Urban Wire The college admissions scandal shows the US is far from a meritocracy
Diana Elliott, Steven Brown
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On March 12, federal prosecutors charged dozens of people with bribing, faking, and cheating their kids’ ways into prestigious universities, including Yale; Georgetown; the University of Southern California; the University of California, Los Angeles; and Wake Forest. Wealthy parents, including Hollywood elite, allegedly paid a total of $25 million to secure admissions for their children.

What would compel the wealthy to go to such lengths to secure slots to these elite institutions? Despite Horatio Alger’s popularized belief that Americans can “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and rise from a position of disadvantage, those with advantages can leverage their wealth to keep their advantages.

In many ways, we already know that the higher education system is not a meritocracy. Elite institutions have a history of admitting ultrawealthy students with average academic records following large donations from their parents.

But this scandal represents a new extreme of that flawed system—of wealthy parents directly paying officials for a guaranteed acceptance or higher test score. It illuminates a structure of privilege that rigs the system to benefit those at the top and limit access to all others.

Some parents assume access to privilege is limited.

Research shows that all students do better when they are in more integrated schools, but in New York City, which has some of the most racially and economically segregated public schools, policy changes have been difficult to implement.

Fear among parents of privilege pervades. A recent study found that parents prefer schools with “high-achieving peers” over schools that are more effective at improving student outcomes. Many parents operate with a zero-sum-game mind-set that assumes their child loses if another benefits.

The system trains privileged children to expect more and less privileged children to expect less.

Sociologist Annette Lareau has shown that the class dynamics in parenting reinforce the expectations of children and parents for access to privilege. Children of upper-class parents are cultivated to attend the “best schools,” to attain additional tutoring, and to participate in elite sports and extracurricular activities that will set them apart.

In contrast, working-class children are parented with fewer intensive investments—financially and time-wise—and these distinctions happen at an early age. This is not to say that working-class parents are not investing in their children; investments may happen in a more short-term way, in part because future circumstances are less certain.

The system offers advantages to those who access them.

Workforce and hiring decisions are not blind to the school that a student attended. Top-tier finance and management firms have long recruited from only a select list of Ivy League and similarly tiered schools, reflecting tremendously biased practices. Parents understand that access to the highest-paying jobs comes through access to elite schools.

In countries with less prestige attached to institutions of higher education, there are fewer incentives to game the system or for employers to be so blatantly biased in their hiring practices.

The scandal adds insult to students of color.

Reacting to this story, author Clint Smith said he was “thinking about all the black, brown, and low-income students who arrive at college and who are made to feel as if they don’t deserve to be there, while so many wealthy students have their parents essentially buy their way into these schools and rarely experience the same skepticism.”

There has been little research into this specific topic, but sociologist Anthony Jack, author of the recently published book The Privileged Poor, has explored the ways elite institutions often fail to accommodate and welcome students of color or from low-income families. His research highlights how the culture and connections of elite universities are set up to benefit families of privilege in ways that make success in college challenging for students of color and first generation students, even after earning admission.

Abby D. Phillip also summarized the scandal: “Just a reminder that rich people are able to use their money and power to open elite doors for their mediocre children that, in turn, make it far more likely that they will succeed in life. Poor people and [people of color] are expected to be exceptional. This is not a meritocracy.”

Indeed, the US is not a meritocracy. Part of our awakening as a society is to accept this and work to dismantle the system that has privileged the wealthy and the elite.

This news story isn’t shocking because we thought our system was fair. The college admissions process is rigged in multiple ways. Rather, this scandal reveals a pervasive, prevalent, and pernicious effort to pay for unfair advantages. Greater income and wealth give access to privilege and power, illustrating that some of our country’s most effective avenues of economic mobility are up for sale.


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Research Areas Education Workforce
Tags Higher education Workforce development Wealth inequality
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center