News broke Tuesday of a nationwide, multimillion dollar college admissions scandal. Andrew Lelling, an attorney for Massachusetts was quoted saying “There will not be a separate admissions system for the wealthy. And there will not be a separate criminal justice system, either…”
Lelling is wrong. There is now, always has been, and always will be, a separate admissions process for the wealthy. It will not go away. No matter who those wealthy are, no matter what legislation we pass- the rich will find a way.
Not because they are rich, but because they are parents.
Tiger Moms, Momma Bears, Daddy Warbucks, or just a sugar Daddy parents in America operate under the assumption, the idea, or even the charge, that it is their duty is to give their children every advantage possible in life. And where you attend college can in fact be a real advantage.
And the real word there is indeed “advantage”.
This, the idea that fighting for advantage in parenting is expected, is the biggest obstacle to a just and equitable world. Because as long as that is our system, the parents with the most resources will always win for their own, and those without, will continue to fight for table scraps.
American parents are raising their families in a hyper competitive world that is continually being painted as more perilous than ever. While impending doom (razor blades in Halloween candy) may not truly lurk around every corner, upward economic mobility has indeed been on a slow and steady decline. Wage stagnation looks to stretch from one generation into another and income over a career continues to correlate to educational attainment. College remains important, if not in fact, at least in the minds of concerned parents. Elite schools who admitted 15% of applicants a decade ago now only admit 6%. Parents are truly freaking out.
We live in a competitive environment that requires a level of engagement beyond the capacity of children, requiring proactive parents to set up a path to potential success for their kids. At the top levels this competition is cut throat and more often than not, the spoils go to the children of the best resourced parents.
When advising families in the college application process I try to help them understand that for most of us, the name of the school we went to is much less important than the type of student a child has already proven to be. I work hard to help them find the right match of a school rather than chasing the school with the highest ranking. But if pressed, I will admit that for those who want to achieve remarkable things, those with the biggest aspirations, the most likely course is pretty narrow and goes through established pathways. There are a small number of schools that have produced presidents, Supreme Court Justices, and billionaires, and the odds of being the first from any given school, are incredibly small.
So what we have built is a competitive environment that gives the most benefit to those who already hold the most resources. But these well resourced parents are not just competing with the poor folks, but with each other. Again, this world is cut-throat. This environment leads to any effort to carve out a path, or channel resources to those who do not already have them- be it through state or federal funding or programs like affirmative action, to be immediately targeted as unfair.
Elite schools can afford to offer free schooling to poor kids for two reasons; first, because top schools are already well funded. Most educational donations go to the schools that already have the most money. These schools are indeed rich. Second, these schools can offer free education because the number of poor students who are accepted, is incredibly low.
The top predicting data point for who gets into an elite college is the wealth of the parent.
This happens for a constellation of reasons. These families tend to live in richer neighborhoods with better funded schools. These better funded schools tend to have more qualified staff, more stable student population, and a historical pipeline of feeding high school kids into elite colleges. These parents also tend to spend money on tutors, test prep courses, and specific extra curriculars that align with college expectations. These families also tend to make up the bulk of legacy admissions, or in other words, the parents of these families often attended elite schools themselves.
So my advice to financially struggling parents who are hoping their child will go to Harvard, is to stop saving for tuition and start spending now on a higher mortgage and tutors. Stop investing in basketball or track, and focus on fencing or crew. Even then, know that there will be some other parent willing to buy a building or bribe a coach in order to stack the deck in their favor.
As long as parenting is a high stakes zero sum self interested gladiator tournament we can never hope for any real semblance of an equitable meritocracy, not just in admissions buy in anything.
This mind-set, or maybe this reality, is why people hire their nephew or niece in both corporations and construction. It is why people lie to school districts about their address and why people cross borders without legal documents. We cringe at the thought of one demographic having privilege or advantage over another- we all say we want equality, that is until it comes to parenting.
Because of this, any proposal that would move anything, be it admissions or employment, to a place that would be fair or meritocratic is going to need to be bigger and more expansive than any of us may be willing to accept.
Because of parents.
Parenting is the best indisputable evidence that we don’t really believe in a meritocracy. Because we are either acting under the assumption that it doesn’t exist so we must fight to get our kids a fair shake, or it does exist and we are fighting to get our kids an advantage.