Class is Key: Unpacking the College Admissions Scandal
Photo credit: Variety
Back in March, the college admissions scandal broke. Federal investigations uncovered as many as 50 parents and administrators who sought to illegally grant their students admission into universities that include Yale, Stanford, UCLA, and USC, among others. Among the many other parents who participated in the scandal were Felicity Huffman, who was an actress on Desperate Housewives, and Full House actress Lori Loughlin. The celebrities and other parents went beyond simple bribery to pay for their student’s admission. They hired third parties as stand-ins for tests and classes, bribed coaches to admit their students as athletes, and bribed officials to enable cheating on entrance exams.
While several people expressed their surprise at the system that would enable this behavior, many other pointed out the way that class affects the public education system in even elementary education. Many college students like myself, on the other hand, were largely unsurprised. For those who were shocked by the scandal, it means a reexamination of the great myth of the “self-made man” or the “American Dream” which has long rested on the ideal of a system structured around merit, not class. The examination of this “dream” is already happening and has been for some time. Following the scandal, students of color and low-income students responded and overwhelmingly called out the institutions that support a classist system. As the celebrity involvement has catapulted this scandal into the public consciousness, the long-standing articulation of class influence on inequality—criticisms offered by the working-class and POC working-class students—needs to be taken seriously.
This admissions scandal makes it impossible to ignore the influence of class on gaining admission into universities illegally. Even if we can recognize this, there are still extremely legal ways that entrance into university is rigged to favor students with a higher socio-economic class. Some of these include things like paid test-prep for the SAT or ACT, whose scores can determine admittance; donations to the university; and showing interest by visiting campuses, which requires the money to either travel or take time off work. Families with higher socio-economic status have greater access to resources like tutors who can help the student get high scores. The college admissions scandal, as well as other issues with our education system, have put into question the usefulness and fairness of a standardized testing system used for admissions that enforces inequality. It becomes undeniable that class greatly influences educational opportunities legally.
Even in light of these factors, some people claimed surprise at the way the US education system favors students of a higher socio-economic class. The fact that so many peopled were surprised at such an obvious display of income inequality and its effects hints at the fact that there’s more to this than just an admissions scandal. The rhetoric of a society in which class has no bearing on the future of an individual (i.e., the myth of American meritocracy) is one that the US historically promotes. It’s a rhetoric that this scandal decimates.
Looking back, we can see some of the origins of this ideology with Benjamin Franklin. Franklin helped shape the US Enlightenment by promoting, through his writing, a reliance on reason, a belief in progress, and a sense of the shared universality of his experiences. While Franklin espouses the rhetoric of the self-made man, his autobiography reveals the importance of the social capital he has as a white man in achieving the ideal of progress. Throughout much of the first section of his autobiography Franklin recounts his hardships with his family and jobs, and yet he comes out on top. Even though things fall apart, Franklin starts his career in his family’s business (already a sign of social capital) which allows him entry into an industry and access to education, both very important tools and opportunities for success. Franklin’s progress is predicated upon his family’s position in society and the opportunities afforded to him as a white man. In fact, much of Franklin’s claims of being a self-made man sound eerily similar to Trump’s claim during his campaign that “It’s not been easy for [him]” and that his father only gave him “a small loan of a million dollars” to start his businesses. While both men may have worked for their achievements, they are by no means “self-made,” and it becomes impossible to ignore the unequal social capital given to each. As much as Franklin and Trump try to deny it, class greatly influences life opportunities and experiences.
A little over 100 years after Franklin published his autobiography, the famous black scholar W.E.B. Dubois wrote his own evaluation of class in the US. In The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois writes about education for African American people and the way that the history of slavery in the US created a legacy barring them from educational opportunities. This history leads to economic inequality, where race influences economic starting points. He demonstrates this saying, “He felt his poverty; without a cent, without a home, skilled land, tools, or savings, he had entered into competition with rich, landed, skilled neighbors.”
While class influences things like access to education, class itself is intersectional. Unlike Benjamin Franklin’s conception of a universalized starting point, the ability to work hard does not exist in a vacuum. We start on the ground built up beneath us by our families and by the societal history in which we exist, a context which differs based on multiple factors. The long history of slavery in the US meant that African American people were economically competing with white people who had profited off their labor—a legacy that continues with the US government refusing reparations and continuing issues of redlining. The history of gender inequality also highlights the problems of believing a universal starting point. Claiming that women start the economic competition at the same place as men ignores the history of women not having equal working rights and the continued legacy of this with unequal pay in the work place. DuBois’ concern with articulating this inequality is an important counter to Franklin’s—and white middle-class America’s—insistence on the universality of experience that ignores the influence of class.
While the admissions scandal does a lot to bring class inequality to the forefront of education conversations and exposes some of the historical roots of that inequality, it is not just admissions that we need to talk about. Aside from the obvious issues that students face of having to pay tuition and take out loans to do so, there are a lot of ways that our universities are still set up to favor those in a higher socio-economic class. On my campus alone, I have personally seen multiple instances in which class is a barrier for academic opportunities or professional opportunities, and I know that this has been true for other students as well. My need to work means that I don’t have the extra time to do well in school and still participate in unpaid service activities that happen to be a requirement for getting scholarships. It also means that when our campus was closed for snow and my work shift was cancelled, I—along with other students who worked on and off campus—still needed those hours. In order to make up hours, I walked to campus in the snow and ice despite my supervisors saying it wasn’t necessary, not because I love my job that much, but because—like many students—I cannot afford to miss those hours. The assumption that, since we are students, we don’t need the hours or that there is extra time to volunteer ignores the class identity of the university’s students, making higher education even less accessible.
Though working while attending university has its advantages, like learning better time management or earning money, when work is not a safety net but a necessity, it means less time can be dedicated to class, internship opportunities, or social interactions because work is not optional. This is never more evident than when I was considering majors and actively avoided ones that had any kind of internship requirement. While STEM majors strongly encourage internships in order to be a competitive candidate, there are others like the secondary education program, which requires unpaid student teaching. Even though student teaching is for credit, the hours it takes limits the amount students are able to work. An education system that relies on unpaid internships or only offers a few paid internships severely limits which students can participate in that learning experience, an experience which has the potential to open up professional opportunities. Unless the influence of class on education is taken seriously, these kinds of academic requirements go unquestioned.
While the class barriers to education aren’t new, with the majority of students feeling what working-class (especially POC working class) students have felt, the conversation has started to change. As the demographic of students attending college shifts to students who are financially independent, have children, take time off, or are first-generation college students, the requirements and rhetoric surrounding class must move away from ignoring the inequality and recognize the long history of perpetuated economic inequality. There needs to be an acknowledgment of the ways that the old rhetoric—Franklin’s pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps ideology—is harmful. It perpetuates the idea that those who are of a lower class somehow deserve to be there, and it does so by ignoring the ways that inequality is a product of the society’s history. By acknowledging and accommodating students who financially struggle, we move toward a system that closes the wealth gaps and promotes belonging. Being the student who can’t afford an internship, the friend who has to say no to going out, or the one hiding family histories can be an ostracizing experience. Hopefully the fact that many people in my generation are not surprised by the college admissions scandal means we are ready to make changes that address issues of class across a multitude of intersections.
About the author: Holly Lackey is an undergraduate student at Seattle Pacific University studying English literature and social justice and cultural studies. When she is not in class, she enjoys new experiences and finding new places to put on her travel bucket list.