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Stories don't usually survive very long in the swift churn of news these days. But the college admissions criminal scandal has legs, probably because it has everything a big story needs: famous people, rich people, the FBI, renowned universities and major-league cheating, including the irresistible detail about Photoshopping kids' heads onto real athletes' bodies.

It's one thing for the rich and renowned to leverage their fame and fortunes into better stuff--wouldn't we all want that?--but another thing altogether when it comes to breaking the law to advantage their own kids at what looks like the expense of everyone else's.

An Oakland mother and former teacher has already filed a half-trillion-dollar class-action lawsuit against the defendants, saying that their kids got into top schools but students like her son didn't, "not because he failed to work and study hard enough but because wealthy individuals felt that it was OK to lie, cheat, steal and bribe their children's way into a good college."

Jerome Karabel, a sociology professor at UC Berkeley and author of the book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, has parsed what we're getting wrong and right about this new iteration of privilege that's as old as our universities themselves.

Q: When you heard this news, knowing what you know, were you shocked?

I was a little shocked about I guess the flamboyance of the fraud. And I was shocked in particular by the scheme of pretending to be athletes and getting in via a sport that you'd never even played. That said, I was not at all surprised that parents would go to great lengths to try to get their children into elite colleges.

Q: These are children who already have all the advantages in the world.

On the other hand, you could have all the advantages in the world and still find it hard to get into one of these schools. Some have rejection rates of 95 percent, even a bit higher. And so the underlying reality is that many highly privileged children are unable to get into highly selective colleges.

Q: Where does this scandal fit in the arc of the research that you have done about the difficulty in admissions, in the gaming of the system that's gone on for who knows how long?

There's always been a lot of anxiety around college admissions; at least over the past half-century or more. But as society has become more unequal--which is to say as the rewards at the top have gotten remarkably high, and as the situation of people toward the bottom has deteriorated--the anxiety has intensified.

I think what we see here is parents, even privileged parents, desperate to preserve the privileges of their family for their children. If you look at the United States compared to other countries, if you end up at the top the rewards are nowhere greater. If you end up toward the bottom, your situation is worse than in other wealthy democratic countries.

Q: Is this scandal a matter of degree and not of kind?

A: The scandal is a real scandal in the sense that there was outright fraud and there was overt illegality. But I think the deeper scandal is what is legal. For example, it is legal to donate money to a university and get special consideration for your child. During the press conference announcing the indictments, (U.S. Atty. Andrew Lelling) distinguished between something that's legitimate, like donating a building, and something that is illegitimate, like falsifying a transcript.

The scandalous character of this is revealed if you look at what would happen if someone tried to get into a leading university in Japan or in France through money. That would be considered a crime that could land you in prison. The fact that it's not only done here, but it's taken for granted and a U.S. attorney could cite that as an entirely legitimate practice, reveals the underlying pathology of the process.

Q: In your book, you found that aspects of what we've considered to be the democratization of colleges and the idea of American meritocracy were not the motives when African Americans started getting admitted to the Ivy League, when women started being admitted to formerly male-only colleges.

The old system had quotas limiting the number of Jews; it had a very small number of scholarships, so finances were a big factor in determining whether you could attend; and it gave quasi-automatic admission to the children of alumni.

That old system was different from the system that came to prevail in the 1960s. And the system that has emerged now is more meritocratic. Harvard recently revealed that there was massive favoritism for the children of alumni, so-called legacies. At the same time, the statistics revealed that two-thirds of the legacies were rejected. This is certainly very different from what would have happened 50 or 60 years ago.

Q: If these evidently liberal institutions were not motivated in the '60s and '70s by broadening the demographics, by opening up or giving access to these ladders of success to minorities and to women, why did they do it?

As late as 1960, less than 1 percent of the freshman class at Harvard, Yale and Princeton were African American. America went through a great deal of turmoil in the 1960s, and if you look carefully at the timing, you will see that the increase in enrollments of African Americans came after the race riots of the mid- and late 1960s.

If you look at internal documents of the universities during that period, they had discussions and concluded that the existing order was endangered unless it opened up. So they decided that it was necessary to have at least a decent representation of African Americans, given that the social fabric was falling apart. In the case of women, it certainly related to the women's movement.

Q: Do you think this is going to change the way that admissions, a fairly secretive process, are done?

A: These institutions are very powerful; they have long-established ways of doing things and a vested interest in maintaining the opacity of their admissions process. It's a hard system to change.

But you could change some things in these institutions. Concretely, you could eliminate preferences for alumni children. You could separate the development (fundraising) office from the admissions office. You could reduce the degree of preference for recruited athletes, which is remarkably high.

But as far as the underlying system, I think it's not going to change fundamentally, because the way that the society is organized pretty much ensures that the children of the privileged will be judged as more meritorious than the children of working-class and poor people.

These elite colleges have failed to democratize opportunity, but they've been quite successful in democratizing anxiety, By holding out the promise that anybody can get in if they are sufficiently meritorious, that has raised the possibility of getting in, and also implied that if you don't get in you are somehow deficient in merit.

I would also say that you can't understand this whole crisis in college admissions without understanding that American society is peculiar in how hard it is to be poor or working class, in the immensity of the rewards, in the extent to which money penetrates university admissions.

Editorial on 03/31/2019

Print Headline: Admissions scandal shows desperation


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