(This is Part 1 of a multi-part series that will look at the proliferation of college graduates that started to emerge in the 20th century, the soaring costs of education, and how that dynamic is a key contributor to the rising social inequality we see today. In later parts of this series we’ll look at what needs to be fixed in the college education system so that colleges are rewarding merit and not privilege and adding value to incoming college freshman instead of merely amassing wealthy constituents at expensive country clubs)
On March 12, 2019 it was revealed that Rick Singer, a college admissions consultant, had received nearly $25 million over the course of eight years from parents looking to help get their children into the elite college of their choice. While the amount he earned might seem large, the concept of college admissions consulting is nothing new.
With acceptance rates at elite colleges being in the low single digits, and even mid-tier colleges having average SAT ranges for accepted freshman in the 1400s, being accepted at a “good” college is becomingly an increasingly selective process reserved for only a small minority of college applicants.
So it’s no wonder that for years now that the upper middle class and the wealthy have been paying for SAT tutoring, essay editing, and overall college application reviews to give these select individuals an added edge in the admissions process.
What separated Singer, however, was that he took this “added edge” to extraordinary levels. Instead of helping tutor students in how to take the SAT, Singer helped pay for well qualified individuals to take the SAT for them. Instead of encouraging kids to take on a sport as an extracurricular to increase their admission chances, he bribed college coaches to help admit the students as part of the given athletic team—even if the student had never played the sport. For these services, Singer charged exorbitant fees of anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of dollars. And eager parents were more than willing to pay them.
The moral outrage from the public was quick and absolute. The parents who paid these bribes were ostracized and their children were forced to seek refuge from the public shame of having been admitted on less equitable terms as everyone else. The overarching public sentiment was that these parents had privately defiled the hallowed ground of college admissions in which students are supposed to be admitted purely on merit and not the undue influence of lobbyists on their behalf. And here in lies the problem—not with the parents, but with us in the general public who are outraged at the fact that these few rich parents manipulated the college system to their child’s advantage but not with the fact that the entire college system and process has been structured into a business over the past few decades to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor in society who can neither afford to pay for it and do not obtain the same networking or economic benefits post-graduation as their rich counterparts do.
So why are we so quick to blame the few parents who blatantly subverted the college admissions process and not the hundreds of thousands of parents who have been doing it for years? And why is the underlying college system that has been allowing this to happen not been held accountable and asked to change?
The answer at the core is our flawed, but continued belief in this concept that America is a meritocracy and its economic, judicial, and civil systems are fair. So the court of public opinion is always quick to convict a few scapegoats because it allows us to continue believing that the underlying process is fair and that the problem lies with the few who manipulate the underlying system and not with the actual system itself. If we’re forced to open our eyes and admit that the underlying system is flawed, then not only must we acknowledge our complicity in it, but our entire belief system in an America that solely rewards merit and not privilege is turned on its head. And that’s more than we are willing to admit to ourselves. But if we truly want a more meritocratic college system—and country as a whole—this is exactly what needs to happen.