The Scandal That Reveals the Fiction of America’s Educational Meritocracy

Americans love to see “miracle students.” T. M. Landry College Preparatory School seems to have capitalized on that.

Rick Friedman / Corbis / Getty

Until two weeks ago, T. M. Landry College Preparatory School was the most enigmatic school in America. Small and with minimal resources, this private school was known for one thing: placing an extraordinary number of black, low-income students in America’s most elite colleges and universities. Almost everything else about it was mysterious.

The school’s founders and namesakes, the married couple Tracey and Michael Landry, had promoted it via a series of viral videos. In each of the videos, a young student, usually black, waits in suspense, surrounded by classmates, to find out if he or she has been admitted to a top college—Princeton, Dartmouth, and Yale, among others. Invariably, the student gets a happy answer, and the entire room erupts in raucous celebration.

T. M. Landry is in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, a high-poverty town of fewer than 10,000. The school’s graduates are overwhelmingly black, poor, or both—a socioeconomic segment that, due to pervasive discrimination, is notoriously underrepresented in higher ed. Statistically speaking, when a poor black student is admitted to a Harvard or a Yale, it’s a minor miracle. The odds of an institution sending graduate after graduate to the Ivy League and similar schools are infinitesimal. Watching T. M. Landry’s viral videos was akin to watching lightning strike the same spot not twice, but over and over again. Had the Landrys cracked the educational code?

At the end of November, in a blockbuster story, The New York Times solved part of the puzzle. The Landrys’ school seems to have been a fraud all along—faking transcripts, forcing students to lie on college applications, and staging rehearsed lessons for curious media and other visitors. According to the Times, an atmosphere of abuse and submission helped maintain the deception, with Michael Landry lording over his flock of children like a tyrant. In the Times story, Landry admitted to helping children with college applications while denying any fraud. The school did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Still, a mystery remains. Even taking the alleged fakery into account, how did T. M. Landry seem to fool so many of America’s most prestigious universities for years? The work of admissions officers is notoriously secretive, but what little is known about the Landry affair threatens foundational assumptions about American higher education.

The key to the alleged T. M. Landry scam can’t be the quality of the deception, because it was far from airtight. If anything, the story the school told about itself should have sparked immediate skepticism.

This isn’t hindsight speaking; I know from experience. I first encountered the school's viral videos last spring, and as a researcher on race and education, I felt compelled to learn more. What I found immediately raised my suspicions. Outside the videos themselves, the school offered little coherent explanation of how its students managed to win the collegiate lottery so often.

Many aspects of the school were unorthodox. Tuition was modest for a private school, and paid monthly, with students seemingly able to start and stop at any time from kindergarten to 12th grade in an unusual rolling-admissions format. While the Landrys were reliably vague about their instructional methods, the hints they dropped —no homework, no textbooks, and minimal parental involvement—didn’t conform with any successful teaching model I’d ever heard of. Nor did the couple have any prior teaching experience to suggest they should be capable of working educational wonders. Press coverage openly discussed T. M. Landry’s apparent dearth of courses, classrooms, and structured teaching—even while celebrating students’ sophisticated subject-matter specialties and high GPAs. Certain inconsistencies, such as how a school without defined courses could have GPAs, were never explained.

Pictures of the school facility itself raised other questions. It was little more than an empty machine-shop floor, with folding chairs scattered across a barren concrete surface; children of all ages seemed to mingle freely. The single-room schoolhouses of yore looked elaborate by comparison. While academic achievement is not purely a reflection of school resources, this principle does have limits. Children can’t learn high-level subjects without some sort of formal instruction.

But for all the evidence pointing toward fraud, there was a sticking point: the students themselves. After all, how could fake schooling matriculate students at real Ivy League universities? Encountering the question for the first time, I was tempted toward wilder and wilder theories. Maybe the stars of the viral videos weren’t real students at all, and the whole thing had been a scheme for social-media clicks! But no: These were real kids, who really had enrolled in the nation’s top colleges. The institutions themselves frequently shared the videos, and the school'’ Facebook account showed Tracey and Michael Landry hobnobbing with admissions officials on Ivy League campuses.

Frankly, none of the pieces fit together. Still, whatever T. M. Landry was up to, the colleges and universities were fine with it, and presumably the admissions officers were doing their due diligence.

Except it now appears they weren’t.

American higher education is a hierarchy, and the schools at the top wield vast influence, both in academia and in the wider world. Whether they admit it or not, universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, and Columbia are gatekeepers for the social, political, and economic elite. The T. M. Landry revelations should constitute an extraordinary crisis for these schools. They challenge these institutions’ role as gatekeepers—and perhaps even the need for the hierarchy itself.

How could T. M. Landry allegedly deceive so many? The colleges and universities that admitted the school’s grads aren’t saying publicly. When reached for this story, a number of top-tier institutions only provided brief statements expressing their concern about the situation. In a typical response, Yale stated that it “takes all allegations of fraudulent application materials seriously,” and “when applicable … pursues all cases where potentially misrepresentative application information is brought to our attention.” Princeton emphasized that it was “concerned for the affected students and their families,” and “remain[ed] committed to attracting and supporting talented students, including students from groups that have been underrepresented in higher education.” Admirably, Wellesley College stated its specific and unequivocal support for its Landry graduates, describing them as “thriving and engaged members of the community.” However, none of the institutions contacted—which also included Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, Brown, Dartmouth, Wesleyan, and Syracuse—would offer any public explanation for how they might have gotten tricked in the first place.

But at least in general terms, it’s possible to sketch out the source of the breakdown. Like a lot of scams, the alleged T. M. Landry admissions ploy was convincing not because it was hard to detect, but because it offered something that a lot of people wanted to believe. Their viral videos told a story of black children magically beating the odds, drawing millions of viewers. The school played into this narrative, appending hashtags like #blackexcellence and #blacksuccess to its videos. The faked transcripts told the same story, one that higher education found irresistible.

When it comes to admitting students from underprivileged backgrounds, colleges and universities are facing cross-cutting currents. To start with, most highly selective schools remain committed to promoting racially and economically diverse student bodies. This commitment is sincere, at least to the extent that, all else equal, these institutions would be delighted to admit lower-income students of color who have overcome great hardships.

The problem is, all else isn’t equal. Compared with more privileged children, students from disadvantaged groups often face bigger obstacles, and many live in environments with fewer opportunities for distinguishing themselves. Students who grow up facing discrimination, segregation, and poverty really do tend to have much lower standardized-test scores and briefer résumés, and graduate from less rigorous high schools. This occurs not because these students have lower aptitude, but because the scars of systemic prejudice are real.

This puts an unavoidable choice to colleges and universities fixated on maintaining sky-high academic standards. Black students and poor students remain significantly under-enrolled in these institutions compared with their share of the population. Achieving truly representative college admissions inevitably would mean admitting many students whose qualifications are far from perfect. Meanwhile, schools of Ivy League caliber use their selectivity to maintain their social and political cachet, which would be threatened by lowering admissions standards. These places thus experience inescapable tension between preserving selectivity and enrolling a racially and economically diverse student body.

What T. M. Landry offered was an Option C: all of the above. Its graduates had all the biographical hallmarks of disadvantage. Indeed, the New York Times story describes the Landrys forcing students to lie on their college applications, exaggerating the hardships they faced. But the school also had students whose purportedly strong academic outcomes reflected little of those hardships. A college or university admitting a Landry student didn’t have to choose between diversity and selectivity; it simply had to open the door to someone with an unusual and underrepresented background. It was diversity made easy.

The numbers leave little doubt about how alluring colleges found this prospect. According to T. M. Landry’s own reports, 38 percent of its graduates since 2016 have attended an Ivy League institution or Stanford. The comparable figure for families in the 99.9th percentile of income—America’s very wealthiest—is about 12 percent. Even if the Landry numbers omit a number of students who dropped out before they could graduate, this is a phenomenal success rate.

T. M. Landry shows how hungry our society is for what might be deemed “miracle students.” The Landrys are not the only ones to take advantage of this hunger, although their alleged fraud appears to have been especially egregious. Many other schools implicitly offer the same miracle: students who have endured great hardship and succeeded beyond all expectations. An entire genre of charter schools, often called “no excuses” schools, have adopted a similar rhetorical tack. These schools, explicitly targeted at poor students of color, claim to fuse rigid discipline and intense expectations to achieve an academic transformation. Their advocates often imply that only such a crucible can produce poor and nonwhite college-ready students. Like T. M. Landry, these schools have attracted disproportionate attention from colleges, not to mention media and politicians.

Ironically, the Landrys claimed to be relying on an entirely different pedagogical approach: a Montessori-inspired model with few boundaries and a family-like atmosphere. In the end, the discrepancy didn’t seem to matter, or even attract any notice. Few in education or media seemed to care too much about the exact process through which the school’s low-income black students were ostensibly transformed into academic superstars. Instead, people took solace in the idea that such a transformation was possible, and moved on.

Miracle fixes can excuse complacency, a point the writer Casey Gerald made in a searing op-ed last week. Success stories suggest that, even among the poor children of color who face pervasive societal burdens, the truly deserving can prevail in the end. When inequality is defeatable, it stops feeling so much like injustice. For that reason, many people recoil at attempts to depict segregation, discrimination, and poverty as an inescapable trap, even though, for millions of children, they have proved exactly that.

The seductive myth of the miracle student has other appeal as well. It deceives us about our ability to easily recognize true potential, by telling us that there are bright-line markers for brilliance: high test scores, extraordinary academic dedication, or other exceptional personal virtues. Instead, in most people, individual aptitude and the effects of systemic disadvantage are bundled together. When we go hunting for the former, we often find the latter, and we struggle to tell the difference. Complicating matters further, and contrary to the Landry myth, the students with the greatest potential do not typically congregate in a few select schools, where they can be easily identified.

Cruelly, the burden of the miracle-student myth falls not on the colleges, who will never lack for applicants. Nor does it fall on the schools, whose methods are celebrated. Instead, it falls on ordinary children of color, for whom ordinary levels of hard work and perseverance start to seem wildly insufficient. Why would any top-tier college or university admit a student who is merely good, when there are miracles to be had?

But this is where the T. M. Landry accusations begin to look truly destabilizing, because now its miracles appear to be fictions. Many of its graduates were, by all accounts, hardworking and dedicated, but otherwise merely mortal. And yet, they did not implode the moment they breathed the rarified air of the Ivy League. Some struggled or dropped out, but a number of Landry students—particularly those who had spent more time in traditional schools—simply continued to advance.

This, to be blunt, raises some uncomfortable questions about who belongs in those colleges and universities. These are schools that treat selectivity as a necessary precondition for academic rigor, and then rely on that same selectivity to explain their racially and economically lopsided enrollments. One recent study showed that about 25 percent of graduates from the 99th income percentile attend an “elite” school. The comparable figure for the poorest quintile, even before taking race into account, is one half of 1 percent. Why do the rules seem so different for white students from affluent backgrounds? Surely plenty of them are relatively average scholars, and yet they don’t make headlines when they’re accepted to an elite institution. And, generally speaking, affluent white students aren’t asked to surmount drill-instructor discipline and punishing, all-work-no-play schooling to prove their worth.

America’s supposedly meritocratic system of elite higher education revolves around an intensive search for the most capable students. But if no one seems to know how to find those students when they come from the wrong background, and plenty of other people seem at least sufficiently capable, what’s the point of it all? If relatively ordinary people have a chance of success at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, why are so many ordinary people kept out—especially those who grow up black and lower-income? When so many suitable Ivy Leaguers can be found in the nonmiraculous town of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, surely plenty can be found in other poor communities of color, too. One could even start to wonder whether anything would truly be lost if the gates of the elite academy were thrown open to a much wider range of people.

That’s the real mystery of T. M. Landry. But this one might prove too dangerous to solve.