Toxic Privilege, The College Admissions Scandal

By Sam Minshull

The Harkness Tower at Yale University. Photo Credit: WikiCommons

Quite frankly I’m disgusted by people pretending to be surprised by this “admissions scandal”. Fifty people have been charged with various counts of conspiracy, fraud, and other exceedingly “white” collar crimes in a conspiracy to place their underperforming children into “elite” universities. This has been an open secret for YEARS. I myself fell victim to the lie for 23 years, but I was disabused of that notion very quickly.

In 2014 I was accepted to Brandeis University to pursue a master’s degree. As a small town, public school student who chose an undergraduate institution based on price, I can tell you I was elated! To those in New England or of a nerdy, academic persuasion, Brandeis is considered an elite institution—and boy did I suffer from imposter syndrome! For months before and after I started, I was in awe of the place, and the name, and the classes, and professors. I continued to think: “There must be some mistake. Do they know I’m no good? Do they know I’m not special? Did someone fuck up??” There was an intellectual prestige I felt I could never live up to.

#IVYLEAGUEREADY Photo Credit: WikiCommons

Gradually I found my footing, and eventually my confidence. I could hold my own in classes with Ph.D. candidates and my advisor started talking about continuing my research in a doctoral program. But as all graduate students know too well, we also had to spend precious time helping with undergraduate classes. We did the grunt work of grading, we directed breakout reading sessions, and we held office hours to meet with struggling students. And time after time I would give meticulously graded essays back to my own professor, only to be handed them back with a: “up these grades”.

“Why?” I asked. “They neglected to mention the particulars of the Maastricht Treaty” or “they missed the main point of your lecture on Chinese state media control.” It’s the answer that broke my heart and disgusted me.

“Because Brandeis needs high rankings. Lists and rankings that demonstrate what percentage of students are high performing dictate how much money we get. So everyone gets As. And if they’re failing, give them Bs.”

It was all a scam. Sure, my fellow students and peers were impressive and intelligent and hard working, but we were never going to learn or grow from a rubber stamp of approval that valued money over our own drive to become better!

I’m not so naïve to think that without that money, I wouldn’t have been getting the scholarships I had to be there. And most universities are non-profits, so they can only serve those who need them the most if they rob the pockets of the rich with fancy buildings named after them and favors. But I had spent my whole life idolizing this image of an ethical standard that came with admission into the elite intelligentsia of America. That is what society told me! That is what I knew, my whole life, would finally make me a deserving human being. But their scruples are just as confused as any other sector of society.

Williams College Museum of Art. Photo Credit: WikiCommons

I declined to continue with my education after that. I realized that there was no sacred power to be had from a fancy degree or admission to a privileged caste. I kept my head down and finished out my degree but declined to stay and took a job scooping ice cream. Clearly my foray had lead to incredible opportunities in a shit economy and a city (Boston) brimming with eager young things like me.

To those students like me who see academia as a means of finding their way in life, to climb an impossibly steep ladder, who see it as aspirational, who see it as a sacred calling – these morals are abhorrent. To admit the nouveau riche through fraud and the old money on thinly veiled bribery is to slap us in the face. Everything we worked towards over years of crying, struggling, and sacrificing will stand on equal footing with the minimal efforts of the privileged few. It’s no wonder so many give up or stop trying along the way once they realize that their shining example is tarnished, and that their handicap can never be erased when standing next to wealth. The New York Times Daily podcast host, Michael Barbaro paraphrased it succinctly: “If you don’t see or understand the winds at your back, you’re going to think that you deserve it.” We see it. But the advantaged do not. And therein lies the root of toxic privilege.

Lori Loughlin, the face of the college admissions scandal. Photo Credit: WikiCommons

Actress Lori Loughlin’s daughter, Olivia Jade, was one of the recipients of this entitlement when he was admitted to the University of Southern California. Olivia Jade had been working on creating a social media influencer brand and earlier admitted in her now infamous YouTube video that “I do want the experience of like game days, partying…I don’t really care about school”. That video has since been taken down, but it’s clear demonstration privileged children and young adults have numerous other avenues towards supporting themselves. If these people have been shuffled through an academic experience to protect the school’s reputation (as I myself was party to at Brandeis) then they will believe that they have every opportunity AND a right and ability to succeed in academics when they don’t. This increased confidence in their own universal ability looms large over students whose own self-confidence was shaky to begin with. And the ripple effects of this will expand during their own lifetimes, and continue through to their children henceforth.

These types of actions are what perpetuates the unbalanced and widening wealth and achievement gap in America. This belief in one’s own ability – even when it is not there – is the toxic privilege that poisons the pool of the American dream of pulling yourself up through sheer determination. For generations we’ve all watched as wealthy parents donated buildings and received charitable write-offs so the Trumps and the Rockefellers of this world could continue to rule with their inflated sense of self. And now that actors and models have gotten in on the action, we’re all going to pretend that we’re scandalized. Well this is nothing new, and deep down we all know it. I can now only hope and pray that this “scandal” strikes some kind of chord with our generation and we can start to change this moving forward. Otherwise, who cares?

Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties by Alfred Wordsworth. Photo Credit: WikiCommons


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