I went to one of the top public high schools in Washington State — and most of the students were rich and white. My family was middle-class; my mother is an immigrant, my father was raised in poverty, and neither inherited wealth. And though I did grow up with economic privileges that I don’t seek to deny, the degree of wealth that surrounded me in my youth baffled me. Many of the families in my community had boats (some even private planes) and summer homes. If one of my classmates received a brand new BMW for their 16th birthday, it was considered “cool” but not unusual. These people were really rich.
When news of the college-admission scandal broke this week, I can’t say I was surprised. Growing up among conspicuous wealth gave me an early insight into just how unfair our educational system and existing social hierarchies really are.
Many of my fellow students were groomed since elementary school to be the most competitive college applicants they could be — and that costs a lot of money. They were on the debate team, served as members of the student government, and played varsity sports. As the SATs neared, many took prep courses and some even hired private tutors who gave them tailored training on how to ace the standardised test. I knew that many of my fellow classmates submitted flawless application packages that were curated by professionals, complete with carefully edited personal essays, excellent GPAs, and stellar SAT scores. Of course, those who were legacy applicants had even more of a leg up.
The majority of students in the United States don’t have access to this kind of educational support. There is an enormous valley between the experiences of wealthy and low-income Americans as they relate to education and access to resources. Over the past few decades, wealthy — usually white — families have relocated to communities similar to where I grew up, a phenomenon dubbed “white flight,” while low-income and non-white communities have often remained trapped in crumbling urban school districts. And because local property taxes help to fund public schools in the US, schools in lower-income areas receive substantially less money than those in wealthy ones, which contributes further to the educational disparity. So there’s nothing really new about powerful individuals paying hundreds of thousands, up to several millions, of dollars to get their children into elite colleges — usually, they just take a more indirect or socially acceptable route, like buying a building for the school.
“It’s the oldest story in the book — people with money use their money to access whatever they desire,” said Danielle Jackson, 31, who works in media and lives in Tampa, FL. But privilege goes well beyond money: It manifests in access to resources, social capital, and the reinforced belief that we are entitled to certain spaces.
Meanwhile, low-income students and students of colour being admitted to schools often angers those who feel entitled to these slots. It's led many racially and economically privileged students to argue that those from underrepresented groups only get into schools because of policies like affirmative action. “[My] being admitted to a great university was such cognitive dissonance to some of my classmates,” said Jackson, who is Black. “It made me the subject of scrutiny, hostility, and skepticism since the day I got my welcome letter.”
First-generation college graduate Michael Butler, 31, of Philadelphia, PA, had similar experiences growing up. “Stereotypically, students of colour can be seen by their mostly white classmates as anomalies or exceptions,” Butler said. “They often spend their academic careers working to prove they belong.”
While students of colour, low-income students, and other marginalised individuals are routinely questioned for their presence in academia, students who come from money continue to receive free passes.
“I attended a private liberal arts school which had quite a few legacy students. The students weren't really quiet about their parents having money and having connections at the school,” said Shelly Barker*, 26, a web developer in Philadelphia who, as a first-generation student from a low-income area, lacked the resources her peers from wealthier backgrounds often boasted about.
There is some statistical data to back up these personal anecdotes. Take Harvard University, for instance. Fifteen percent of students admitted to the school last year were Black, and 8% of the undergraduate student body is Black. Comparatively, over 33% of legacy applicants were admitted to the classes of 2014 through 2019, and legacy students make up roughly 14% of the undergraduate population, according to The Harvard Crimson.
Ultimately, though the specifics of this recent scandal are undeniably extreme, if for no other reason than the scale and intricacy of William Singer’s network, the lengths these parents went to to get their kids into prestigious schools are not that surprising. This scandal just lays bare the status quo that has existed beneath the surface for generations.
As it stands, each of our futures is decided, in part, by the parents we were born to; the preschools we attended as children; the zip codes where we grew up; the quality of the foods served up in our school lunch halls. We’re shaped by whether there were dedicated college counsellors present on our high school campuses and whether our parents managed to graduate from high school or attend college. I am not surprised by this scandal. What does baffle me, though, is the fact that some people are.
*Name has been changed