Jason England, former admissions dean at Carnegie Mellon University, has drawn from his own experiences to add to what the recent college admissions scandal tells us about the attitudes of the elites. He provides the other bookend of the view provided by Caitlin Flanagan, a counselor at an elite prep school, where the process begins. He points out what should be obvious to everyone about the ways in which the system operates to provide an immense advantage to the already privileged. It is an are excellent article that is well worth reading in full because it exposes from the inside how the system is so heavily rigged in favor of wealthy white males from private schools. The true genius of the system is that the levers of privilege operate so smoothly and invisibly that they seem natural and neutral in their application.
Here some key quotes.
The mechanisms of affirmative action for wealthy white people are so well-oiled that few would know to name it. The process begins well before college: It’s societal and holistic and reaches beyond clichéd talking points about donated buildings and the influence of celebrity and prestige.
Private schools create applicants who are difficult to reject. The candidate is “prepared” (the assumption is that private schools’ courses are more rigorous), has a relatively high SAT score (a reflection of parents’ incomes and education levels), and is touted by carefully crafted recommendation letters from counselors who have many fewer students and far more resources than their public school counterparts.
The process at my college (and many elite liberal arts schools) was particularly brutal to qualified women. We simply had more qualified women than men in the pool; to keep a gender balance on campus, many ended up in the rejection pile. (Rarely do you hear people debate this form of affirmative action.)
Any admissions officer worth their position knows rankings like the US News & World Report Best Colleges list are capitalistic undertakings rooted in junk science.
The truth is, at least half the incoming class at one elite college is utterly interchangeable with half the class at colleges ranked several slots above and below.
I spoke to Doron Taussig, a visiting assistant professor of media and communication studies at Ursinus College, who is writing a book about perceptions of meritocracy. He said, “Our cultural standards for what it means to earn or deserve something are extremely subjective and flexible, probably necessarily so. This means that when people tell stories about how they got to where they are and what merit had to do with it, most of us can conclude whatever we want.”
In other words, it’s difficult to get anyone to acknowledge the luck of birth and circumstance. To do so undermines a key cog in the American dream machine: the myth of the self, which reduces wealthy children’s built-in advantages to irrelevant biographical footnotes, while transforming others’ disadvantages to personal faults. It’s difficult to get those on the short end of the stick to see that diligence and acumen can take you only so far; they internalize failure or seek out scapegoats (“the black kid stole my spot”).
He describes one case that finally persuaded him to throw in the towel and leave.
My final year in admissions, the way we treated an applicant broke my heart. I interviewed her in my office and was struck by her depth, self-effacing humor, drive, maturity, and critical thinking. She had two working-class parents without advanced degrees and grew up in an economically depressed region of western Massachusetts. She had the grades and the extracurricular activities, but her scores were 70 points below our median.
During our committee session, I gave an impassioned speech on her behalf, which might account for the four votes I got in her favor. I’d never advocated so desperately and enthusiastically for a student. She was precisely the sort of person who would reach our campus, take full advantage of the resources she’d been lacking throughout her life, and contribute both socially and academically. Unfortunately, five colleagues still voted against her. Her case helped see me out the door.
Any reasonably self-aware person who has been fortunate enough to achieve what passes for success in a capitalistic system (usually measured in terms of money and job status) should be able to easily identify the many instances that luck played in getting them to where they are, accidents of birth being key ones. It may seem astonishing how blind they are to these factors but not when one realizes that the blindness serves to buttress a comforting narrative enabling them to look down on others who are not as lucky and justify the rampant inequality in society.