March 20, 2019

The College Admissions Scandal: Can We Be Honest about Social Class in America?

Todd SchoepflinBy Todd Schoepflin

I’m teaching a Social Stratification course this semester. One of the themes in our course is whether social class is an ascribed or achieved status. The popular conception is that social class in America is earned and accomplished and therefore an achieved status.

Sociologists beg to differ, because to say that social class is primarily an achieved status ignores the advantages given to the children of those who are better off in society. We can’t disregard the basic fact that children inherit the social class of their family. In other words, social class is ascribed in that it’s an involuntary status for the child who is raised in the social class surroundings of their family.

This is not to say that a person born into the middle-class is guaranteed to stay middle-class throughout their life, or that the child born into a rich family will surely reproduce their family’s social class position, or that being poor in one’s childhood inevitably means one will stay poor. No doubt there is movement up and down the social class system in the United States.

We are drawn to stories of people who come from humble origins and become rich based on their talent, effort, and accomplishments. For example, Howard Schultz has been celebrated as someone who “went from the projects to building a $3 billion fortune” for the wealth he amassed when he was the CEO of Starbucks (now considering joining the 2020 presidential race, Schultz raised many an eyebrow when he suggested the use of the term “people of means” rather than the word “billionaire”).

Talent, effort, and ability matter, of course, but let’s be honest about the significance of social class, background, and circumstances. Sociologist Jessica Calarco effectively drives this point home when she discusses research about the marshmallow test. Being affluent is a buffer against one’s ability or inability to delay gratification. The well-off kid who is willing to wait fifteen minutes before eating a marshmallow in order to get a second marshmallow does so with a background of food security. The child from a low-income background might eat the first marshmallow because they don’t have the comfort of knowing that food is always available.

In other words, it’s easier to delay gratification knowing there’s plenty of food in the fridge. Ability to delay gratification is not the key factor shaping long-term success. As Calarco says, what’s more crucial to long-term success is one’s social and economic background. Like she says, self-control is not sufficient to overcome economic and social disadvantages.

College is often touted as a way to improve your social class position. A widely accepted formula for achieving success is a straightforward one: get good grades in high school, go to college, work hard, and that will translate into making a good living. But the college experience is not the same for everyone.

One student gets to focus on their schoolwork while another works two jobs and is too tired to keep up with school responsibilities. One student smoothly completes their graduation requirements on time while another has to drop out due to family and work responsibilities and re-enroll at a less stressful time. One student finishes school debt free while another is saddled with enormous debt. One student comes from a family that can help them navigate college, while another is the first student in their family to go to college and whose family can’t help them figure out the system and might not understand the time commitment required to thrive in college. As Karen Sternheimer explains, college can be an alienating place for low-income students and first-generation college students.

You get to a certain point in life when you understand that life isn’t fair. You know that one segment of society gains advantage by going to a well-funded public high school or a private high school with superior amenities. You know that tutors exist that help students get good scores on entrance exams to college. You might be willing to accept a certain amount of unfairness or at least come to grips with it. But once in a while you get a peek behind the curtain of inequality.

And when you see a blatant example of rich people cheating the education system, you would understandably be outraged. Students who are grinding it out and working one or more jobs while taking a course load of 15-18 credits would feel slapped in the face to learn that some of their peers made it into prestigious schools through bribery and fraud. In what’s been termed the “college admissions scandal,” parents used their wealth to secure admission to UCLA, Yale, Georgetown, and other high status institutions.

Check out this detail from a Los Angeles Times news report of the scheme orchestrated by a for-profit college admissions company: “Most of the parents paid at least $200,000, but some spent up to $6.5 million to guarantee their children admission to top universities, authorities said. The parents were then able to deduct the donation from their income taxes, according to the Internal Revenue Service.”

In one example noted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, the person who was head coach of the women’s soccer team at Yale University designated an applicant as a recruit for the soccer team. The catch? The applicant didn’t play competitive soccer. After the applicant got into Yale, the coach was given a $400,000 check.

According to a CNN report, 50 people have been charged in the investigation, 33 of whom are parents of students. At a press conference, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling ​gave details about what he described as "the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice." Striking a scolding tone (which, I have to say, I appreciated), he said, "This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud. There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy, and I'll add, there will not be a separate criminal justice system either."

In an insightful discussion about the scandal on MSNBC, sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom reacted by saying:

Something about the game of getting ahead is fundamentally unfair...In the system being gamed for a few students, who loses are the students who believe that the system is fair...Wealthy students have historically almost always been able to buy themselves into elite higher education, and because of that, we believe that that higher education system works for all of us. It is the veneer of fairness that legitimizes what is fundamentally a game that is not only rigged, but that can be rigged. 

During the segment, writer Anand Giridharadas analyzed the scandal as a case of rich people not being satisfied with a system that already gives them great advantage. In his view, it’s a group of rich people who want even more special advantages beyond all the advantages provided to rich people in general.

Sociologist Shamus Khan has studied the inner workings of elite institutions, having conducted an ethnography at an elite boarding school, resulting in his book Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul. Writing about the college admissions scandal in the Washington Post, he sums up the situation perfectly:

But the true tragedy is that almost all rich families buy their kids into elite colleges by purchasing advantages they pass off as talents, whether by way of sailing lessons or elaborate vacations planned with an eye on admissions essays. We view these vastly overrepresented children of the rich as having earned their spots. And that's the great American delusion we call “meritocracy.”….

This is the real scandal. The 1 percent - more than 1 million American households - have more and more money, and they're using huge sums so their children can get a leg up on the rest. Those students escape questions about whether they deserve to be there, unlike people who benefit from programs like affirmative action, which could help moderate those advantages. Instead of thinking about this as a problem inherent in the system, we call it the virtue of meritocracy.

Years ago on this blog, I wrote a post entitled “Hard Work Has Its Limits.” The point of the piece is that a strong work ethic only goes so far. We have to take into account the structure of opportunities available to people. And, as this college admissions scandal shows us, those who are affluent are advantaged with enormous resources and play by a different set of rules.

In my Social Stratification class, I’ve said to my students that I wouldn’t advise them not to work hard. By all means, work as hard as you can in pursuit of your goals. The same goes for messages to my children: my wife and I encourage them to work hard in school, and we will coach them to work hard throughout life. Of course hard work matters. But let’s not pretend that hard work is all it takes to compete in a contest. After all, how far can your hard work take you when your competitor rigs the outcome?


Fruitful point. For an additional recommended reading that challenges the typical bootstrap ideology I suggest:

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I think we have to analyze comparatively the success people are capable of achieving based on their own behaviors. If they have to resort to such low levels they need to be treated at the their natural ability level.

Are the parents that are bribing their children's way into college actually breaking a law?

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