For many, the college admissions scam of wealthy people allegedly paying bribes to get their kids into elite universities only confirmed what they already knew: Higher education is rigged to benefit wealthy, white students. But the scandal also laid bare the irony of people who complain affirmative action gives an unfair advantage to students of color in admissions, when in fact rich, white kids get the scales heavily tipped in their favor.
“This scandal is just the extreme, the illegal extreme, but it’s in a continuum with legacy admissions, with Jared Kushner, with all these other thumbs on the scale that wealthy kids get that are legal,” said Susan Dynarski, professor of economics, education and public policy at the University of Michigan.
“There’s a lot more kids at elite colleges because their parents are rich than because they’re brown or black,” she added.
Critics of affirmative action policies ― which allow institutions of higher education to account for an applicant’s race or ethnicity to a certain extent when considering admission ― claim that these give an unfair advantage to nonwhite students.
But experts HuffPost spoke to pointed to the many ways, not even reaching the illegal, that access to higher education is already structured to benefit wealthy, white students over others.
Sarah Hinger, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s racial justice program, pointed to “non-criminal ways that privilege shapes college admissions,” such as legacy admissions preferences, donations and athletic scholarships, as well as experiences long before college such as private tutors and test prep to get into elite K-12 schools.
“Societally, we’re accustomed to families seeking to advantage their children through these methods,” Hinger said. “And the ability to do so is a privilege that largely accrues to wealthier white families.”
Meanwhile, in response to the cheating scandal, many people of color on Twitter who went to elite schools spoke of how they were often unfairly scrutinized as supposedly being there because of affirmative action, while rich white students were not targeted for being there due to their wealth.
“I’ve been told when I got in Amherst [College] that I was an ‘affirmative action baby,’” said Anthony Jack, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “And at Harvard as a grad student and a faculty member, it’s used as an insult.”
Hinger pointed to the acceptance, or relative lack of criticism, for advantages of wealth and privilege compared with the frequent criticism of affirmative action programs.
“The irony is that affirmative action or race-conscious admissions programs are intended to mitigate the disparities that privilege creates, to even the playing field at least slightly,” she added.
“Who’s getting the thumb on the scale?” Dynarski said. “Largely it’s not low-income or brown or black kids, it’s wealthy kids. ... If you look around a college campus and you’re thinking about who got in because of a thumb on the scale, it’s the rich white legacy kids.”
It is a notable “falsehood” in the affirmative action debate that students of color who get into a school that uses affirmative action in admissions are not as qualified as others, according to Jin Hee Lee, who oversees the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s education and economic justice work. By the time Harvard considers any student, given the high demand for entry, they are weighing race as a factor among a pool of students who are “exceptionally qualified,” she noted.
“For black and Latinx students to be seen as not worthy of attending select universities, it’s not reflective of the facts,” Lee said, noting these are students with “exceptional” grades, test scores, extracurriculars and more. “Black and Latinx children are seen as though it’d be a surprise for them to be smart or they’re not as capable, when that’s really not the case.”
Meanwhile, this scheme of rich parents allegedly bribing college athletic coaches and exam proctors to get an illegal “in” for their children is just “the tip of the iceberg,” as Jack put it.
“A lot of people are focusing on this scandal. ... It’s the culmination of a lifetime of opportunity hoarding, of parents thinking their children deserve better than other people,” Jack said, pointing to parents who hire private tutors to improve their kids’ SAT scores and writing coaches to massage their kids’ college applications. “It’s a story of power and privilege reproducing itself.”
A lot of people are focusing on this scandal. ... It’s the culmination of a lifetime of opportunity hoarding, of parents thinking their children deserve better than other people. Dr. Anthony Jack, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education
Wealthy families in the U.S. already use a variety of methods, short of the illegal, to buy their kids’ way into college, including large donations to schools, like Kushner’s dad pledging $2.5 million to Harvard University. Then there’s the extra tutors, essay coaches and interview prep professionals who help the elite get their kids into Ivy League schools.
But perhaps most egregious of all, the experts said, is the issue of legacy admissions ― or students being more likely to get accepted simply because a parent or other relative attended.
“Legacy admissions, in particular, is affirmative action for people who’ve had a very privileged life,” Dynarski said.
Legacy tips the scales heavily in an applicant’s favor ― and disproportionately favors white students. At Harvard University, for instance, legacy applicants were accepted at nearly five times the rate of non-legacies ― with legacy applicants accepted at a rate of nearly 34 percent from 2009 to 2015, versus a rate of 5.9 percent for non-legacies in the same period, per NPR.
“It’s absolutely hypocritical that children of alumni are given a leg up in admissions when there is no moral social justification or historical legacy of exclusion,” Jack said.
Race-based affirmative action was meant as a correction to historical, systemic inequality in access to education because of one’s race.
Hinger pointed to the long, well-documented history of race discrimination in the U.S. from legally segregated public schools to the racial wealth gap. She noted advantages like legacy admissions likely had a greater impact on college admissions than the consideration of race.
“The point of it, whether race- or class-based, is to try to counter the enormous inequities that hold back these kids all the way through elementary, high school ― they’re given a small boost at college entry,” Dynarski said. “It’s not anywhere near the advantage given to legacy students.”
Even with affirmative action, black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at Ivy League schools than they were several decades ago, per The New York Times.
Meanwhile, white people are the racial group most likely to oppose affirmative action, according to The Washington Post. Nearly two-thirds of white people opposed such policies, according to a 40-year study of public opinions, while only 10 percent of black people did.
Affirmative action has also been repeatedly under threat in recent years, with a high-profile lawsuit involving the University of Texas (ironically one of the schools the alleged scammer parents bribed to get their kids into). In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled in Fisher v. University of Texas that the use of race as a factor in admissions was constitutional.
Most recently a lawsuit against Harvard, claiming the university discriminates against Asian-American applicants, is likely to bring another affirmative action decision before the high court.
If you look around a college campus and you’re thinking about who got in because of a thumb on the scale, it’s the rich white legacy kids. Susan Dynarski, professor at the University of Michigan
Some people have argued this elite college cheating scandal has only magnified just how much programs like affirmative action are needed to level the playing field in a system already rigged to benefit rich white people.
“What these parents are accused of doing is paying to give their children a leg up above everyone else ― a leg up they didn’t deserve ― so they could gain admission to the school of their choice. Because this is how privilege works. This is how white privilege works,” Monique Judge wrote in an article for The Root.
“Shame on everyone involved in this. And shame on anyone who still thinks affirmative action is unnecessary,” she said.
And the processes that provide unfair advantages to children and adults with wealthy parents do not start or stop at college admissions, Jack noted.
“Let’s not think this is just one moment. This is a lifelong system,” he said, noting that these are the same types of parents who then pay their kids’ rent so they can afford to take a prestigious unpaid internship or call a friend to get their kids an internship in the first place.
“This is power and privilege putting you in positions that you don’t earn,” he said. “If this doesn’t show you the myth of meritocracy, I don’t know what will.”