In what’s being called the largest college admissions scam ever, a number of wealthy parents, celebrities, and college prep coaches have been accused of offering large bribes to get rich students into Ivy League and other elite schools, regardless of their credentials. The Ivy League includes Brown, Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale.
The parents facing charges allegedly paid up to $6.5 million to get their kids into college.
Shocking as it is, this is hardly a new phenomenon in higher education. Wealthy and privileged students have always had an upper hand in being accepted to prestigious universities.
They’re called “legacy preferences.”
“Many U.S. colleges admit ‘legacies,’ or students with a family connection to the university, at dramatically higher rates than other applicants,” The Guardian explains, because “they are widely seen as a reliable source of alumni donations.”
Some of our countries most prominent figures have benefited from legacy preferences. When applying to Harvard, future president John F. Kennedy noted that his father was an alumnus. And although his academic record was unspectacular, he was admitted into the Ivy League school.
The same can be said for George W. Bush, whose father and grandfather graduated from Yale. Despite his “lackluster grades,” The Guardian reported, Bush was accepted.
This overt — and legal — preference for the wealthy and powerful goes back at least a century. Yet when the children of middle class families are denied admission, some families have laid the blame on affirmative action programs for students of color, who’ve historically faced discrimination.
As the college admissions process becomes more competitive, campaigns against affirmative action have revved up immensely. In 2016, Abigail Fisher challenged the University of Texas at Austin’s race-conscious admissions program after being rejected when she applied for a university program designed for the top 10 percent of her class.
Despite not having the credentials to get into the program, Fisher cited affirmative action as the reason why she was denied. In other words, she claimed she was being discriminated against because she was white. Her case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that affirmative action is in fact constitutional and doesn’t hurt white students.
In fact, even with programs like affirmative action, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, racial divides at universities still remain. While college enrollment is increasing across the board, it found that enrollment rates for college-aged white students (42 percent) remain higher than for both black students (36 percent) and Hispanic students (39 percent.)
Meanwhile, a 2018 analysis of Harvard’s admissions process found that legacy applicants were accepted at a rate of nearly 34 percent from 2009 to 2015. That’s more than five times higher than the rate for non-legacies over the same six-year period: just 5.9 percent.
It’s clear that students like Abigail Fisher are picking the wrong fight when it comes to discrimination in the college admissions process.
The high-level of corruption of legacy admissions hurts the majority of students, regardless of race. So too do the parents spending millions on bribes. But that’s how inequality thrives.
Today’s college admissions scandal is just another illustration of the rich encouraging working- and middle-class people to turn against each other — and blame people of color — while they quietly rig the game for themselves.
Instead of pointing the finger at each other, the victims of these manipulations should come together to take the monster of economic privilege down.
Jessicah Pierre is the inequality media specialist at the Institute for Policy Studies.