of Wesleyan University’s low-income hall, crushing garlic with the flat side of a knife and listening to my grandmother over speaker phone. “That’s probably why they offered you good financial aid this time.” She was referring to the scandal, but also to my FAFSA. I had just gotten back my EFC results and they were good. Better than last time. I was hopeful that I wouldn’t have to worry about paying tuition anymore.
The fact that I was doing well while people who were cheating the system were getting their due put me in an even better mood. My grandmother’s tone was not so cheery. She sounded hurt. I couldn’t understand why. So a few rich people paid test takers and admin to get their kids into good universities. What was new? Privilege, power, money—these were always pieces at play in the game. I knew, because I had to play the game at a disadvantage. My grandma didn’t see it this way. Neither did the rest of the nation.
When the story broke, it was all over the news and Twitter and Facebook and everywhere else for the 24 hours that people can be bothered to care about something. People felt shocked and betrayed and deeply hurt that colleges would do something like this. Even people who had no horse in the race, people like my grandmother, who graduated years ago from a small college in Oklahoma, felt like they had been personally slighted in some way. This feeling of betrayal is encapsulated well in a quote from Hailee Hoffman, a student at Stanford who was interviewed by the New York Times: “I worked so hard to get admitted to this school. To find that someone had exploited the system and tried to buy their way in was so disheartening.”
I wondered, for a while, how there could be such a huge discrepancy between my reaction to the scandal and people like Hoffman’s and I think their quote has the answer. It contains within it references to a “system,” to “exploitation,” to “buying” one’s way in. This implies that the system was put in place in order to safe guard against the use of money to get into a college and that any use of money is an exploitation of that system. This mentality goes along with the idea that college admissions are awarded on the basis of merit. The idea is that schools are supposed to look at grades and extracurriculars and personality and your individual essence and all of the rest of the things they tell you matter when it comes to getting into college. The problem is that my grandmother and Hoffman and the rest of America, apparently, believe this. I don’t say this to sound self-righteous, like I am somehow more attuned to the harsh realities of the world than anyone else, because I’m not. It’s just that I’ve had first-hand experience with how the system operates, and it has become quite clear to me that it is designed to be bought into.
Admission to universities is not won on the basis of merit. Instead, it is won on the basis of privilege, power, and money. Anyone who says differently is lying, either to themselves or others. Even my presence here has been won on the basis of these things. I know because there was a time when I lacked the ability to attend this school. To begin with, I knew nothing about Wesleyan or about need-based aid when I started applying to schools. Knowledge is, itself, a base level privilege that we need to begin acknowledging. I didn’t have knowledge about good schools or about what financial aid was available to me because I was from a community where college choice wasn’t prioritized and where my parents didn’t put effort into getting me into a top school. Community is another type of privilege that I lacked. I gained the knowledge and community necessary to get into Wesleyan by pure happenstance, but I did gain it and that makes me more privileged than my peers who ended up working in a stone-crushing plant or going into the oil field.
Knowledge and community are just the base level privileges needed to get into a good school like Wesleyan but once you start factoring in things like education (half of Wesleyan’s population went to private schools), connections (11 percent of Wesleyan’s class of 2022, for example, is composed of legacies), and wealth (admittance of legacies has a direct correlation with higher donation rates), it becomes clear that the admission economy is not based upon merit. The game is rigged, it’s just a matter of if you’re in the right position to play it.
This idea, then, that the college admission scandal is some deep betrayal of a sacred system put in place to only allow the best through is a completely self-indulgent fantasy. It’s a denial of the fact that all of us at top universities have benefited, one way or another, from a corrupt system that places us above a good percentage of the population in terms of how likely we are to succeed in life. It is a denial of the fact that none of us were admitted 100 percent on the basis of merit, but instead on the basis of how well we could play a corrupt game.
The New York Times interviewed a family who pushed their daughter to her maximum potential in high school and spent thousands of dollars on a college consultant that, according to them, was “just providing edits” to her essay in order to give her an edge. Toward the end of their blurb the parents say, “The flagrant bribery and conspiracy of those indicted in the admissions scandal is a personal insult to families with students who seek admittance through sheer grit.” And I couldn’t help but feel slightly amused that they thought their daughter got into Swarthmore via “pure grit.”
This is not at all to excuse the people who bought off officials or falsified documents or paid for test takers. It is to say, however, that we shouldn’t balk at this like it is some great surprise when it is, in actuality, a natural byproduct of a system that encourages these behaviors, a system that we have all indulged in and benefited from. The next step, now that the outrage has subsided, is to start fixing the college admission system that encouraged these behaviors in the first place and to denounce the legal acts of discrimination along with the illegal ones.
Katie Livingston is a member of the class of 2021. She can be reached at email@example.com.