President Donald Trump had not yet been in office for one month when he took to Twitter to scold a college. “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view,” he wrote, “NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” The tweet was in response to protests at the institution, and it worried college leaders—not least because as a candidate, Trump was rather reserved in higher-education-policy specifics.
On Thursday, Trump took action along the lines he set out in that early tweet, signing an executive order directing federal agencies to “take appropriate steps” to make sure that colleges receiving research funding from the federal government are promoting “free inquiry.” But the order essentially asks colleges to do what they’re already required by law to do, and it is still unclear whether there will be any enhanced policing of colleges by federal agencies as a result. The order does not have any impact on federal student-aid programs.
“Taxpayer dollars should not subsidize anti–First Amendment institutions,” President Trump said Thursday afternoon during a signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House. “Universities that want taxpayer dollars should promote free speech, not silence free speech,” he said, adding that “if a college or university does not let you speak, we will not give them money.” The president’s speech was a restatement of what has become a common Republican criticism of higher education. And in that way, more than being a significant policy change, the order is red meat for Trump’s base.
In many ways, the administration has been taking direct action on campus speech for a long time. Since Jeff Sessions was attorney general, the administration has intervened in several campus-speech cases, at Georgia Gwinnett College, the University of Michigan, and others. And members of the Justice Department have, time and again, decried the “heckler’s veto” when speakers have been shouted down or disinvited due to protest.
But most of what an executive order could do would be a reinforcement of what colleges and universities are already doing, Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, the director of the Campus Free Expression Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told me before the signing. “Colleges and universities are really the best stewards of free expression and academic exchange,” she said. And hopefully, if anything, this is a moment for colleges and universities to reaffirm that commitment to free speech.
At least one portion of the order is likely to see bipartisan praise: The order would have colleges report outcome data—earnings averages, student-loan debt, default rates, etc.—for specific programs. The Department of Education would publish that data in the College Scorecard, a government site that allows students and parents to compare the cost and value of colleges. Last week, members of Congress reintroduced the College Transparency Act, which would establish a system that would report more robust information on college-completion outcomes, student earnings, and debt.
The department had previously suggested that it would consider publishing some of this information in the College Scorecard, but the executive order reinforces that commitment, Amy Laitinen, the director of higher-education policy at New America, told me. Still, she said, “the president can push the agency to commit to the College Scorecard, but there’s not much it can do to make colleges report new information.” That would likely require legislation.
In a statement, Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee and the chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, applauded most of Trump’s executive order, but, as a former college president, he added a note of caution. “I don’t want to see Congress or the president or the department of anything creating speech codes to define what you can say on campus,” he said. He agreed that colleges should stop “coddling students to protect them from disagreeable views,” but added that “conservatives don’t like it when judges try to write laws, and conservatives should not like it when legislators and agencies try to rewrite the Constitution.”
On Monday, another admissions scandal injected a new dose of disillusionment into the already disillusioned world of elite education. This time the revelations concern not higher education, but Stuyvesant High and New York City’s other elite public high schools. Of the 895 current eighth graders who secured a spot in next year's Stuyvesant freshman class, just seven identify as African American.
Every year, reports show abysmally low numbers of black or Latino students at all eight of the city’s elite specialized high schools whose admissions rely solely on a standardized exam. City officials including Mayor Bill de Blasio have led an ongoing, multifaceted effort to solve the problem through recruitment initiatives and a summer enrichment program designed to shepherd low-income youth into the rigorous institutions, but enrollment numbers remain disappointing.
De Blasio and his relatively new schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, last year proposed a plan that would set aside a percentage of specialized-school seats to disadvantaged students who participate in the summer enrichment course but who score just below the cutoff on the entrance exam. It’s hard to say how it will play out, however, because of a lawsuit spearheaded by a cadre of largely Chinese American activists that accuses the city of racial discrimination. The complaint alleges that the plan, if implemented, would reduce the proportion of Asian American students who attend these schools, depriving highly qualified, disadvantaged kids of the opportunity to live up to their potential. The issue of diversity at NYC's elite schools is full of disagreement over the merits of the current system, the sources of the disparities, and what effective solutions might be—but it is also full of misunderstandings. Accurately describing the problem requires dispelling several myths.
Myth 1: Opposition to the specialized-school reforms is part of an Asian American crusade to crack down on race-conscious admissions.
As is the case at most elite colleges in the United States, Asian American students are substantially overrepresented at most of the elite public high schools in New York City. Roughly three in four students currently enrolled at Stuyvesant High School identify as Asian American, for example, dramatically eclipsing all other racial groups; their African American and Latino peers account for an almost nonexistent slice of the school’s population. What’s especially striking is how acutely the racial distributions at elite institutions such as Stuyvesant or Harvard University clash with their surrounding communities—even when considering the soaring numbers of Asian Americans across the country. In 2017, 22 percent of Harvard’s admitted class identified as Asian American, compared with 5 percent of the country at large; in New York City, residents who are identified with this racial group make up a larger but still modest 15 percent of residents.
A pending lawsuit accusing Harvard’s admissions process of discriminating against Asian American students has created a national platform for a network of predominantly Chinese American activists who are against affirmative action, many of whom are also involved in the suit against the specialized high schools. With the allegation that race-conscious admissions practices are hurting a minority group they were designed to serve, the group has gained traction among the mainstream public. But polling data and court filingsindicate that many if not most Asian Americans support race-conscious admissions policies.
The population referred to sweepingly as “Asian American” comprises more than 30 nationalities and ethnic groups: from Chinese and Cambodian to Burmese and Bangladeshi. The immigration experiences, political ideologies, and amounts of social capital are just as diverse—both among the various groups and within them. For instance, Chinese Americans whose ancestors immigrated to the U.S. in the 1800s as manual laborers tend to have very different stories and values than Chinese Americans who immigrated to the country in the 1980s and ’90s to fill white-collar jobs. These nuances help explain why some Asian American groups boast superlative levels of educational attainment while others amount to some of the country’s lowest performers. Close to three-fourths of Indian Americans ages 25 or older had a bachelor’s degree in 2015, according to Pew data; meanwhile, the same was true for fewer than one in 10 of their Bhutanese American counterparts.
New York City—which in the past few decades has witnessed a rising share of majority-Asian neighborhoods, whose residents tend to be foreign-born—is an object lesson in this variation. An analysis of 2010 census data by an NYU-based urban-policy think tank found that the city’s majority-Asian neighborhoods are more economically depressed than those of most other racial distributions: Their average household income of less than $52,000, for example, was less than that of majority-black neighborhoods. That same report found that fewer than a quarter of the adults (25 years or older) living in the majority-Asian neighborhoods at the time had a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Myth 2: Reforming the high-school admissions process will solve the diversity problem.
The bare-bones admissions policy for the city’s eight exam-based, elite public high schools has hardly changed in a half century: A student’s score on a standardized test is the single deciding factor for whether she’s accepted; each school has its own confidential cutoff score, though Stuyvesant is widely thought to be the most selective. Neither a student’s grades nor her previous teachers’ recommendations have a bearing on the decision.
The city has experimented with a string of work-arounds, such as programs that provide exam prep to low-income students and ensure ample test-taking opportunities at underrepresented middle schools. One of de Blasio and Carranza’s latest proposals would basically earmark admission to low-income students who meet a set of rigorous criteria; another would eliminate the test altogether. Opponents argue that in guaranteeing objectivity, the status quo is the only admissions system that protects everyone’s civil rights.
In a court filing responding to the complaint, the city maintains that the model it proposes would have a negligible impact on Asian American representation at the eight schools. Instead, the city argues that by proactively promoting socioeconomic diversity, its plan would elevate the prospects of students of all races—benefiting low-income Asian students just as much as their similarly disadvantaged black and Latino peers. Most of the Asian American students enrolled in the specialized schools are low-income, according to Doug Cohen, a district spokesperson; an earlier district report also indicates that the schools’ Asian American populations tend to be poorer than their classmates of most other racial groups.
“Opponents who seek continued reliance on standardized tests are out of step with the growing body of evidence that confirms that these tests are infected with racial bias and poor predictors of a student's academic potential,” said Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in a press release Tuesday.
But research has shown that measures to expand high-school admissions criteria beyond standardized tests, to include metrics such as grades or attendance records, would hardly ameliorate the diversity problem. A 2015 study co-authored by the education economist Sean Corcoran, for example, found that an admissions system based on expanded criteria would do very little to enhance minority representation at the schools. Elite high schools’ limited diversity seems to stem from the earliest stages of children’s education—and even from their experiences predating kindergarten. The study describes, for instance, the often biased decisions in elementary and middle school around whom to sort into gifted-and-talented programs or relegate to special-needs classrooms. Reforming high-school admissions can only do so much if they don’t tackle the myriad factors that play into a child's success before that child applies to high school.
Myth 3: The ultimate goal is making NYC's specialized schools representative of the city's racial balance.
Even if Stuyvesant, Queens High School for the Sciences, and Staten Island Technical High—the latter of which has a single black student in its most recent admitted class—transformed into bastions of educational egalitarianism, one major problem would remain: These elite campuses serve just 6 percent of NYC’s public-high-school population.
The tiered public-school system isn’t inherently unjust because it creates a hierarchy, argued Pawan Dhingra, a sociologist and American-studies professor at Amherst College, in an email. Rather, a hierarchical system is unjust if each school’s quality correlates in some way with the background of students who attend it—their race, their class, their gender, their immigration status, their cognitive abilities. Every student should have access to both high-caliber instruction and specialized curricula, said Dhingra, who has researched the tendency to conflate Asian Americans with white Americans when it comes to education and economic mobility.
Myth 4: Specialized schools are causing inequality.
For all the trouble with the specialized schools, eliminating them wouldn't do much to make education in NYC more egalitarian. A ban on selective public high schools wouldn’t eradicate the legacy of racism; it wouldn’t address housing segregation; it wouldn’t fix the sorting system that filters through earlier grade levels.
Stuyvensant's abysmal enrollment numbers of black and Latino youth are evidence that its admissions process is broken. But it is far from the only school where such problems occur. Elite university admissions are similarly disintegrating. And the students fighting for admission in these dysfunctional systems are often at a disadvantage because of opportunity gaps that started long before they set foot in a school for the first time.
Like most other college presidents, R. Gerald Turner, the head of Southern Methodist University, where my son is a student, sends correspondence only when something goes terribly wrong. When I received a mass email from his office this week, I assumed the school had gotten caught up in the fallout of Operation Varsity Blues, the college-admissions cheating and bribery scandal that came to light last week.
But Turner’s missive turned out to be preemptive instead of apologetic. The scandal offered SMU “an opportunity to add to the ongoing review of our process,” he wrote. The university, he explained, must rely on the accuracy of materials submitted by students, including SAT scores. Turner announced that the university intended to review the records of any students associated with “The Key,” the college-counseling firm run by William Singer, the alleged fixer who is accused of paying bribes, facilitating cheats, and creating fraudulent materials to help wealthy parents get their kids into elite schools such as Stanford, Yale, and the University of Southern California.
The message was defensive. “Our goal in conducting this review is not to cast doubt on any student’s qualifications for admission,” he wrote, “but to safeguard the reputation of the admission process for all of our students.”
When Singer’s operation was exposed, it was met with widespread shock and dismay.The frustrating realization that a different set of rules applied to the wealthy was only temporarily alleviated by the schadenfreude of watching those rich people, including famous actresses, get indicted for felonies.
But a week later, academia is already entrenching to defend its admissions practices, as the SMU president’s email exemplifies. For Turner and other leaders of elite colleges, the scandal is more than embarrassing; it is existential. If colleges such as USC and Stanford can’t prove that their admission process is uncompromised, then the value of that acceptance—and the credential that comes with it on graduation day—is put at risk. That risk trickles down too. SMU isn’t Stanford or Yale, but it has called USC, which was caught up in the scandal, an “aspirational peer”—that is, an institution whose reputation it longs to match.
Operation Varsity Blues is being called a “cheating scandal,” but that name lets the entire process off the hook, as if a few dozen bad actors had sullied an otherwise operative and noble system. In truth, the alleged criminals who swindled SAT scores, faked athletic records, and bribed university officials might actually show a better way forward, despite their ultimately corrupt approach. The only way to make college admissions equitable is to reject how the process is currently conducted. This scandal opens the door to that demand, but it’s up to students, parents, and educators to burst through.
College admissions have been a messfor a long time, but Operation Varsity Blues attached names and faces to the problem. It’s always easier to dole out blame to particular people rather than abstract groups such as one-percenters (or nine-percenters). Singer’s clients were real people, some of whom you probably already knew: They are lawyers, financiers, fashion designers, and, yes, famous Hollywood stars. It didn’t hurt that the law brought the hammer down on these transgressions of the wealthy. Some of the perpetrators were indicted for fraud. College employees lost jobs for allegedly taking bribes. Netflix dropped Lori Loughlin from the Full House reboot. When misdeeds finally catch up with rich folk, it’s easy to celebrate their downfall.
But criminal indictments might let the college-admissions racket off the hook too easily. It’s certainly more illegal to bribe and swindle your child’s way into USC or Yale by cheating on college-entrance exams or faking athletic prowess. But is it less moral to cheat brazenly like that than it is to donate millions to a target university, or to pay tens of thousands of dollars for preparatory private school each year, or to spend thousands of dollars on test-prep tutors, or to ferry them from soccer practice to orchestra lessons to bulk up their profiles as college-worthy? These are but a few common methods for the wealthy to help their children “earn” a place in elite universities. As Shamus Khan, the author of a book on the subject of elite scholastic privilege, put it after the scandal broke, “Rich parents spend millions on their children to make them ‘better’ than others.”
When it comes to vice, it seems self-evident that spending money on legal services is more virtuous than spending it to commit fraud. But if admissions are already rigged for the well-off, then the moral scales might tilt differently. If the system is unfair, then defending it against those who might reject it only serves to enshrine the system as fundamentally virtuous.
Take college-entrance exams such as the SAT and the ACT. These exams hold currency because the overwhelming majority of institutions use them as a critical part of the admissions process. The tests are called “standardized” because they are supposed to work the same for everyone. But in practice, that’s hardly the case. There’s a cottage industry of books, classes, and private tutors that offer practice exams and test-taking tricks to help the well-to-do gain an advantage. Even if relatively little money is spent, being able to commit a lot of time to take practice tests or to acclimate oneself to the weird, artificial conditions of the exam’s format can go a long way. Even just taking the test a few times pays dividends—which wealthier kids, more so than others, can afford to do.
These and other factors make it possible, even if not easy, to approach a test like the SAT as an opportunity to be maximized, rather than as an evaluation of performance. Over time, anyone can become better at something with practice. Students who improve at the SAT certainly demonstrate a kind of adeptness. But their score might or might not represent their aptitude to do anything other than taking the test.
But the impact of the SAT and ACT does not end upon admission into a college. Test scores are sometimes used to qualify admits for merit-based scholarships. They can persist in other ways, too. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, where I teach, someone found that one factor could accurately predict whether computer-science students would struggle: their SAT math score. There are good and bad ways to use that information, but it might surprise some students to learn that their test scores continue to impact their educational experience long after admission.
The well-off families who pay small or large sums to game the SAT legally do not commit fraud in so doing, which is good. But they do buy into the concept of testing, accepting their fates as pawns in the larger game of meritocracy. By contrast, the fraudster parents who paid to falsify or doctor SAT or ACT results opted out of that game. They did so from a position of massive wealth and privilege, of course, and only for personal gain. Even so, they point the way to a more equitable and moral approach to college admissions: One that rejects the current system at its foundation, rather than accepting it as righteous and necessary, but temporarily compromised.
Writing at The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss wondered if the scandal means it’s time to get rid of the SAT and ACT entirely. Every year, more colleges and universities go “test optional” or “test flexible,” meaning that their admissions process relaxes the role of standardized tests. That approach can benefit students who just don’t test well, so long as they appear worthy in other ways. But those “other ways” might also come with strings.
Some schools are text-flexible in name more than deed, replacing test scores with other metrics like grade-point averages or high-school class rankings. Others require the SAT, but only use it if those other, numerical data don’t reach a particular threshold. Still others require test scores only from out-of-state students, a way to reward the families who are tax-paying citizens of their home state. And some schools don’t require test scores at all, relying instead on more qualitative methods of evaluation for acceptance. That works well for smaller, more exclusive schools, but it’s hardly an answer for everyone.
But neither is digging in heels and doubling down to protect the sanctity of the existing system, as Turner, SMU’s president, did. “I know that you have been concerned about the scope of this fraudulent scheme, as I have been,” he wrote to me and other parents. It was an appeal to vanity as much as righteousness. When Operation Varsity Blues produced 50 indictments, some parents felt wronged because a slot claimed by fraud might have gone to their own son or daughter. It’s an infuriating idea, but also an affirmation of general satisfaction in the system—provided it works in one’s own favor.
The College Board, which administers the SAT, issued a statement after the investigation and charges came to light, shirking responsibility for the wrongdoing of test proctors, who are selected by local schools, and affirming its commitment to preventing cheating on the tests. The organization also noted that SAT practice is available for free online via Khan Academy, although those lessons still require reliable access to a computer and an internet connection—not to mention knowledge that the practice is available in the first place.
Standardized tests are only one component of the admissions process, too. Grades and class rankings are also important, and so are extracurriculars like sports and music and volunteering, since every applicant is expected to be “well-rounded” as a teenager. Fulfilling that demand has incited an arms race. The stakes get higher, and everyone who has a shot feels like they must rise to meet them. That creates a cycle in which college students gain an advantage based on their parents’ wealth, and then repeat the process with their own kids years later.
Educators, students, and parents have waved indignant fists at these cheaters but then gone right back to the grind in order to play the admissions game in earnest again. Singer’s clients may have wronged their children and the institutions that were their victims, but there’s some inspiration to draw from them nevertheless: They opted out of the racket—even compared to their wealthy peers, who hustled to buy their advantages indirectly and over time.
Let’s not praise these alleged crooks too eagerly, of course: It’s easy to side-step the college gauntlet when your parents are multi-millionaires, like most of the families implicated in Singer’s scam. But it’s also pathetic to scoff at the rich fraudsters just to return to the hopeless scramble that already tilts the scale toward the rich. Unless the public demands change in the wake of Operation Varsity Blues, elite colleges and the wealthy families who can afford them will harness the scandal’s energy to insulate themselves. That process has already begun.
The college-admissions scandal that led to federal bribery charges against dozens of parents last week unfolded at selective universities that pride themselves on “holistic” evaluations of their applicants. This process typically means that several admissions officers review a file and consider factors beyond grades and test scores, often intangible qualities that aren’t quantifiable and are usually gleaned from an applicant’s extracurricular activities, essays, and recommendations. This approach is nearly ubiquitous among selective schools.
Given this scrutiny of applications, among the questions raised following the Justice Department probe is how the actions of a few rogue coaches and SAT proctors could go totally undetected in these admissions offices. How did the alleged cheater not get caught?
Over the past four months, I have sat with admissions readers and committees at three selective colleges as they chose this fall’s freshman class, as part of research for a book I am writing about the inner workings of the admissions business. (None of the three schools I’m following for the book was named in the investigation.) While readers—as the people who review applications are called—would sometimes raise questions about absent pieces of information or other inconsistencies, the issues were usually minor: unfamiliar acronyms, missing scores for AP tests, or a recommendation that mentioned a school club not listed elsewhere in the file. Even in those cases, the readers usually didn’t have time to search the internet for additional information, so they moved on, assuming, perhaps, that these were oversights and nothing more.
Admissions counselors are not hired to be detectives. An ever-increasing number of applications have swamped admissions offices in recent years, resulting in faster reading of files. Whereas once readers could spend 16 to 20 minutes on a given applicant, the average is now around eight minutes. The high volume of applications and small number of staff leave the process vulnerable to embellishment or outright lying, especially at selective colleges where the competition for a scarce number of seats is fierce. Selective colleges—those that accept fewer than half of applicants—accounted for about a third of all college applications in 2017, but for only 20 percent of undergraduates enrolled in American higher education.
“The entire admissions process is built on trust,” says Michael Steidel, the dean of admission at Carnegie Mellon University. “There is a fear, as application pools grow and as time spent on a review is reduced, [that] there is opportunity for problems.” Moreover, even if deans suspect fraud, federal antitrust laws prohibit universities from exchanging information about applicants.
Admissions deans I spoke with say fraud like that at the center of Operation Varsity Blues—the FBI’s nickname for the investigation—is likely rare, but they readily admit that it’s difficult to track. Some recent incidents give admissions officials cause for concern.
Last year, The New York Times found that a private high school in Louisiana, T.M. Landry College Preparatory School, forged transcripts and fabricated stories for application essays so that students would get accepted into selective colleges, including Yale, Brown, and Princeton. Two years ago, Technolutions, a company that operates a popular database system used by nearly 1,000 universities to organize applications, found that more than a quarter of recommendations provided for applicants to a graduate business school were all written on the same computer. But Alexander Clark, the CEO of Technolutions, told me his company’s system, called Slate, is unable to similarly track the so-called metadata of undergraduate applications because they are transmitted to colleges on platforms operated by the Common Application or its competitor, the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success.
Since the scandal broke last week, one element of the scheme troubling admissions deans is that a few of the schools named in the affidavit were allegedly betrayed by their own athletic coaches. Coaches had allegedly classified applicants as recruited athletes even though they had no experience playing the sport.
How colleges recruit athletes varies widely by school. In general, coaches recruit athletes well before their applications are submitted to the admissions office. At some schools, a specific number of slots are reserved for athletes. (Georgetown, for example, allocates about 158 slots a year to its coaches, according to the affidavit.) Typically, admissions officers “pre-read” the applications of highly rated athletes to see if they can make the cut academically, and most are officially accepted during the early-decision round of admissions in the fall.
“When coaches say that this is a five-rated kid, we trust that,” says Chris Gruber, the vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Davidson College in North Carolina, which competes at the Division I level. “At the same time, we have processes in place of checks and balances.”
When reviewing applications, Gruber and his staff keep an eye out for inconsistencies. For instance, if a student writes about the illness or death of a parent in the essay, that event is often reflected elsewhere in the application, perhaps in a recommendation. If not, “then you’re left wondering why no one else is talking about these things,” Gruber says.
Short of outright lying, high-school counselors I interviewed say the pressure on applicants to present a perfect picture in their application forces students to at times overstate their accomplishments or stretch stories in their essays. “Every student thinks they need a hook,” says Hannah Wolff, the college and career-center specialist at Langley High School in Virginia, who is also a part-time admissions reader at UC Berkeley. “They have an impression that being in the honor society, doing community service, getting all A’s in AP courses is not enough.”
All this has left admissions officers wondering if the overall application—test scores, grades, recommendations, extracurricular activities, and essays—remains an accurate portrayal of the student who is applying. “The concern I have is not fraud, but the overall fidelity of the correspondence they send us,” says one admission dean at a prominent university, who asked to remain anonymous to talk freely about the scandal. “Grades are inflated, activities are embellished, recommendations lack negative comments, and the standard now is test prep and multiple editors for essays.”
As a result, some admissions deans want to ask for different evidence of an applicant’s potential beyond the usual polished checklist. The coalition application, for instance, gives students a private virtual “locker” to upload materials, such as documents, photos, and videos, that they can later add to their application. For the past three years, students applying to Yale University have taken the option to use the coalition application to submit a document, image, audio file, or video instead of responding to two short essay prompts on the Common Application.
Meanwhile, a group of deans from selective colleges, including Bucknell University, MIT, and Swarthmore College, are examining the use of assessment tools to measure an applicant’s character attributes. “We are not saying throw out testing and replace it with noncognitive measures,” says William T. Conley, the vice president for enrollment management at Bucknell. “But we know that things like persistence and teamwork are important to success in college and afterwards, and they should be part of holistic admissions.”
Inevitably, whenever colleges shift what they want in their application, students change their own behavior in response, or new industries sprout up to assist them. As long as applications to elite schools are abundant and seats scarce, applicants will look for ways—even sometimes those that push up against ethical lines—to stand out. And because admissions officers tend to trust applicants and have neither the time nor the resources of the FBI to check out anything they might question, the only safeguard built into any admissions system (now or in the future) is cultural norms about honesty.
The first sentence of the New York Times story was like a blow to the gut. “Seven black students have been offered a chance to start classes at Stuyvesant High School in September,” out of 952 total offers. It was two fewer black students than the nine black students that school had accepted the year prior out of a freshman class of 963 students. In response, a state lawmaker declared that he would redraft a bill he had introduced three years earlier to change the admissions policies at the school; the city reeled. It was 2014.
On Monday, almost five years later to the day, the New York City Department of Education released data about the students admitted to its vaunted selective schools. More than 27,000 eighth graders took the Specialized High School Admissions Test—a rigorous aptitude test that is the sole factor for admission to eight of the nine selective high schools—and 4,798 students received offers based on those exam scores. 10.5 percent of those offers went to Black and Latino students— a tenth of a tick up from the 10.4 percent of offers in 2018—despite New York City’s public schools being nearly 66-percent black and Latino.
It’s an uncomfortable truth that, at this point, this is the result that the New York City public school admissions infrastructure seems designed to produce. But the result is so galling that, year after year, it triggers a shocked response. Monday’s Times headline: “Only 7 Black Students Got Into N.Y.’s Most Selective High School, Out of 895 Spots.” A different byline, a different year, the same problem. Only seven students, again.
“We’re… once again confronted by an unacceptable status quo at our specialized high schools,” Richard Carranza, the chancellor of the New York City Public School system, said in a statement. “We need to eliminate the single test for specialized high school admissions now.”
The public schools in New York state are the most segregated in the country, according to a 2014 study from the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. That’s largely driven by New York City. The selective high schools are by no means the only places where inequality exists in the system, but they are the most visible; the easiest apple to pick. The black enrollment at Stuyvesant peaked in 1975, according to state records highlighted in a 2012 profile in the Times, when there were 303 black students out of 2,536 total. “In 1980, there were 212 black students; in 1990, 147; in 2000, 109; and in 2005, 66.” Last year, there were 24 black students, according to city data. The SHSAT was introduced as the sole admissions criteria for the school in 1972.
Rudi-Ann Miller, a black woman who attended Stuyvesant and who the Times followed for the 2012 story, had her five year high school reunion last year. In an interview on Wednesday, she told me that she was the only black student who showed up. Even though there were a handful of black students in her class, “it wasn’t an experience that they wanted to go back and celebrate,” she says. Stuyvesant is diverse, she says—among the Asian population, in particular—but the low number of black and Latino students made her experience difficult. “I'm not going to sugar coat my experience and say it was lovely and great and this amazing intellectual challenge,” she says. “There were also a lot of social issues to deal with.” Still, she added, it was the “best educational opportunity in the city.”
Last year, when I interviewed Chancellor Carranza for a profile examining the city’s efforts to desegregate the public schools, he reflected on his career. “Everywhere I’ve ever lived and worked, there are systems and structures that promulgate certain outcomes,” he told me. “The systems and structures give you what you get. And what I’ve found is that what you get is low performance for kids of color, low opportunities for kids of color, poor kids, kids that have historically been underserved.”
Miller says that she was the only student in her majority Latino middle school who planned to take the selective high school placement test. Many of her fellow students didn’t know about it, she says. The city has expanded efforts to inform more students about the test, and provide preparatory tutoring for them, but the needle still has not moved on black enrollment. Miller isn’t sure that getting rid of the test altogether is a good idea, but she is concerned that the test can be gamed. She took a prep course, and she heard of several other people who took three or four. Some students can learn how to take the test and get a leg up; others think the odds are so stacked against them it isn’t even worth it to try.
It is likely that next year the internet will be shocked once again by the staggering disparity in black enrollment at Stuyvesant, and there will be another conversation about what needs to happen to fix it. And then it’s likely to happen again the year after that.
It happens pretty much the same way every time. The day after I’ve partaken in some sort of weekend or holiday eating-and-drinking binge—i.e., the Monday after the Super Bowl, the fifth of July, the first week of January after the entire Thanksgiving-through-New Year’s season officially comes to a close—I engage in the same detoxifying, repenting ritual: the consumption of a fresh, nutrient-rich salad. Somehow, in my mind, the more vividly green the leaves in the salad, the more purifying the ritual will feel, and with that first crunch on a crisp piece of greenery, I hear a tiny voice in my head, murmuring, “The next day was Sunday again. The caterpillar ate through one nice green leaf, and after that he felt much better.” A pivotal line from a formative piece of literature that I, like many thousands of other now-adults, first encountered in childhood: The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar—in which a caterpillar hatches out of an egg on a Sunday, proceeds to eat vibrantly colored fruits it finds in escalating quantities from Monday to Friday, goes on a junk-food-eating rampage on Saturday, eats a nice green leaf on Sunday, and then nestles into a cocoon for two weeks and emerges a beautiful butterfly—was released 50 years ago, on March 20, 1969. In the years since, it has sold almost 50 million copies around the world, in more than 62 languages; today, according to the book’s publisher, Penguin Random House, a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar is sold somewhere in the world every 30 seconds. And its enduring appeal, according to librarians and children’s-literature experts, can be attributed to its effortless fusion of story and educational concepts, its striking visual style, and the timelessness of both its aesthetic and its content.
courtesy of penguin young readers
Michelle Martin is the Beverly Cleary Professor for Children and Youth Services at the University of Washington’s Information School—meaning that every day, she trains future teachers and school librarians in how to teach reading and literacy. She also publishes reviews of children’s books. In Martin’s field, if you don’t have a good grasp on The Very Hungry Caterpillar, “you are children’s-book illiterate,” she says with a laugh.
Part of why both kids and parents love The Very Hungry Caterpillar is because it’s an educational book that doesn’t feel like a capital-E Educational book. Traditionally, children’s literature is a didactic genre: “It teaches something,” Martin says, “but the best children’s books teach without kids knowing that they’re learning something.” In The Very Hungry Caterpillar, she adds, “you learn the days of the week. You learn colors. You learn the fruits. You learn junk-food names. In the end, you learn a little bit about nutrition, too: If you eat a whole bunch of junk food, you’re not going to feel that great.” Yet, crucially, none of the valuable information being presented ever feels “in your face,” Martin says.
Kim Reynolds, a professor of children’s literature at Newcastle University in England, notes that Caterpillar’s lessons about nutrition are especially valuable for kids. “The fact that the process indulges not just hunger but the joys of food—taste, texture, colors, scents are all evoked by the range of food the caterpillar eats—intensifies the delights,” she writes in an email. The book also presents opportunities for kids to feel playfully superior to the caterpillar when it overindulges and gets a tummy ache. (Perhaps only later in life do readers learn to feel sorrowful, indigestive empathy for the gluttonous caterpillar.)
But The Very Hungry Caterpillar doesn’t just stop at the colors, numbers, healthy eating, and days of the week, Martin points out: It also offers a nifty lesson in elementary animal biology. “You do get a little bit of a lesson as the caterpillar goes into the cocoon and then comes out as a butterfly,” Martin says, and adds with a laugh, “How many 2-year-olds are conversant about metamorphosis?” Certainly more than might be otherwise, thanks to The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Reynolds believes that the narrative about transformation can also be understood as an age-appropriate allegory about growing up. “At some level the story is recapitulating the journey from childhood to adult[hood] and presenting it as an entirely positive transformation,” she said. “You start off small and hungry (for healthy babies, food is the first source of bliss and connection with the carer), and you grow up to become gorgeous.” (This is Carle’s understanding of the story, too: “Like the caterpillar, children will grow up and spread their wings,” he has said of the book.)
Another aspect of The Very Hungry Caterpillar that has added to its perpetual popularity is its vivid, subtly sophisticated art. “The art in that book is just fantastic,” Martin says, and unusual elements such as holes in the pages where the caterpillar has eaten through a food make it a particularly memorable reading experience for small children. Plus, as Martin points out, much of the art in Caterpillar and the rest of Eric Carle’s oeuvre—including in works such as The Very Busy Spider and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?—uses bright colors and formal techniques that are familiar to small children, such as finger painting and overlapping paper cutouts. “Kids think, ‘Oh, I could do that!’” Martin says. The sun in The Very Hungry Caterpillar, she points out, even has a smiley face.
That said, the childlike themes in Carle’s illustrations belie the complexity and invention of his visual style—something that was unusual in children’s books when Caterpillar was first published in 1969. “I do think it’s intentional on Carle’s part to make the art look like that, because it draws the child in,” Martin says, but she adds that creating the imagery for Carle’s children’s books was in fact an intricate and complicated process, and Carle was also producing art that showed in galleries at the time. “It used to be that illustration was kind of a second-class thing, if you were an artist,” Martin says. In that way, Carle was ahead of his time. “There weren’t nearly as many dedicated career illustrators in the 1960s as now. Today [illustrators] will push the boundaries more, and create art that’s gallery-worthy, but it’s for a picture book.” Carle, she adds, has his own gallery in Massachusetts—the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the book with its own special exhibition.
Courtesy of Penguin Young Readers
In some ways, The Very Hungry Caterpillar is typical of its time. In the late 1960s, “there was quite a lot of psychological training for teachers about everything from children’s fears to color perception; there was much encouragement for young children to explore the world (safely),” Reynolds said. “Bright colors, everyday objects, uncluttered design, and a joyful, optimistic approach to life” were in vogue in children’s literature at the time, and they’re also splashed all over the pages of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Still, while many children’s books of the era engaged with the real world and with nature, Martin says, few did so as whimsically as The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Especially in the United States, she points out, much of the children’s literature of the 1960s had a distinctly Civil Rights–era, activist bent to it. (Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day, the first book about an African American child to win the Randolph Caldecott Medal, was published in 1963.) Plenty of classic children’s books from 1969, in other words, immediately announce their from-1969-ness in a way that Martin thinks The Very Hungry Caterpillar does not.
“The Very Hungry Caterpillar has aged very well. There’s nothing in there to tie it to 1969, really,” she says.
For that reason, Martin says she fully expects The Very Hungry Caterpillar to still be a wildly popular baby gift and classroom staple another 50 years from now. “All those things are still around, that the caterpillar encounters,” she says. “And kids are always going to need to learn the days of the week.”
Last Tuesday, the Justice Department charged 50 people with involvement in an elaborate scheme to purchase spots in some of the country’s top schools. The tactics described in the indictment were complex and multipronged, requiring multiple steps of deception and bribery by parents and their co-conspirators to secure their children’s admission to the schools of their choice. The plot purportedly included faking learning disabilities, using Photoshopped images to make it seem as if students played sports that they did not actually play, and pretending that students were of different ethnicities in an effort to exploit affirmative-action programs. The alleged scheme was led by a man named William Singer, who called his business venture a “side door” into college. On Tuesday, Singer pleaded guilty to all charges.
The case, rightfully, has set off a wave of conversations about how the wealthy are able to lie and manipulate their way into the country’s elite colleges and universities. But the scandal also provides an opportunity to interrogate how these universities are set up in ways that systematically amplify and exacerbate the class differences between their students. Students from low-income backgrounds receive daily reminders—interpersonal and institutional, symbolic and structural—that they are the ones who do not belong.
To understand the prevalence of wealth at top-tier schools, and how those schools often fail to adequately serve low-income students, it helps to turn to a book called The Privileged Poor, by the Harvard University professor Anthony Abraham Jack, published earlier this month. In the book, Jack combines his own journey as a low-income student from Miami who attended selective schools (Amherst College as an undergrad and Harvard for graduate school) and his two-year ethnographic research project, in which he interviewed and followed the lives of low-income students as they navigated life at an unidentified elite school he refers to as “Renowned University.”
In the early pages of the book, Jack outlines how top colleges and universities are and have long been havens of the wealthy. In 2017, a team led by the Harvard economist Raj Chetty found that students coming from families in the top 1 percent—those who make more than $630,000 a year—are 77 times more likely to be admitted to and attend an Ivy League school than students coming from families who make less than $30,000 a year. Furthermore, the study found that 38 elite colleges have more students who come from families in the top 1 percent than students who come from the bottom 60 percent (families making less than $65,000 a year). In other research, Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, have documented how just 14 percent of undergraduates at the most competitive schools—places like Stanford, Princeton, and Columbia—come from families who make up the bottom half of U.S. income distribution.
While many top schools have taken steps to provide more access to disadvantaged students and become more socioeconomically diverse, they remain saturated with wealth. Most low-income students still receive their education elsewhere, disproportionately attending for-profit colleges, community colleges, and less-selective four-year institutions.
The low-income students who do end up at these elite institutions are often treated as homogenous in both policy and the scholarly literature, as if they all navigate these schools in the same way. This is one of the most important contributions Jack has made with his research—disaggregating the experience of low-income students at elite colleges.
Jack describes two categories: the privileged poor and the doubly disadvantaged. The privileged poor are students who come from low-income backgrounds but attended wealthy private high schools, giving them a level of familiarity with and access to the social and cultural capital that tend to make people successful at elite universities. The doubly disadvantaged are students who arrive at these top institutions from neighborhood public schools, many of which are overcrowded and underfunded. They are schools where these students have excelled, but that are ill-equipped to give them the sociocultural tools necessary to understand the nuances of how these elite colleges operate. For example, without being explicitly told, how would students know what “office hours” are, and that they are encouraged to use them? Many low-income students attending these universities are unfamiliar with what Jack refers to as “the hidden curriculum,” those invisible rules and expectations that can lead some students to success while leaving others floundering. The book is full of examples like this, the sort of social capital that many students, faculty, and administrators take for granted.
But certain common experiences affect both categories of low-income students, regardless of where they went to high school. For instance, Jack’s research documents how three out of four colleges close their dining halls during spring break. Many low-income students cannot afford to leave campus, much less go on vacation for break, and as a result take extraordinary measures to make sure they have enough to eat. Some students ration their food, skipping meals to make a limited supply last the entire break. Some students go to food pantries, leaving the campus of a school that might have a billion-dollar endowment to stand in line for a can of beans. One student Jack interviewed described how she increased her online-dating activity to secure meals on first dates where she expected the men to pay. “She was treating Tinder as if it were OpenTable,” Jack writes. The closing of dining halls reflects a lack of consideration of what many of these students need to survive.
Jack refers to these formal university policies as “structural exclusion,” and the dining hall is far from the only example. Many low-income students at Renowned University also participated in a pre-orientation program Jack calls “Community Detail,” in which students administer janitorial services in the university dormitories. The program is offered during the summer and throughout the year as a stand-alone job. While the students are paid, many of them found that the work brought about enormous humiliation. These disadvantaged students were put in a position where they had to clean up soiled tampons, used condoms, and dried vomit from their classmates’ bathrooms to complete their custodial obligations. Some of the students described the intense shame they felt as they sat in class alongside students whose toilets they had just cleaned. Having students who need money clean the bathrooms of their more affluent peers reifies existing class boundaries.
“Poor students come to this institution and the first thing that they see are dirty dorms they have to clean,” said one of Jack’s research participants. “I think it’s really unfair that students who are lower-income go into Community Detail whereas wealthier students are doing Summit Seekers and going climbing. Or playing instruments. Or doing artsy thing with Vamonos Van Gogh.” Or as another student put it, “Say I was to knock on someone’s door. I’m like, ‘Yo, can I clean your bathroom real quick?’ I’m going to clean the toilet you just threw up on this past weekend when you were partying like crazy. Let me just clean that for you. And then just add the fact that I’m a minority reinforces that stereotype that all Spanish people do is clean and mow lawns.”
Even well-intentioned efforts to provide opportunities for low-income students can inadvertently play a role in magnifying class differences. At Renowned, a program Jack calls “Scholarship Plus” allows students on financial aid to attend events on campus that they might not have otherwise been able to afford. A lot of the students Jack spoke with said that without the program, they wouldn’t have been able to participate in many parts of campus life. However, the process of getting tickets to events made them feel acutely conscious of their class status. The system had two lines for tickets: one for the students who could pay, and another for the students who could not. What’s more, the line for the students using the Scholarship Plus program was near the back door, and students entered the theater via a small side door rather than the main entrance used by their peers. And because of the socioeconomic realities of the United States, the main line was made up of primarily white students, while the Scholarship Plus line was made up of mostly students who were black and Latino. “It’s embarrassing,” said one of the students Jack interviewed. Another student said, “I was ashamed of what I was coming from. So being in that line, saying Scholarship Plus, I dunno. It was like being on a welfare line, or social services.”
The examples of social and economic dissonance are plenty, and as Jack puts it, “Elite universities are now a bundle of confusing contradictions: They bend over backwards to admit disadvantaged students into their hallowed halls, but then, once the students are there, they maintain policies that not only remind those students of their disadvantage, but even serve to highlight it.”
The students described in Jack’s book are the students I was thinking of after news of the scandal broke. These low-income students—overwhelmingly students of color—arrive on elite-college campuses and are perpetually made to feel as if they don’t deserve to be there, whether it’s while cleaning a classmate’s bathroom, stocking up on nonperishable food for spring break, or overhearing an offhand comment about how their acceptance was predicated on the color of their skin, or the lower socioeconomic status of their family. Meanwhile, many wealthy students for all intents and purposes have their parents buy their way into these schools through private-school tuition, test prep, donations to colleges, and myriad other advantages. And they rarely experience the same level of skepticism as to whether they have “earned” their place.
I have seen this sense of frustration and disillusionment in the eyes of undergraduates I’ve worked with at Harvard, young people who over the course of four years endure the psychological toll of navigating a school environment that both implicitly and explicitly tells them that the only reason they were admitted was an undeserved handout, that their place was not earned but is instead an act of charity, that they were given someone else’s spot. But what this scandal demonstrates is that the very idea of our society—in the context of higher ed or otherwise—being a “meritocracy” was made up to justify and reify existing social hierarchies. It is not real. What is real is the advantages of wealth and race, which often combine to give people things that they have told themselves they deserve. What is real is that students who have done everything right are often the ones made to feel as if their place on campus is anything other than earned.
At the very first Harvard College commencement ceremony, nearly 400 years ago, markers of exclusivity were front and center. The graduating class consisted of just nine students: no women, no people of color; only, in the words of a Boston historian, “young men of good hope.” The order in which they received their degrees was determined “not according to age, or scholarship, or the alpheber [sic], but according to the rank their families held in society.”
The freshman class admitted to Harvard University last spring was much less homogenous. According to a survey conducted by the student newspaper The Harvard Crimson, more than half of the accepted students were nonwhite; more than half were women; more than half would receive financial aid once enrolled. But vestiges of the same exclusivity remained. Legacy applicants, predominantly white and wealthy, were admitted at five times the rate of non-legacies. And white students with annual family earnings exceeding $250,000, legacy or not, constituted more than 15 percent of the admitted class—despite coming from an income bracket representing less than 5 percent of Americans of any race.
Those students have always enjoyed disproportionate access to elite colleges in the U.S. They were meant to. The parents charged in the college-admissions scandal this month risked criminal prosecution in order to gain an unfair advantage in a system that was built to offer them unfair advantages already. Even as selective institutions began, in the early 20th century, to admit a more diverse array of applicants, they adopted new policies in order to protect white, upper-class students from being entirely displaced. Neither affirmative action nor the diversity drive of recent years has eliminated those protections.
In the schools’ earliest decades, wealthy white students weren’t just privileged in admissions; they were essentially the only ones considered. Up until the end of the 19th century, campuses were generally populated by graduates of private high schools who performed well in school-specific criteria and on entrance exams. When it was first founded, Harvard based its admissions decisions on subjective judgments of students’ character and family background as well as their demonstrated proficiency in Latin and Greek.
By 1892, academic expectations had ballooned; in an Atlantic article written that spring, James Jay Greenough wrote that Harvard hopefuls were tested on “an elementary working knowledge of Latin and Greek … French and German … English classical literature … algebra and plane geometry … the laws and phenomena of physics … descriptive physics and elementary astronomy … and, last … the history and geography either of ancient Greece and Rome or modern England and America”—as well as an ability to write and speak intelligently about those subjects. These criteria largely shut out those who couldn’t afford to attend prestigious preparatory schools, and wealthy white Christian men continued to dominate student bodies.
But some lower-income students did attend Harvard, even in its earliest days. In his 1933 Atlantic article “College and the Poor Boy,” Russell T. Sharpe detailed how Harvard administrators had found a way “to solve the financial problems of needy students as early as 1653, when [they] gave Zachary Bridgen a job ‘ringeing the bell and waytinge’ on table. Through the succeeding years, more or less informal and unorganized assistance was rendered.” Harvard’s first endowed scholarship was funded in 1643, and similar charitable funds provided the majority of financial aid for decades. Then, in 1838, the school established a private student lending agency and began offering zero-interest loans to support “young men of ability … when their families are not able to help them.” The idea of providing students scholarship and loan money quickly spread to other selective colleges.
In the early 1900s, lower-income students and the efforts to accommodate their needs became still more ingrained in the structure of those schools. Opening their doors to public-school students and standardizing their admissions criteria for the first time, elite colleges met with a flood of newcomers who didn’t fit the mold created by centuries of largely unvaried graduating classes. The number of Jewish students on campuses soared; by the early 1920s, they made up 21 percent of Harvard’s student body, and nearly 40 percent of Columbia’s. Freshmen with Irish, German, and eastern-European backgrounds streamed in, as did students from western and midwestern states or from lower-class families.
“President [A. Lawrence] Lowell, in 1909, pointed out to his alumni that Harvard was to a large extent a poor man’s college, that there was a good deal of suffering and want, that many students were insufficiently clothed and not a small number insufficiently fed,” Sharpe wrote. “To help these men the colleges built up huge scholarship and loan funds and organized employment bureaus to find work for students.”
Lowell proved much less willing to accommodate Harvard’s increasing racial, ethnic, and religious diversity. He instead worked to codify his own bigotry into school policy, banning black students from freshman dormitories and dining halls and proposing a quota system to impede the rapid increase of Jewish students. “The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate, not because the Jews it admits are of bad character, but because they drive away the Gentiles, and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave also,” he wrote to a philosophy professor in 1922. Limiting the number of Jewish students, he believed, was essential to the school’s survival.
But the Harvard Board of Overseers didn’t institute the quota system Lowell wanted. It instead adopted an application system that prioritized subjective qualities—birthplace, family background, athletic ability, personality—over test scores. Publicly, the board represented these changes as a boon for inclusivity. The original report proposing the new system characterized it as a “policy of equal opportunity regardless of race and religion.” But privately, Lowell’s sentiments were shared by many in the Harvard community, and the new policies allowed the administration to justify exclusion.
Administrators at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton “realized that if a definition of merit based on academic prowess was leading to the wrong kind of student, the solution was to change the definition of merit,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote in a 2005 New Yorker article. And so the modern college-admissions system was born.
By design, the system favored the same kind of wealthy white students who almost exclusively populated elite colleges for hundreds of years; they benefited from legacy status, athletic recruiting, family donations, and many other advantages. The same policies that enabled the exclusion of applicants based on race and religion also cast low-income students back into disfavor. They were less likely to be able to secure personal recommendations from administrators at “approved schools”—high schools that were prestigious, exclusive, and expensive. Their parents were less likely to hold degrees from selective colleges, or any colleges. And tuition fees and living costs presented their own particular obstacles.
“Of late … the colleges have restricted admission, thus making the acquirement of the higher education difficult,” Sharpe wrote in 1933. “Now there are signs that another barrier may be erected. Last June, Yale announced that it would henceforth admit only as many financially needy students as could be cared for through existing channels of aid. Other colleges have since … declared that they may follow suit.”
He described how, as the number of students on campuses rose in the 1920s and ’30s and the Great Depression set in, campus employment opportunities dwindled and schools struggled to provide sufficient support. Federally funded financial aid arose to fill that void as World War II drew to a close, and the G.I. Bill enabled millions of veterans to attend and pay for college. But the loan system grew and mutated and spawned a new crisis for low-income students, many of whom now face the choice between turning down offers to attend prestigious schools and taking on back-breaking debt.
“For a generation or more,” Sharpe wrote, “it has been a part of the democratic creed of many Americans that every mother’s son is born with an inalienable right to a Bachelor’s degree, regardless of his ability to pay for it.”
But that creed never wholly extended to nonwhite, non-Christian sons and daughters, and the ability to pay still matters. For centuries, family money has benefited applicants in admissions considerations; provided access to prestigious preparatory schools; paid for tutors, trainers, and extracurricular activities; enabled hefty donations; and funded tuition. And if those advantages aren’t enough, then family money can evidently, according to federal prosecutors, be used to cheat on standardized tests and bribe athletic recruiters, too.
For the second time in just a few months, admissions at America’s elite colleges are under a microscope. In late 2018, the scrutiny was on T. M. Landry, a predominantly black private school in Louisiana that had garnered a national reputation for sending dozens of graduates to the Ivy League and other prestigious institutions. A New York Times report revealed the school as a fraud, faking transcripts and hiding allegations of abuse. The Landry scandal caused tremors in higher education, but damage was limited by the fact that colleges could plausibly claim victimhood—although, I argued at the time, it was difficult not to come away from the debacle with a sense that it called into question core tenets of the American educational meritocracy.
As explosive as the Landry affair was, it is now dwarfed by the bombshell dropped by the Justice Department on Tuesday, when federal lawyers indicted 50 people on racketeering charges for allegedly facilitating or taking part in a nationwide fraud to game admissions at top colleges. The accused include CEOs, wealthy investors, and at least two celebrities. According to the indictment, the conspiracy had been refined over many iterations, and was marketed as a service to the ultra-wealthy. Its creator described it as an innovation, a cost-effective “side door” into top colleges. In practice, it was a system of bribes to accomplices such as testing-center officials, who could help alter SAT and ACT scores, and college coaches in second-tier sports, who could help admit applicants who pretended to be athletes.
The story immediately went into the stratosphere. No one could resist the specter of the rich and famous engaging in lurid criminality to give their kids even more of an advantage. All the major news outlets led with the scandal. Twitter, the hub of the media elite, had a ball, alternating between mockery and fury. A tidal wave of scorn washed over the whole of American discourse. Ask Tom Brady, Lance Armstrong, or Goldman Sachs: The only thing people dislike more than cheaters winning is winners cheating.
Resenting the dynastically wealthy is practically a national sport, and for the most part, that’s what the admissions scandal has been understood to be about: the perfidy of the 1 percent. Many drew parallels to entirely legal ways the rich can rig college admissions, like pledging donations or enrolling in private prep schools. Implicit in the public contempt is the belief that none of this has anything to do with regular middle-class folk. In fact, some of the angriest responses came from people who attended the very colleges that had been part of the scam. For many, the scandal felt like a sign of the times, showing the divide between the rich, cheating their way to the top, and everyone else, who had climbed up the hard way.
Maybe that’s why an odd twist in Tuesday’s scandal stood out: Many of the students who benefited did not know about the fraud being committed for them. In several instances, their parents endeavored to keep the payoffs and cheating secret, arranging false tests so the children would never know that their scores had been deceitfully obtained. The kids were fakes, and ignorant of that fact.
It’s hard to blame people for mocking these oblivious teenagers, who thought they were walking on their own, but were in fact being carried. But it’s also worth considering how events would have appeared from their perspective. A high ACT score would have seemed like just another stroke of good fortune in a life full of it. The same goes for their acceptance into a selective college. In one tragicomic passage in the indictment, the scheme’s orchestrator describes how his student “clients” would sometimes come to him, surprised by their own high test scores, and suggest that maybe they’d do even better if they took the test again. They mistook the secret forces working on their behalf for their own natural talent. If you can’t see the hidden hand behind your success, what other explanations are there besides luck and ability?
In other words, from the students’ viewpoint, this is about as archetypal an instance of privilege as could be imagined. Advantage, after all, is rarely noticed by the advantaged. People don’t have an easy way to compare their lives with those of others, to see how the same situations might turn out differently if they themselves came from a different background. The first instinct is often to attribute disproportionate success to above-average aptitude, but most successful people know aptitude can’t explain everything that’s gone their way. That’s why, in many cases, privilege looks and feels like an accumulation of good luck, a series of little victories that make everything work okay in the end. In reality, luck and aptitude don’t tell the full story. Instead, wealth or caste or social standing work to load the dice in favor of the fortunate.
Now a confession: I too attended one of the colleges named in Tuesday's indictment. The news set me to wondering, Did I know someone who had bought his or her way into college? How could I tell? For that matter, how would I have known if secret forces had worked on my behalf?
At first, the question seemed ridiculous. I did not grow up fabulously wealthy, and I’m reasonably certain that my parents paid no bribes for me. I can say with total confidence that no one was seeking my athletic prowess, real or imagined.
Then I remembered that my father had also attended my alma mater. I hadn’t thought about that too much when I’d applied, believing that my grades spoke for themselves. No one ever brought it up to me, and I hadn’t really dwelled on it since. It was definitely not a fact that I had ever used to discount my own academic achievements.
But I’m nearly certain that somewhere in the application process, some admissions official, whose face I’d never see, took note that I was a legacy applicant, and moved me up a few spots on the list. Here was something I’d overlooked, a hidden hand behind my own good fortune, silently working to transmit my parents’ economic and social station downward to me. Perhaps less was separating me from the admissions-scandal students than I’d thought.
In this, I’m not alone. How many people who attended a good college, or secured a prestigious job, or otherwise climb one rung after another up the ladder of social and professional standing, can look back and see nothing similar?
While some people do start in remarkably disadvantaged places and rise through society, social mobility is the exception, not the rule. It’s true that most successful peoples’ parents have never paid an illegal fixer to secure them a college seat. But consider: If you attended a high-performing public high school, your parents probably did pay a premium on their house to live in the attendance zone. And what about the countless other, smaller outlays parents can make to help propel their children upward, things like test prep, sports equipment, after-school activities, travel? Even basic necessities like healthy food, medical care, or personal safety come at a financial cost. None of these expenditures are solely the province of the very wealthy, but nor are they guaranteed, and each serves as a little investment in the future, giving children a small leg up on peers who do not receive the same.
Parental wealth is hardly the only form of unearned advantage. Other privileges are even more deeply embedded, transmitted almost as birthright. In America, whiteness ranks highest among these. In education, in the workplace, in the criminal-justice system, white children and teenagers consistently receive hidden benefits that their nonwhite peers do not. How many white teenagers have gotten caught smoking weed or drinking, and were let off with a laugh and a warning? For a child of color—particularly a black child—the exact same episode is more likely to end with an arrest, and a ruined future. Where one person has a good chance of going home feeling lucky, another might leave in a squad car. How many white kids found it easy to get a summer job, while black children with the same applications were turned away? How many white students have been steered toward advanced-level courses, while their black peers were not? These advantages often persist across the income spectrum. For example, even after controlling for socioeconomic status, white students are significantly more likely to be assigned to a gifted-and-talented program than black students.
Legally speaking, none of these things remotely resemble paying off a test administrator. Pragmatically speaking, and from the perspective of the person who benefits? There is a certain symmetry. You have parents spending money to put their children in the place that best guarantees their success. You have many of those children growing up at least partially ignorant of the efforts expended to help them, and the forces working to protect them. Certainly, in both cases, the people who benefit are likely to end up thinking they’ve mostly earned what they’ve received, as a reward for hard work and natural aptitude. And if they got a lucky break or two along the way, well, that’s just life.
The lesson here isn’t to forgive the alleged fraudsters. Rather, it is that in a society stratified from top to bottom by race and wealth, privilege can’t be understood as something held exclusively by the richest 1 percent, or even the richest 10 percent, to the detriment of all others. If they’re propelled to their station by forces out of their sight and beyond their control, so too is everyone else lifted or confined by those same forces. Because of that, there is often no indicting the meritocracy without indicting oneself. One might even begin to wonder whether the real fraud is the idea of merit in the first place—that maybe “deservingness” is a shoddy basis for organizing a society altogether.
On Tuesday morning, the Department of Justice accused more than 50 people—parents and college-athletics coaches —of a nation-wide scheme to get the children of the wealthy into selective colleges like the University of Southern California, Georgetown, Yale, Wake Forest, and the University of Texas.
William Singer pleaded guilty on Tuesday to charges of racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. He was allegedly the fixer behind the scheme, helping parents create fake athletics profiles to give their children a leg up with admissions. Singer is accused of funneling bribe money to coaches at these schools through a fake charity organization he ran that was, ironically, supposed to be helping “underserved kids”— parents received letters after transferring money thanking them for the generosity that would help “provide educational and self-enrichment programs to disadvantaged youth.” The organization also allegedly advised parents on how to get their kids more time on standardized tests like the ACT and SAT, and arranged for graduate students to take the tests for them
In total, from 2011 to 2019, parents paid Singer tens of thousands of dollars, and in one case upwards of $1 million, to falsify students’ athletics profiles. Singer charged anywhere between $15,000 and $75,000 for each fake test score as well.
For the most part, the students caught up in the scandal seem to have been unaware of their parents’ underhanded dealings. So far, none of them have been named in the indictments and it’s unclear whether or not they’ll remain enrolled at their respective colleges.
The indictment is 269 pages long, and some of the details are truly astonishing. Below are nine of the most striking examples from the document that show the lengths that parents were allegedly willing to go to in order to send their children to prestigious universities.
1. One father, Houmayoun Zadeh, is a professor in USC’s medical school—and yet court documents claim he still felt that he had to bribe his daughter’s way into the school where he works. The indictment reads:
In a lengthy text message exchange that began on or about March 20, 2017, ZADEH discussed the admission of his daughter to USC with [Cooperating Witness One (CW-1), who appears to be a fixer involved in setting up back door deals]. In the conversation, CW-1 requested that ZADEH confirm that his daughter would attend USC … ZADEH replied that his daughter was concerned that “she did not get in on her own merits. I have not shared anything about our arrangement but she somehow senses it. She’s concerned that others may view her differently.”
2. Another parent, Jane Buckingham, allegedly pressured her son into getting on a plane to Houston to take the ACT at a fake testing center, even though he had tonsillitis and his doctor advised him against traveling.
BUCKINGHAM: First of all, he can get on that plane like he, according to him, he’s like, “I really don’t feel that bad, I think I’m okay.” And I do think that this doctor is a little over conservative. Part of my challenge is that my ex-husband is being incredibly difficult about the whole surgery, and if I take him to Houston and then he can’t get the surgery he’s gonna be very annoyed with me.
And later, when Buckingham and CW-1 decided to have her son take the test at home instead:
BUCKINGHAM: Yeah. I know this is craziness, I know it is. And then I need you to get him into USC, and then I need you to cure cancer and [make peace] in the Middle East.
3. The indictment describes one of CW-1’s employees submitting applications on behalf of the younger daughter of the fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli and his wife, the actress Lori Loughlin, because the daughter was confused about how to do it.
On or about December 12, 2017, LOUGHLIN e-mailed CW-1, copying GIANNULLI and their younger daughter, to request guidance on how to complete the formal USC application, in the wake of her [other] daughter’s provisional acceptance as a recruited athlete. Loughlin wrote: “[Our younger daughter] has not submitted all her colleges [sic] apps and is confused on how to do so. I want to make sure she gets those in as I don’t want to call any attention to [her] with her little friend at [her high school]. Can you tell us how to proceed? CW-1 responded by directing an employee to submit the applications on behalf of the GIANNULLIS’ younger daughter.
4. The actress Felicity Huffman allegedly sent an email to CW-1 about a snag in their plan to have her daughter take a test with extended time, which included the phrase “Ruh Ro!”
On or about October 16, 2017, HUFFMAN’s older daughter received a letter from the College Board advising that she had been approved for 100 percent extended time … The high school counselor wrote back to HUFFMAN the next day, stating, “Now you will register [your daughter] for the December 3rd SAT … Collegeboard considers double time a school based exam, so [our high school] is the test center. I will proctor test on Dec 4th & 5th and that’s the process in a nutshell.” HUFFMAN forwarded the email to CW-1 with the note, “Ruh Ro! Looks like [my daughter’s high school] wants to provide own proctor.” CW-1 responded, “We will speak about it.”
5. Michelle Janavs, a former executive at a food manufacturer, paved her older daughter’s way into college through side-door schemes, according to the indictment. But her younger daughter got suspicious when Janavs allegedly started a similar process for her.
JANAVS: I had a question for you. So I was able to get [my younger daughter] the multiday ACT.
CW-1: Okay, you got her extended time multiple days, got it.
JANAVS: Yes, so I got that, the only thing is [my younger daughter] is not like [my older daughter]....She’s not stupid. So if I said to her, “Oh, well, we’re going to take it up at CW-1’s testing center] she’s going to wonder why..... She’s smart, she’s going to figure this out. Yeah, she’s going to say to me— she already thinks I’m up to, like, no good.
6. CW-1 explained to one father, George Caplan, that his daughter needed “to be stupid” when undergoing an evaluation to get extra time on the ACT—an accommodation to help students with learning disabilities. As the indictment describes it, Caplan seemed to recognize he was acting unethically, but did so anyway.
CW-1: … The goal is to be slow, not as bright, all that, so we show discrepancies. And she knows that she’s getting all this extra time, everywhere that she is right now. At the Academy kids are getting extra time all the time.
CAPLAN: You mean the Greenwich Academy?
CAPLAN: Oh, oh you mean at her tennis academy. I see. Yeah. Okay.
CW-1: Yeah, everywhere around the country. What happened is, all the wealthy families that figured out that if I get my kid tested and they get extended time, they can do better on the test. So most of these kids don’t even have issues, but they’re getting time. The playing field is not fair.
CAPLAN: No, no its not. I mean this is, to be honest, it feels a little weird. But.
CW-1: I know it does. I know it does. But when she gets the score and we have choices, you’re gonna be saying, okay, I’ll take all my kids, we’re gonna do the same thing. (laughing)
CAPLAN: Yeah, I will.
7. Robert Zangrillo, the CEO of a private investment firm, is accused of planning for someone to retake supplemental classes that his daughter had failed in community college.
ZANGRILLO’s daughter inquired, in substance, what CW-1 was doing about an ‘F’ grade that she had received in an art history class she had taken. CW-1 explained that he had [arranged for someone to retake the class] .’ CW-1 asked if this plan made sense. ZANGRILLO and his daughter both replied, ‘Yes.’
ZANGRILLO then inquired, in substance, whether Sanford could take his daughter’s biology class as well. Sanford replied that she was ‘happy to assist.’ ZANGRILLO added: ‘If you can do the biology thing, just makes sure it gets done as quickly as possible, so we have a backup plan for the conditional [acceptance to USC and then you do the best you can to overturn the art history [grade].’
8. Devin Sloane, a CEO and businessman, is accused of purchasing water polo gear from Amazon and hiring graphic designers to create fake images of his son playing the sport to send to college recruiters.
Records obtained from Amazon.com indicate that, on or about June 5, 2017 and June 16, 2017, SLOANE purchased water polo gear, including a ball and a cap.
Thereafter, on or about June 26, 2017, SLOANE received an e-mail from a graphic designer bearing the subject line, “Water Polo Photo 06/26/17.” The designer wrote:
We researched a few water polo athlete images and the majority are cropped against a background so they can use them in promotional materials (and it takes out undesirable elements from the crowd etc). We were able to adjust the color and complete a clean extraction to mimic this look (attached).
On or about June 27, 2017, SLOANE e-mailed a photograph of his son
purporting to play water polo, with his right arm and upper torso exposed above the water line. In the e-mail, SLOANE asked, “Does this work??” CW-1 responded: “Yes but a little high out of the water- no one gets that high.”
On or about the following day, June 28, 2017, SLOANE sent a photograph in which his son appeared to be lower in the water, with his torso and arm now mostly submerged. SLOANE wrote, “Hope this works...” CW-1 replied, “perfect.” In both photographs, SLOANE’s son appears to be using the items SLOANE purchased from Amazon.com a few weeks earlier.
9. Parents allegedly consented to being recorded on the phone with a cooperating witness as they discussed different elements of their fraud. Here’s an example of one of those calls, with Marjorie Klapper, the owner of a jewelry businesses.
On a telephone call with KLAPPER on or about October 24, 2018, CW-1 acting at the direction of law enforcement agents, told KLAPPER that his foundation was being audited. The following is an excerpt from the call, which was consensually recorded.
CW-1: So, I wanted to let you [know]-- our foundation, is, is being audited--
CW-1: --which is very normal. Right?
CW-1: And so they’re lookin’ at all of our payments.
KLAPPER . Mm-hmm.
CW-1: And so they’re lookin’ at, you know, the payment-- including your payment that you made for 15K, to have [CW-2] take the test for [your son].
CW-1: So I jus-- I just want to make sure that you and I are on the same page. Cause, of course, I’m not gonna tell the IRS that-- that, you know, you paid 15,000 for to take the test for [your son], obviously. So I just wanted to make sure that you and I are on the same page, in case you get a call.
KLAPPER: Okay. So if I get a call--
CW-1: You’re gonna say that the-- the $15,000 that you paid to our foundation was to help underserved kids.
It's brazen enough to commit fraud; but even more so to admit it on a recording and apparently not suspect you might get caught. Taken together, the lurid details from the case reveal just what it is worth to some parents to get their kids into elite colleges—not only the money they are willing to spend, but the lines they are allegedly willing to cross.