Remember when rich parents had the integrity to donate buckets of cash to fancy universities so their mediocre kids could get a coveted spot?
Say what you want about Jared Kushner’s convicted felon father, Charles. At least he had enough scruples to write his $2.5 million check directly to Harvard University. He didn’t try to pass off Jared as a water polo champ.
Everyone knew what was up in that exchange. Daddy Kushner knew he was putting a down-payment on a diploma. Harvard knew, and as evidenced by more recent emails, they like how this game has long been played. And Jared knew.
Which brings us to what may be the most surprising thing in this college cheating scandal. Most of the beneficiaries of the busted rich parents allegedly had no idea they got a hefty assist getting into Yale or Stanford. Some of them actually believed their SAT scores magically rose 400 points or they jumped from a 17 ACT to a 35. There’s a telling exchange in the 200-plus-page affidavit detailing the investigation’s findings. “Cooperating Witness 1” is explaining how the cheating scheme works to a parent and says the student won’t have any idea they didn’t earn the inflated score.
“Which is great, that’s the way you want it. They feel good about themselves,” he said.
Well, there’s a millennial twist to a cheating scandal. You can protect your kid’s self-esteem as you bribe and cheat their way into college. Some of these students might have had a clue that they weren’t among the brightest and best in their exclusive high schools. But being surrounded by wealth has a way of making you feel like you’ve “earned” whatever you get.
The Privileged Action group tends to get really worked up about the Affirmative Action group. They don’t seem to get as upset about legacy kids, for whom simply being related to another person gets them bonus points. They also don’t get as upset about the spots reserved for athletes in sports dominated by white participants that require big money to play. It doesn’t even rankle the middle class that Early Decision students, whose families typically don’t have to worry about financial aid packages, have a far greater chance of acceptance than those who apply later in order to have competing financial aid offers. During the recent trial of Harvard’s admission system, one witness noted that early decision legacies get a 40-percentage-point boost in the chance of admission, compared with a 9-point boost for low-income students, according to the school’s own analysis.
Where’s the clamoring to get rid of legacy bonus points? For whatever reason, giving an unearned advantage to the children of rich families doesn’t provoke the same angst in America that Affirmative Action has.
The children who grow up in bubbles of privilege often don’t have anyone of authority in their lives to give them a reality check about how much of their “success” is a reflection of things they never earned in the first place. The schools they attend from preschool and the selective universities they end up in reinforce this message: You are special. Your hard work got you here. You are destined to do great things.
Imagine if during orientation, selective colleges and universities shared some perspective-setting data about how their school is overrepresented by those from the wealthiest families. Imagine if they showed how that wealth made the path to this college all that much easier for them. It’s hard to deliver that message to kids whose families also may be writing hefty tuition checks. But if higher education institutions were more honest and transparent about who gets in and why, perhaps these students would graduate with more realistic ideas about what their degrees mean. Colleges and universities should expose the limits of the supposed meritocracy their students believe they rode in on. Maybe they will become parents less inclined to game the system for their own kids.
It’s hard to teach integrity by the time students get to college. But you can still impart some humility.