Privilege Is At The Centre Of The College Admissions Scandal
In spring 2019, news broke that affluent parents had used bribes, disguised as donations, to guarantee their children a spot at the United States’ most prestigious colleges.
The story, albeit anger-provoking, was yet another reminder of the privileges afforded to the white and wealthy.
The subsequent investigation, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, revealed the lengths some of the highest-paid members of society – Hollywood stars such as Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, entrepreneurs, media executives and former professional athletes – had gone to in an attempt to secure their children a place at the US’s top institutions.
Using actual wiretap transcripts released by the US government, Netflix’s latest documentary film, Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, takes a deep dive into how the conspiracy’s mastermind, Rick Singer, managed to cheat the system for almost eight years.
One avenue the documentary touches on that still exists today is what Singer dubbed ‘the back door’.
Essentially, ‘the back door’ is a donation of millions of dollars that parents can make to a college with the hope of swaying admissions in favour of their child. As noted in the film, this mostly benefits the super-wealthy, with Ivy League colleges such as Harvard only taking notice of donations surpassing $50 million.
Singer, a basketball coach-turned-college admissions counsellor, invented the so-called ‘side door’, an alternative way to bypass the system and secure a place that, in his words, works ‘every time’.
Taking payments upwards of $500,000, he arranged for clients’ children to cheat on college admission tests, as well as establishing working relationships with sports coaches at various colleges, who turned a blind eye when Singer pushed through students who had never played said sport.
At one point, he boasts that he helped 731 students enrol at Yale, Stanford, Georgetown and the University of Southern California.
Daniel Golden, author of The Price of Admission, said in the docufilm that while the college admissions process has all sorts of different preferences, and that some students do get in on pure merit, ‘many others are getting in due to preferences that skew rich and white’.
One example of such preference is legacy. While your family name alone won’t be enough to secure a place at a college, those with parents, grandparents and siblings who attended the college face fewer barriers.
As per the The Harvard Crimson, 36% of Harvard’s 2022 class is made up of legacy students. In 2018, the US Senate Education Committee put out a call seeking input for ideas on the reauthorisation of the Higher Education Act.
In his response, Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, wrote that legacy preferences are negatively impacting minority and low-income students. He noted that underrepresented minorities make up an already small 12.5% of the applicant pool at affluent colleges, but less than 7% of the legacy applicant pool.
While the scandal involved those sitting at the very top ranks of society, it points to a deeper problem within the US education system that trickles down to publicly-funded state schools.
According to The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, in the US, more than 36% of all public-school funding comes from local property taxes. This model not only creates a disparity between the amount of funding schools get, but also places a burden on low-income families.
‘In San Antonio, our wealthiest district and our poorest district are both in the same city but on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of funding,’ Dr Chawanna Chambers, an educational consultant from Texas, said. ‘In an affluent district, property values are considerably larger, so you can charge a smaller tax percentage and still get way more money.’
‘The way our poorest district taxes its citizens is starkly different. They’re taxing their folks to the max because their houses aren’t worth as much, but still getting less funding,’ she added.
Across much of the country, most wealthy districts are predominantly white. Figures published by EdBuild, which promotes equity in public schools, show that non-white school districts get $23 billion less funding than white school districts.
The privilege is historical. Back in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration rolled out a practice that would become known as ‘redlining’. The programme segregated America’s housing system by refusing to give mortgages to African Americans and Mexican people in affluent areas.
‘It created far more inequity, because if you look at where the minorities were not allowed to buy houses, that’s where a lot of the high-value houses are in the city today,’ Chambers explained. ‘And then when you factor in where people go to school, the amount of funding that is available at both schools and the quality of education that people receive as a result of that, we still see its effects.
Your zip code determines your quality of education and determines the opportunities available to us. That’s a result of the way this country was founded, and the way these policies have been put in place and allowed to prosper for decades.
The problem was further exasperated by the introduction of the G.I. Bill in 1944, which aimed to help returning war veterans build a stable life. The bill provided a number of benefits, including low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans to start businesses and both tuition and living expenses for attending college.
However, the bill sidelined Black veterans. While the language of the bill didn’t specifically exclude Black people, it was almost impossible for them to access any of its benefits. For a start, much of the low-cost mortgages were handed out in redlined areas, which Black people had already been excluded from.
‘When they came back from war, they didn’t have those same opportunities. So all of these white families are building upon what the generation before them had and created. It’s institutionalised racism. Black people weren’t allowed to create that generational support and wealth over the years,’ Chambers explained.
The documentary highlights how privilege has infiltrated nearly all aspects of the admissions process, including standardised tests that students take as part of the application, such as the SAT or ACT.
Those from wealthier families can afford private tuition, afford to take the paid test several times, and – as the documentary shows – manipulate the system to earn extra time when taking the test.
‘A very prominent, predictive feature of getting a high test score is family income. The college board and ACT had admitted it for years. This is not a secret,’ John Reader, a former Stanford admissions officer, said in the film.
‘If I were appointed tsar of American college admissions, I would abolish standardised testing. Standardised testing automatically advantages those who are already advantaged,’ he adds.
Shortly after his arrest, Singer began cooperating with the FBI to help the bureau build its case against the dozens of parents who had used his services. While law enforcement officials listened in, he rang clients and asked them to create a ‘cover-up story’ in case they were probed, leading parents to unknowingly criminalise themselves.
Ironically, in a number of these snares, Singer asks them to lie and say they had ‘donated money to help underserved children’.
As it stands, Singer has not been sentenced. As highlighted in Netflix’s film, it is unclear whether he will receive any jail time, but that decision won’t be made ‘until the very last person involved in the conspiracy is charged’.
So far, the longest jail sentence given in the case has been seven months.
‘No good will have come out of these sentences or out of this scandal. The fines they’ve been given – meaningless,’ Barbara Kalmus, an independent education consultant, said.
‘In terms of hitting them in their pocketbook, what a difference it could have made if we hit them hard and put that money to work for underprivileged kids,’ she added.
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal is now streaming on Netflix.
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