This week’s admission scam had me laughing real hard, but in a like “the world is so f*cked might as well laugh about it” sort of way. It led me down a rabbit hole that took up far too much of my afternoon exploring the concept of educational privilege and its ‘abuses.’
As I fall back in love with teaching again, I have come face to face with the economic and educational disadvantage that impacts my students, whom I know to be incredibly intelligent, nuanced, and compassionate individuals. But more on that next week…
It’s apt that this scandal broke mere days after I received the free advice to become a ghostwriter for elite private school kids’ college essays. On Friday, I was mansplained on what I actually wanted for my career for over an hour by a jaded professional ghostwriter, whom I had stupidly asked if we could meet for coffee so I could see how he had made it. Silly me, free advice is worth exactly what you pay for it. Sitting across from this ghostwriter gripping my empty coffee cup, I listened to him steadily explain to me why I shouldn’t bother writing my book, or any book for that matter (there’s no money in it and all the time I will spend writing it will just detract from time I could be investing into becoming an invaluable asset at McKinsey consulting or someshit, tbh I tuned him out at that point). Eyeroll. But, this oh-so gracious, if jaded, writing professional then generously added this caveat, “if you really want to keep up this writing thing, honestly, with a PhD you could fetch top dollar at the elite prep schools on the Upper East Side. Parents would love to have your write their kid’s essays for them.”
Vomit. Yeah, cause that’s exactly why I got a PhD in intersectional feminism and run a blog about the massive exploitation inherent in higher education. I did it all so I could help out those unfortunate children from the top 1% get into Ivy league colleges even though they have neither the intelligence nor the work ethic to cut it. I didn’t actually say that of course because in-person confrontation is my greatest fear and I was raised to be polite. But the casualness with which he said it belied that this was commonly accepted amongst the weirdo world of ghostwriters. That I was foolish for not tapping into that market with my PhD and all.
Reminiscing on this particularly lovely part of my alt-academic journey, I realized that elite higher education really is the best laid scam of all, you gotta have it to succeed, but you can’t get it unless your parents can foot the bill of years of preparatory work in the form of private schooling, tutors, photoshop to smear your kids head onto a baseball player’s body, you know, the usual.
William Deresiewicz, in his book on precisely this topic, says it best: “Economic inequality leads to educational inequality, which leads to an applicant pool that is heavily skewed toward the rich…Elite private colleges will never allow their students’ economic profile to mirror that of society as a whole. They can’t afford to, and it’s not even clear that they’d want to.”*
Anyway, I digress. Back to the mirth that is only accessible in dark times…
…To be honest, I almost feel sorry for the parents implicated. I mean, sure they’re pieces of shit, don’t get me wrong, but what they did is nothing new. They simply escalated what the elite have been doing since the beginning of time: making a call to board members, donating buildings to colleges, and other assorted unethical deeds to get their kids into elite institutions.
Admissions is a lottery, and why would parents not use every resource available to them to ensure that their children succeed? Let’s place blame where it really belongs: on a system that is explicitly designed to only favor the rich.
What I am saying is: y’all, the system is rigged and I can prove it whichever way you want it—statistically, economically, philosophically, sociologically, you name it.
The upper classes have been rigging the system for their children for years, which has ironically been to the detriment not only of other people’s children, but also for their own (here’s looking at you baby boomers). William Deresiewicz, a white straight man and former Yale professor, calls it like it is in his book on this topic Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite.** When a white straight male calls inequity, that means it’s so glaringly obvious, even entitled white men see it. Which means it’s real bad.
The United States’ higher education system is more socioeconomically stratified today than it has been in three decades. Yeah, ya heard right, shit’s getting worse. Real Housewife Felicity & Full House Lady are the tip of the iceberg. In 1985, 46% of students at the 250 most selective colleges came from the top quarter of the income distribution. By 2000, it was 55% percent. By 2006, it was 67% percent. I shudder to think what is up to now, considering tuition has only continued to balloon.
Basically, this means that roughly 70% of top college openings go to those from the top 25% of the socioeconomic scale.
It’s important to note that these numbers are not that much better in public institutions (like my alma mater of UVa): As of 2004, 40% of students at the most selective state campuses came from families with incomes over $100,000. Like mine.
The statistical reality is that the more elite the school, the more unequal its student body is.
This means that places like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are some of the least economically and racially diverse. Which is why, really, we shouldn’t have been so surprised when the news broke. Many friends and family emailed, texted, and messaged me this story on Tuesday. The consensus of non-academics was pure outrage. They were genuinely shocked to hear that such things happen—so steadfast is our society’s belief in the meritocracy of education. On the other hand, my academically-adjacent friends and I rolled our eyes and exchanged the sentiment: business as usual. None of us were surprised.
So, here’s to business as usual and scape-goating those low in the hierarchy, like college admissions officials and proctors, so that the public is distracted from the larger misdeeds of the economic and educational elite.
Numbers reported in Excellent Sheep, 205-206 and can be found here at the Hamilton Project.
*Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, page 207
**For as well-written and on-point as this book is, it utterly fails to examine gender and racial disparity, but you know, no white man is perfect.
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