One could go on about the soulless vanity of wealthy and famous parents defrauding the meritocracy of higher education, tossing millions of dollars to a high-class grifter so he could orchestrate test cheating and bribe coaches to give a spot on a team to their own undeserving and entitled rich kids — and deny admission to a non-wealthy student athlete.
Shocking but not surprising? Maybe not even shocking.
This is how things work in swampland America.
And did I suggest that college admissions is what you could call a meritocracy?
As Stanford and Yale and the University of Southern California scramble to distance themselves from these criminal corruptions, perhaps we might all consider all the legal corruptions of the entire college admissions process.
We already know about the influence of endowments.
And, in general, the advantages of the well-connected.
And those who can afford to pay thousands of dollars for private college counselors, and for courses and tutors so their kids can legitimately improve their SAT or ACT scores.
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Then there are the more insidious corruptions of image and marketing, prestige and elitism and college rankings that ignite the fears and insecurities and ambitions of young people and their parents in a status-oriented social media driven world. These “best” colleges lists perpetuate a kind of circular logic that attracts the top students to the most competitive universities, which in turn makes/keeps those schools impossibly competitive and ranks them at the top.
Meanwhile, the data-driven formulas that render the rankings ignore the most important element of an education — the quality of instruction. The rankers might consider faculty salaries or qualifications, but that is not the same as inspired teaching which is hard, if not impossible, to quantify. Inspired teaching happens but it is as likely — if not more likely — to be found in schools that get labeled “fallback” as the ones that proudly know they are a “reach.”
Why make aspirational teens feel like outcasts?
A former student of mine who graduated from one of the top Ivy League schools described many of her professors as mediocre. The attitude of the school, she told me, was that students were immensely privileged to be there at a university that has educated presidents and Nobel Prize winners and legends of the arts and sciences and industry and to be amid all these other top young minds, and somehow that was enough.
And maybe that is enough — but only a few young people can be there so why would we want to make every other aspirational young person feel like an outcast?
Perhaps the exposing of this Collegegate scandal will help obliterate that fraud. I mean, now we know that not everyone at those elite schools deserves to be there. Maybe kids and parents can relax and allow themselves some satisfaction with where they are, and get the most out of an education it might take them the next 10 or 20 years to pay for.
But I’m afraid that the elitism of higher ed is just a symptom of elitism that infects our whole culture.
Universities like Yale and Stanford and USC, which promote themselves as — and in many ways are — concentrations of intellectual power, are just as much concentrations of great wealth. They are part of the structure that helps the rich get richer.
As Lord Acton so famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Perhaps we should add that money can corrupt anyone and having way too much money — more than anyone needs — creates an absurd sense of entitlement and grotesquely unfair advantage.
My students know the rich don’t follow the rules
I tried Tuesday to explain this Collegegate scandal to some of the kids I teach in South Los Angeles. They are first-generation students who have worked tirelessly to be ready for college. Some have had to learn English as a second language. Some have overwhelming challenges — poverty and homelessness, fractured families, violence in their neighborhoods. Many will have to live at home and work part-time to afford college.
I wasn’t sure I should even tell them about the criminal folly of the super-rich — afraid of how it would make them feel about their lives and their prospects.
But they already know. They understand that in 2019 the rich and powerful don’t have to play by the rules. They understand that the American Dream is a modest proposal.
One young man said he was just trying to get a degree and a job. Just trying to have more than $10 in his pocket one day, and a car that’s less than 10 years old. I wanted to challenge his expectations. I want my students to want more and to go out and work for it. I want them to want it all.
But then I thought about what I’ve wanted and what I have and what I get out of teaching these kids every day. And I thought about the emptiness a person must feel when that person doesn’t think his or her kids are good enough, and what it must be like for those kids, who might never feel worthy of anything.
Larry Strauss, a high school English teacher in South Los Angeles since 1992, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors the author of more than a dozen books, most recently “Students First and Other Lies” and, on audio, “Now’s the Time” (narrated by Kim Fields). Follow him on Twitter: @LarryStrauss
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College admissions bribery scandal: My students know this is how things work in America