The 2019 College Bribery Scandal and Capitalist-based Meritocracy

The college bribery scandal comes a shock to some because of the lengths parents of wealthy children go to make sure their children take every opportunity, even if it they don’t have the necessary qualifications. For a long time, research has focused on how tests like the SAT and ACT aren’t proxies for intelligence or merit but rather a proxy for wealth. When I thought the wealthy were buying points and opportunities within a capitalist system, I assumed that was just the reality of the situation, a consequence of the social contract. If I had tons of money, I’d want my children to have all I could afford, the best schools, tutors, counseling, food, travel and extra-curricular opportunities. However, buying things to support your child as they endeavor to become a whole human is very different from paying money to support a false narrative (fabricating disabilities, athletic profiles and having students stand in and take tests for others) that enables your unqualified child to take the spot of a student who has managed to create educational opportunities in spite of operating from a place of fiscal lack.

This conundrum brings a lot of themes to the public eye around merit, the meritocracy, capitalism, affirmative action, racial/socioeconomic disparities in access to just educational opportunities and more.

  • Merit is defined as “the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially as to deserve praise or reward.”
  • Meritocracy is a “political philosophy that holds that economic goods and power should be vested in individuals on the basis of talent, effort and achievement rather than factors like sexuality or race”
  • Capitalism is “an economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.”
  • Affirmative action is “the practice or policy of favoring individuals belonging to groups known to have been discriminated against previously.”

There are many lenses to tackle these issues through, however, being an education policy scholar, born from Haitian immigrants, currently living in the south, I want to begin this with Brown vs. Board of Education. Brown helps us to evaluate the legal community’s attempt to make educational opportunities more equitable. Brown (1954) made it so Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” doctrine no longer applied in public schools. However, because the ruling was applied (1) to public schools and (2) “with all deliberate speed,” the implications of this “groundbreaking” decision, didn’t really break much ground.  The legacy of Brown on education, especially in the American south reinforces that the decision was mostly symbolic.

First, by this decision being primarily tied to schools who received federal funding, it created a “class-based loophole” of sorts. Parents who could afford to put their children in private schools, were able to maintain segregation via wealth. Second, the vagueness of “all deliberate speed”  also gave segregationists time to organize among themselves around resistance to integration. Many schools were founded as private segregation academies, who could operate outside of the ruling of Brown, thus continuing legal segregation for schools. This left public schools filled with minority students whose parents had less economic parity and poor white students whose families couldn’t afford to place them in segregation academies.

This creates compounded issues. For one, private schools are notoriously known for being more well-resourced than public schools. This doesn’t mean that private schools are always better than public schools, however different funding sources are among one of the variables that perpetuated disparities between black children and white children in schools. For example, public schools are funded via property taxes. If the only students left in these public schools are minorities or socioeconomically challenged student, then they’re likely in zoned schools with property values that are lower than ones in wealthier districts. This demonstrates school funding is a product of where you live and how much your home costs.  According to the Aspen Institute, “zip codes are a fundamental determinant of ones’ future financial success.” Due to racial residential segregation, zip codes also often predict race. According to the Annual Review of Sociology, by

“the end of the 20th century, the majority of Blacks remained severely segregated from whites in major metropolitan areas. Due to persistence of high-volume immigration, Hispanic and Asian segregation from whites has increased although it is still best categorized as moderate”

(See: https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.soc.29.010202.100002)

Many families are only able to send their children to kids to the school zoned for their area which ultimately end up multiplying race-based and wealth-based education and health disparities for a lifetime.

(See: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brookings-now/2016/03/01/can-you-choose-where-your-child-goes-to-school-how-u-s-school-districts-stack-up/)

School funding is directly linked to a school’s ability to host extra-curricular programming and improve facilities (which often helps to recruit strong teaching candidates). The caliber and quality of this programming are directly related to the high costs of attendance at private schools and the ways wealthier school districts are able to flaunt highly sought-after learning technologies, athletic programs and curricula. School funding is also highly correlated with standardized test scores. Wealthier schools typically score higher on standardized assessments than less-resourced schools.

If wealthier families can buy advantage as a result of many factors including but not limited to where they purchase their homes, meritocracy falls apart. This college bribery scandal goes further than challenging the myth of meritocracy. It’s further nuanced by the thread of corruption that not only were these wealthy people able to buy the best education, training and opportunities in existence, but that in spite of possessing these immense resources to develop their children, the indictees chose instead to use those resources to circumvent the system that already privileged their financial power. With all of the available resources, these children presumably had opportunities, most American students only dream of - and when privileged at every opportunity, they still took advantage of the system.

Instead of using their resources to develop their children academically and athletically, Lori Louglin, Felicity Huffman among others, worked with William Singer, “…to fabricate impressive athletic profiles for their kids," Lelling said, adding that in some cases students faces were placed, using the image editing program Photoshop, onto the bodies of athletes."

(See: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/college-admissions-scandal-bribery-cheating-today-felicity-huffman-arrested-fbi-2019-03-12/)

The college bribery system is a direct result of a capitalist-based meritocracy, where merit actually means wealth. It’s a very challenging conundrum when presented with arguments like those of Abby Fisher vs. University of Texas (2013/2016) to fight affirmative action policies, meant to create opportunities to disadvantaged groups and balance the scales of privilege.  Fisher came to the courts claiming she was denied admission because of race-conscious admissions policies. The courts relied on Grutter in Fisher’s case. In Grutter v. Bollinger, the courts applied strict scrutiny to determine that diversity was a “compelling governmental interest” because in Grutter, the law school considered “all pertinent elements of diversity” in their admissions program.

Fisher was arguing meritocracy here, that people should be admitted to college on the basis of academic qualification alone. Unfortunately, Fisher failed to consider that her academic qualifications didn’t merit admission into UT. UT does a “Top 10 program” that grants automatic acceptance to every person graduating in the top 10% of their high school class, this program claimed 92% of in-state spots – making the last spots much more competitive.

ProPublica says it well:

“It's true that the university, for whatever reason, offered provisional admission to some students with lower test scores and grades than Fisher. Five of those students were Black or Latino. Forty-two were white.

Neither Fisher nor Blum mentioned those 42 applicants in interviews. Nor did they acknowledge the 168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher's who were also denied entry into the university that year. Also left unsaid is the fact that Fisher turned down a standard UT offer under which she could have gone to the university her sophomore year if she earned a 3.2 GPA at another Texas university school in her freshman year.

In an interview last month, Blum agreed Fisher's credentials and circumstances make it difficult to argue — as he and his supporters have so ardently in public — that but for her race Fisher would have been a Longhorn.”

(Source: https://www.propublica.org/article/a-colorblind-constitution-what-abigail-fishers-affirmative-action-case-is-r )

The college bribery scandal directly challenges the narrative of Fisher and her many supporters. A monolith seeps deep in our immediate consciousness that Black and Latino students are the ones who are taking advantage of the system to attend elite schools, and the truth is, wealthy families are – and they always will, in surprising and unsurprising ways.

So, the question remains, why is the narrative that Black and Latino (sometimes rural students) are the main targets of arguments about affirmative action promoting over-matching (low ability students at high quality colleges)?

Read: https://www.vox.com/2018/3/28/17031460/affirmative-action-asian-discrimination-admissions

As an academic community, we often fail to realize and actualize the cultural irrelevance of a lot of ways we measure merit as a society. A lot of these metrics actively devalue the skillsets developed in communities of difference. There aren't many places on a college application to list that someone is the only English speaker in their home translating medical information for their family or working additional jobs to support family financial health - yet those are leadership skills that are necessary for some family's collective success. These tasks typically take time from traditional leadership roles like being on the track team, or being President of the Honor Society - but the grassroots developmental opportunities are not inferior to formalized ones.

Capitalism allows wealthy people to circumvent institutions meant to create just outcomes.  Capitalism allows colonizers to become our heroes. Capitalist-based meritocracy helps wealthy people succeed and makes the rest of society feel like they’ve earned it.

(See: https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/05/business/kylie-jenner-self-made-billionaire-forbes/index.html)

The college bribery scandal seems abnormal, but we need to think of the way money controls access to basic things like clean water, food and for many cases, their freedom.  70% of Americans sitting in jail haven’t been convicted of a crime, they just can’t afford bail.  Lori Loughlin was bailed out almost immediately after posting $1 million bail. Many minoritized folks can't afford that and we’ve seen the tragic results in fallen soldiers like Kalief Browder

If wealth creates opportunities to avoid accountability in every institution, then there is no parity, only corruption.

As a society, we let wealth determine so many of the opportunities available: where we live, where we go to school, where we shop, where we get our healthcare, what merit is and if we’re allowed freedom. Ultimately, it creates a system where the wealthy can exploit infrastructures meant to ensure objectivity with their checkbooks.

The media coverage behind this scandal is important because It changes the face of who’s really taking advantage of the system. Is it the mothers, like Kelly Williams-Bolar and Tonya McDowell, who lie to their kids’ schools so their kids can escape their failing zoned schools, or is it the mothers who pay millions of dollars to fabricate disabilities for extra SAT time and pay other teens to stand in for their kids during their standardized exams?

In a capitalist-based meritocracy, there is no merit or mercy only money.

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