Who "belongs" at elite universities? The raging hypocrisy of higher ed gatekeeping

What the elite college admissions scam reveals about race, privilege and the fight against affirmative action

Published March 16, 2019 11:00AM (EDT)

Harvard University (Getty/Pgiam)
Harvard University (Getty/Pgiam)

In the wake of the massive college admissions scam, in which federal prosecutors charged 50 people with being involved in a years-long bribery and cheating scheme to gain wealthy students admission into elite universities, many people of color shared on Twitter how often their own qualifications were questioned in higher education settings.

"You're gonna see a lot of people of color saying this today but let me just add my voice to the chorus," prolific writer and professor Eve L. Ewing wrote. "White classmates in high school told me TO MY FACE that i would get into college just for being black."

There were many similar anecdotes from people of color on social media, describing countless inquiries into whether they belonged in their educational settings, regardless of their actual backgrounds. These stories offer a stark parallel to the 204-page affidavit alleging how dozens of entitled families cheated their kids' ways into top schools across the country, often disguised under bogus tax-deductible charitable donations to "underserved" youth.

One theme running throughout the court document was the ignorance of the students themselves — the children of these Hollywood celebrities, CEOs, presidents and executives were to have no idea that their SAT and ACT scores were being doctored, that learning disabilities were being invented on their behalf, that athletic profiles were totally manufactured (complete with photoshopped stock photos) and that athletic coaches and administrators were bankrolled to ensure their admission. Do you think Olivia Jade, Instagram influencer and daughter of actress Lori Loughlin and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli — who admitted to her viewers that she could not care less about school — ever questioned or was questioned about whether she truly belonged at USC?

"The other irony of all this is that there's this perpetual falsehood that students of color, especially black and Latinx students, who are admitted, are somehow not as qualified, or not as deserving, or not as smart, which is absolutely not true," Jin Hee Lee, Senior Deputy Director of Litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), told Salon.

"Yet here we have a situation where there are children through potentially criminal activity who are getting into these universities, who would never be questioned about their qualifications," Lee continued. "Again, even short of criminal activity, there are students who get admitted through legacies or because they're athletes and their qualifications are never as challenged in the same way. That's very much rooted in these long-standing stereotypes, false stereotypes, of many children of color."

Last month, the LDF delivered closing arguments in the federal trial defending Harvard's right to consider race as one component of a holistic admissions process, also known as affirmative action. The LDF, along with local counsel Sugarman Rogers, represented 25 Harvard student and alumni organizations "comprised of thousands of Asian American, Black, Latinx, Native American, and White students and alumni who condemn the lawsuit’s divisive attempt to block Harvard from fostering diversity," LDF says. On the other side is Edward Blum, a man who has made a career challenging civil rights and who infamously and unsuccessfully represented Abigail Fisher against the University of Texas, when the Supreme Court reaffirmed that affirmative action is still vital in America.

"At its core, affirmative action is recognizing that people of similar and comparable merit and qualifications have different opportunities and different access to opportunities. And in the face of that reality, it's saying that with certain groups, we should recognize those disadvantages. Especially if the end result is to have the diverse student body that is so essential to a 21st century education," Lee said. "If you oppose affirmative action or any kind of race-conscious admissions policy, you're really turning a blind eye to the realities of the world; that there continue to be inequalities that have absolutely nothing to do with the intelligence, or the potential, or the merit of students."

While the trial is finished and the LDF and others are waiting for a decision, what's being debated at the nucleus of the case and in light of the college admissions scheme offers further context for the legal and illegal ways — which are far less scrutinized or challenged — that white and wealthy families are able to game a system that is already rigged in their favor. After all, Harvard admits more legacy students (the vast majority of whom are white) than the total number of black students combined.

"Last year, when Harvard was forced to detail for the very first time its entire admissions process during a lawsuit that's challenging the school's use of race in its admissions process, it revealed special categories that admissions officers consider, including legacy applicants, applicants whose families made sizeable donations, children of faculty and recruited athletes, the latter of which were admitted 86 percent of the time," U.S. News reported.

Lee also noted how athlete recruitment can be used to benefit the wealthy, which the college admissions scam investigation reveals. Many of those students were falsely recruited by the elite universities implicated in the court documents through crew, water polo, sailing, and tennis.

"These are sports that take a lot of financial resources to be able to participate in," Lee said. "So, even if they truly were exceptional athletes in those sports, imagine the amount of money and resources it would take to pay for coaches and to send their children to summer programs and all these things to really get ahead in competitive sports."

Brazen inequalities affect every step of the admissions process, drawing a near-straight line between wealth and the Ivy League along with all other levels of prestigious higher education access. Affluent families can pay for SAT tutors, the best college-prep schools and coaches for admissions essays, along with any extracurricular activities their child desires.

"As one recent study found, 38 colleges, including five Ivy League schools, enrolled more students whose families are among the top 1 percent of income earners than from the entire bottom 60 percent," U.S. News reported. "And children whose parents are in the top 1 percent of earners are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than those whose parents are in the bottom income quintile, the same report found."

And despite all the advantages they had, these 33 parents have been charged with taking it many steps further into illegal activity. "This is a case in which they flaunted their wealth and set their children up with the best education money could buy — literally," Joseph R. Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI's Boston field office, said.

Meanwhile, in 2011, Kelley Williams-Bolar, a black single mother in Ohio, was sentenced to 10 days in jail and three years probation for lying about her residency in order to get her children into a decent public school in a neighboring district. The district, which demanded $30,000 in back tuition, hired a private investigator to capture Williams-Bolar on video driving into the district and dropping her daughters off at school. "They wanted me to be an example," Williams-Bolar told ABC News at the time.

Williams-Bolar's story is far from unique. Salon's D. Watkins shared a similar story of a mother in Baltimore trying to set up her son for success in the absence of resources, privilege, and access to adequate public schools. And yet zip codes, which are often indicators of race and class, are far from the only barriers to the competitive college admissions process, or to even just a quality education. Recently, a black Florida honors student said her SAT test was flagged and she was accused of cheating because she had improved her score substantially after studying intensely over a seven-month period.

While the Aunt Becky jokes — referring to Loughlin's character on "Full House" — were funny and typical of Twitter reactions to celebrity-adjacent scandals, Operation Varsity Blues is a serious exposé, laying bare glaring inequities in the college admissions process and in this country's education system that are felt widely and continue to be deeply demoralizing, especially for students of color.

"Just knowing that due to circumstances outside of school, you do give your best in all that you can, but you also have to kind of balance being an adult," Da’Shona Martin, 18, who works a part-time job to contribute at home, told the New York Times. "To know that these parents are throwing money at all of these people and being like, 'Can you do this for my child,' it’s kind of discouraging. Some of us will probably have to work our whole lifetime to see money like this."

Another graduating senior, Jacob Esquivel, 18, with plans to attend university in the fall, told the Times, "I was mad at the fact that parents spent millions of dollars to pay these counselors to falsify test reports and in the meanwhile, I know everyone in here is figuring out how to come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for the rest of our college education."

Of course, the crippling student loan debt crisis that affects millions of Americans is enormous and life-altering alone, and yet somehow it's made more overwhelming by the fact that it is only one facet of the structural inequities of education in America. "All this might lead rational, thinking people to say, 'Is higher education even worth it?' And, that's the point," writes civil rights attorney Dan Canon. "If you are poor and you want to be educated, the price is often decades of working extra hard to put lots of money in the pocket of someone else who doesn't have to work at all."

If your parents have hundreds of thousands of dollars at hand to bribe your way into college, tuition money is likely inconsequential, and your subsequent success is not likely to ride on an Ivy League or elite university degree.

"The other irony, too, is that for any students who faced whatever disadvantages — whether it's racial discrimination or whether it's not coming from financial means, or even just because they just don't have the connections or network as a more privileged student — those students being able attend an elite college or university could be life-changing for them, because it will open so many opportunities," Lee said.

So not only does admission to Yale, USC, Stanford, Georgetown or any of the schools that were implicated in this scheme not have the same outsized impact on students who are already rich and extremely privileged, but as U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said, "For every student admitted through fraud, an honest and genuinely talented student was rejected."

While Lee shares the shock and outrage at the privilege and entitlement at the core of the "largest college admissions scam" uncovered by the Department of Justice, she also hopes we will look beyond the sensational scheme and grapple with the bigger picture. The future of affirmative action is still in limbo at Harvard, pending a decision. It's clear how entrenched racial discrimination and stereotypes continue to be in the public consciousness around higher education — a reality that has material effects on the experiences and psyches of students of color. The structural inequities in education continue to grow, alongside widening wealth inequality and grossly under-funded and segregated public schools. Meanwhile, tuition across the board in universities, along with the debt which non-wealthy students have to shoulder to afford college, continues to balloon.

"This is a terrible thing that happened and it's really quite shocking, but I would hope that in addition to focusing on these charges," Lee said, "that it would open the eyes and bring some reform to the larger problem of educational inequity across the systems. Which has existed and will continue to exist, independent of this criminal case."

By Rachel Leah

MORE FROM Rachel Leah