It’s about connections and prestige (and it’s pathetic)
Have you read about the college admissions scandal where high profile celebrities and wealthy business owners allegedly paid big bucks, cheated, and lied to get their kids into top colleges? It’s bizarre. And it’s an indictment on our society as a whole. We put too much emphasis on pedigree and fancy labels and not enough on real substance and hard work.
I went to a small college in Mississippi. Delta State University is no one’s idea of elite, but it was a fine place for me. I learned a lot, particularly from the English Lit professors who nurtured my passion for reading and writing. I acted in plays. I was editor of the student newspaper. Because the school was small, my professors knew me and took a personal interest in my success. And, most importantly, I could afford it. We didn’t have a lot of spare cash in my family. If I’d gone somewhere more expensive (more prestigious), I’d have racked up a lot more student debt.
Could I have gotten a better education somewhere else? Maybe. But I’ve worked with people who got shiny degrees from elite schools and those people never seem to know much more than the rest of us. Sometimes, they know less. I believe in the power of a good education, but I also know that some people will succeed and thrive no matter where you put them. A smart, inquisitive person will find a way to stretch and learn at any school. A person of middling intelligence who lacks curiosity will not be made smarter by an Ivy League education.
The drive to get your kids into competitive colleges is usually not about what they’ll learn, but about who they’ll meet. It’s about connections, not education. Which makes this whole thing even more baffling. The kids whose parents can afford to buy their way into the elite college system are already well connected. I mean, I would assume that Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy could send their kids to any old college and still have the clout to get those kids in the room with high powered executives and movie moguls. Why on earth would they need to cook the SAT scores and dole out bribes?
So maybe it’s not really about the kids. Maybe it’s really about bragging rights and social standing and maintaining an air of superiority. That’s pathetic, but reassuring. In this way, at least, the rich and famous really are like the rest of us: filled with self doubt, struggling with fragile egos, insecure, and unsure of their worth. But a glimpse of their very human fragility is no excuse for this behavior. Cheating for your children is no more noble than cheating for yourself. Every student who gets into a school through nefarious means takes a spot from a student who has earned a shot through hard work and sacrifice. Most likely, they are taking the spot from someone who would really benefit from the education and the connections.
As so many people have pointed out, this scheme is not surprising given the long history of preferential treatment to students with wealthy or famous parents. If your mom and dad can donate a new wing to the school, you’re probably going to get in regardless of your marginal high school performance or SAT scores. And there’s no doubt that some careers reward an elite educational experience more than others. You are not, for example, ever going to be on the Supreme Court if your law degree is from Western Michigan University. In fact, if the Supreme Court is your goal, you’d better aim for a spot at Harvard or Yale.
But most of us aren’t aiming for a Supreme Court appointment. Most of us learn that our college career doesn’t matter much past our first adult job. Once we prove that we can do the work and that we’re willing to learn, we do okay. We build resumes and collect references. Experience matters more than our college transcripts. But we live in a world where some people continue to lean on their university credentials well past the time when they ought to be standing on their own accomplishments. The current president, for example, loves to brag about his own time at Wharton, though there’s good evidence he never would have gotten in if it weren’t for his father and brother pulling some strings. It’s unlikely he could have been admitted on merit. Still, he brings up his alumni status a lot. It’s weird.
It is true that elite colleges are a great place to meet both current and future leaders. Making connections is a surefire way to jump ahead of people who are smarter, more talented, and more deserving of success. If you’re interviewing for a job and you share Ivy League alumni credentials with several people on the hiring committee, you will get special treatment. But if anyone with excess money and a lack of morals can buy their way into an elite college, then maybe we need to change the way we view these colleges and their graduates.
Perhaps the one silver lining in this whole disgraceful mess is that it pulls back the curtain on the role of privilege and the prevalence of corruption in the American university system. We need to stop assuming that people who hold degrees from prestigious universities are more intelligent, better educated, or more qualified than the rest of us. We have good evidence at the highest levels that this simply is not true.