US admissions scandal: hiding your privilege is an unacceptable privilege

Elite US universities’ history of acknowledging hereditary advantage at least came with a sense of social obligation, says Amanda Louise Johnson

March 22, 2019
Weigh up

It was instant meme-fodder: actress Lori Loughlin, or Aunt Becky from the TV sitcom Full House, had allegedly paid $500,000 to get her daughters into the University of Southern California with fake credentials. She did so as part of an apparent conspiracy of wealthy parents to buy their children’s admission to elite universities, often without their children’s knowledge.

As a university educator, I had my quips for social media: “At least when rich parents bought a new campus building, they made everybody know how their kid got into college – plus, we get a shiny new building,” I posted, or something to that effect. I was only half-joking, because my comment spoke to how America’s ambivalence about class drives its elite to exercise the morally dubious privilege of hiding their privilege.

According to reports, most universities implicated in this conspiracy are private, which means that they operate independently of state administration, funded by the interest of their own massive financial endowments. Many such universities were founded between 1865 and 1917, when industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, James Duke and Leland Stanford, having aggregated tremendous untaxed wealth, founded institutions late in life or by bequest to pay for their sins.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for institutions created to justify personal wealth, these universities still served the social hierarchy, often admitting only elite white men. Today, most institutions are co-educational and racial segregation is illegal, but unequal access to education and the emergence of a lucrative “college prep” industry still favour the social elite when it comes to “merit”.

At the same time, these institutions’ financial autonomy allows them to enrol and grant financial assistance to anyone they like, including foreign students, who are ineligible for scholarships from public institutions. While some students’ families pay the full quoted fees, others get partial assistance or even a “free ride”.

Within this economy, then, the wealthy students arguably subsidise the poorer ones, and admitting “legacies” from multiple generations of the same families establishes a philanthropic relationship that begets new buildings, new research equipment and new scholarships for enrollees who do demonstrate merit or need.

Throughout its history, then, elite US university culture has openly acknowledged hereditary privilege, and in a way that associates wealth and status with a sense of social obligation. It is weirdly aristocratic, which, of course, flies in the face of America’s cherished self-image as a classless society. As grating as it can be to witness the privilege of others, however, I would argue it is worse for the privileged to pretend to have never benefited from such advantage.

Hoarding wealth rather than donating it, for instance, benefits only the rich, and fabricating a hard-luck story to win sympathy will cause other students to blame themselves for not overcoming very real obstacles. “Playing humble”, in the end, ingratiates wealthy students with their poorer classmates, but in a way that allows the privileged to focus even more shamelessly on themselves.

Having attended two elite institutions – John D. Rockefeller’s University of Chicago and Vanderbilt University, founded by the railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt – I will concede that competition breeds selfishness at varying levels of privilege. My parents, for instance, never donated money for a new campus building, and I remember when a classmate at Chicago walked away from me mid-conversation after learning that I had not attended an expensive prep school.

On the other hand, my upbringing as a white, middle-class American made me luckier than many people on the planet – but that was easy to forget as ambition drove me to focus on the few barriers I still perceived.

It is even easier to forget your privilege when your own parents lie to you. Before Beckygate, Loughlin’s daughter, Olivia, described her admission to university rather cynically on YouTube, but investigators have alleged that other parents purchased fake test scores to deceive their children, thus denying them the opportunity to know if an advantaged upbringing had made them truly competitive with their peers.

As the beneficiaries of tremendous wealth, those young people are in a great position to benefit society with their privilege. But that cannot happen if no one will acknowledge it.

Amanda Louise Johnson is lecturer in English at Rice University.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: A privileged masquerade

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