When my twins were in their sophomore year of high school, I recall attending a presentation for parents of high school children by a group of college counselors on navigating the college admissions process. There were over 500 people in that auditorium that day. Parents looked nervous, eager and intense. This was Palo Alto, after all.
Sitting there with other parents who had kids the same age as mine, I felt a sense of collective purpose. We all had the same overarching motivation: to see our children settled into promising futures. So, there I sat eager to extract information that could increase possibilities and influence outcomes on my kids’ applications to college. It seemed to me that this was the very objective of good parenting — whether you labeled it helicopter, drone or tiger.
The counselors started with a process roadmap and then dove deep into grades, SAT tests, AP courses, essay writing and recommendation letters, breaking down the college application into its nuts and bolts. Then one of them made a seemingly casual remark about college donations. “It would have to be to the tune of over a million,” she remarked, explaining that even a million was no guarantee.
When I left the auditorium, I was unsettled.
It seemed to me that for kids like mine to be eligible for admission to an elite school,
it would take discovering a whole new village in sub-Saharan Africa or writing a literary manuscript or developing software to build an elevator to space or coming up with the precise alchemy for curing meningitis, all while acing every class, cracking the SAT with a near perfect score, and being considered generous and affable.
The idea of donations required little from the children other than their presence. It was a reward given for participation and not for performance. I always knew that the rich paid for admissions, but what threw me that day was how openly it was acknowledged, even though it fit the basic definition of corruption. Was it really so morally reprehensible when it was so candidly discussed? Were larger sums of money then exempt from moral adjudications?
Today, as the Operation Varsity Blues scandal unfolds and the nation is gripped with rage at the parents who were “caught” bribing and cheating their way into getting their kids a seat in prestigious universities, I recall my discomfort at hearing about donations.
As William Singer, the man at the middle of the college bribery scheme, explains it: the front door is for the parents who can’t or won’t throw money at the problem; the back door is for those with legacy, wealth and influence, like the Kushners, who donate money to put their names on campus buildings; and the side door is for parents who don’t cavil at bending the rules a bit.
Dismissing the front and back doors, Singer’s strategy was the side door. “My families want a guarantee,” he explained, “So, if you said to me, ‘Here’s our grades, here’s our scores, here’s our ability, and we want to go to X school’ and you give me one or two schools, and then I’ll go after those schools and try to get a guarantee done.”
The college bribery story is many-layered. While it clearly demonstrates the injustice of inequality, it also highlights how race and privilege are intricately entangled in the access to higher education. And in this regard, affirmative action emerges as the leveler that gives a boost to students of color and lower income students looking to do better than their parents.
Most low-income students have less time to study, can’t afford tutors or test preps, they can’t take the SAT or ACT more than once, and cannot pay the application fees to more than one or two colleges. Right there, they lose out on the privileges that other students have.
While affirmative action has been regularly denounced as privileging the underprivileged, the college bribery scandal reveals the unsavory reach of power, privilege and greed.
Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean for freshman and undergraduate advising at Stanford University and the author of “How to Raise an Adult,” said on KQED’s Forum program that the number of spots set aside for affirmative action, to give students of color a leg up “pale in comparison to the numbers set aside for children of donors, children of legacies, and children who are athletes, all of whom are highly disproportionately white kids.”
It bears repeating. In terms of scale, there are far fewer minorities benefiting from affirmative action than majorities benefiting from programs of privilege.
One of the problems, as I see it, is that this business of getting kids into colleges is geared more toward parents than students. It is a favorite obsession of parents in America. For underprivileged parents it is about getting their kids into college, and for privileged parents it’s about getting their kids into an elite college.
Parents are hyper-focused on shaping their children into robotic performers, creating generations of young adults who don’t know how to stumble and fall and pick themselves up.
And that is where the fault line lies.
This college-cheating scheme is merely another opportunity to re-evaluate how we deliver our kids to colleges. And like every other opportunity before this, I fear that we may have only hit the pause button.
Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan