Now a confession: I too attended one of the colleges named in Tuesday's indictment. The news set me to wondering, Did I know someone who had bought his or her way into college? How could I tell? For that matter, how would I have known if secret forces had worked on my behalf?
At first, the question seemed ridiculous. I did not grow up fabulously wealthy, and I’m reasonably certain that my parents paid no bribes for me. I can say with total confidence that no one was seeking my athletic prowess, real or imagined.
Then I remembered that my father had also attended my alma mater. I hadn’t thought about that too much when I’d applied, believing that my grades spoke for themselves. No one ever brought it up to me, and I hadn’t really dwelled on it since. It was definitely not a fact that I had ever used to discount my own academic achievements.
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But I’m nearly certain that somewhere in the application process, some admissions official, whose face I’d never see, took note that I was a legacy applicant, and moved me up a few spots on the list. Here was something I’d overlooked, a hidden hand behind my own good fortune, silently working to transmit my parents’ economic and social station downward to me. Perhaps less was separating me from the admissions-scandal students than I’d thought.
In this, I’m not alone. How many people who attended a good college, or secured a prestigious job, or otherwise climb one rung after another up the ladder of social and professional standing, can look back and see nothing similar?
While some people do start in remarkably disadvantaged places and rise through society, social mobility is the exception, not the rule. It’s true that most successful peoples’ parents have never paid an illegal fixer to secure them a college seat. But consider: If you attended a high-performing public high school, your parents probably did pay a premium on their house to live in the attendance zone. And what about the countless other, smaller outlays parents can make to help propel their children upward, things like test prep, sports equipment, after-school activities, travel? Even basic necessities like healthy food, medical care, or personal safety come at a financial cost. None of these expenditures are solely the province of the very wealthy, but nor are they guaranteed, and each serves as a little investment in the future, giving children a small leg up on peers who do not receive the same.
Parental wealth is hardly the only form of unearned advantage. Other privileges are even more deeply embedded, transmitted almost as birthright. In America, whiteness ranks highest among these. In education, in the workplace, in the criminal-justice system, white children and teenagers consistently receive hidden benefits that their nonwhite peers do not. How many white teenagers have gotten caught smoking weed or drinking, and were let off with a laugh and a warning? For a child of color—particularly a black child—the exact same episode is more likely to end with an arrest, and a ruined future. Where one person has a good chance of going home feeling lucky, another might leave in a squad car. How many white kids found it easy to get a summer job, while black children with the same applications were turned away? How many white students have been steered toward advanced-level courses, while their black peers were not? These advantages often persist across the income spectrum. For example, even after controlling for socioeconomic status, white students are significantly more likely to be assigned to a gifted-and-talented program than black students.