Meritocracy may be a myth, but that means someone is keeping the fiction alive. The multimillion-dollar college admissions scandal the Justice Department announced this week gives us a sense of who - and why.
Prosecutors alleged Tuesday that wealthy parents paid a high-powered consultant pretending to operate a charity for disadvantaged children to help their extraordinarily advantaged children get into top-tier schools including Yale, Stanford and UCLA, among others. Sometimes, that allegedly involved engineering elaborate schemes to cheat on college entrance exams. Other times, it was reportedly bribing coaches to say students were tennis stars when they barely knew their way around the baseline.
The plot has prompted a mix of outrage and cynicism. On the one hand, the level of deceit is appalling. On the other, parents pay for their children to attend elite educational institutions, albeit in ways that are legal, all the time - by making a major donation, say, or simply by hiring an SAT tutor. But it is in part because there are alternate routes the rich can take to the tip of the ivory tower that these parents’ alleged decision to fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars in secret is so perplexing.
Then there’s the strangeness of the logic behind paying for it at all: Children whose parents can throw around that sort of money as if it’s nothing are going to be OK. They can live off their family’s largesse without a bachelor’s degree, or at least without an Ivy League diploma, and they can capitalize on connections they already have from growing up alongside the powerful. So why college? And why these highly selective schools?
The answers go back to the myth of meritocracy and how these parents prop it up - even as they undermine meritocracy itself.
Why college? Many Americans fetishize the attendance of four-year institutions. Going to college, we think, is what smart and successful people do. Living a life of luxury looks a lot less questionable if there’s some indication you made it there on merit. A degree is society’s stamp of supposed deservingness.
Sure, there’s a more innocent explanation for our collective appreciation for college, too. College might not be what’s best for everyone, but it’s invaluable for many young people seeking to learn critical thinking and independence and to form friendships they’d have been unlikely to develop anywhere else.
But that’s where the second question comes in. The sorts of children whose parents reportedly sneaked them into Yale already went to private schools, or exemplary public ones. They could go to college somewhere, even if it didn’t show up on the first page of U.S. News and World Report rankings, without the “side door” the architect of the fraud reportedly promised.
So why these colleges? It’s because the societal stamp of deservingness from a place on Page 1 is extra shiny.
Parents allegedly committed fraud to send their children to these schools because they believe those schools are superior. That image of superiority depends on the perception of the schools as places for smart and successful people to study. But by allegedly buying admission for students who are neither especially smart nor especially successful, these parents are guaranteeing that the Stanfords of the country aren’t actually only for smart and successful people after all. They’re for people who can pay.
Molly Roberts writes about technology and society for The Post’s Opinions section.