Cynthia M. Allen

These “woke” parents gamed the college admissions system

Students on the University of Texas at Austin campus in 2012. UT and Texas A&M are among Money magazine’s “Best Schools for Your Money.”
Students on the University of Texas at Austin campus in 2012. UT and Texas A&M are among Money magazine’s “Best Schools for Your Money.” AP archives

In the age of “wokeness,” the word privilege is so frequently used, some might argue misused, that it sometimes doesn’t mean what it used to mean.

Being white is considered a privilege, of course, but so is being cis-gendered, as is having two married parents or parents who read you bedtime stories as a child.

But the advantages afforded by biology and good parenting aren’t really comparable to the naked exercise of privilege unmasked by federal prosecutors on Tuesday.

A shock indictment charged dozens of wealthy and celebrity parents with conspiring to get their kids into competitive colleges by helping them to cheat on college entrance exams (often without their children’s knowledge) or to falsify athletic records of students to enable them to secure admission to elite schools, including Stanford, Yale, Georgetown, the University of Southern California, and closer to home, the University of Texas at Austin.

According to the indictment, those charged are alleged to have funneled at least $25 million through a fraudulent college-counseling service.

The Wall Street Journal reports that “one New York law-firm co-chairman allegedly paid $75,000 to an admissions consultant so his daughter could fly to Los Angeles and take the ACT in a private room last December, accompanied by a proctor who had been paid to correct her errors,” while another couple is alleged to have contributed $400,000 to a sham charity which then funneled monies to the then-head tennis coach at Georgetown University, in exchange for having their daughter tagged as a recruited athlete.

There are few surprises in the revelation that wealthy and connected people successfully used their wealth and connections to achieve exactly the ends they were seeking for their children — admission to elite colleges and the requisite benefits that affords. We have longed accepted, because it is often true, that money can be used to purchase unfair advantages. Nothing new here. But there are ironies in this particular scandal, too.

To start, one wonders why these rich parents didn’t simply seek to secure their kids’ admission the old-fashioned way — by buying a building or making some other sizable donation to the school of their choosing. Admission in such cases is usually a given. It’s conspicuous; there’s a certain honesty to it.

The parents involved in this scandal were different; they seemed to recognize that their wealth and status made their kids privileged, something that — in their wokeness — made them uncomfortable. To them, admission on merit or ability was important, or at least a standard they felt they had to accept. Maybe they invested in tutors or private coaches to help their children earn admission by their own abilities. If they did, their attempts were futile. But another option was available: purchasing the test scores or athletic abilities their kids either couldn’t or wouldn’t bother to achieve.

That’s insidious. And since we’re talking about “wokeness,” it’s worth noting that many (not all) of the parents charged are Democratic Party donors and supporters of progressive “woke” politicians such as California Sen. Kamala Harris.

Another irony in the scandal is that academic merit does matter in elite college admissions; it’s also just one measure employed by increasingly progressive school administrations. The trend among elite institutions has been to diversify student bodies by relying on measures other than standardized testing and grades to evaluate applicants.

Indeed, race, ethnicity and socio-economic status are all factors in selecting (or not selecting) a freshman class, and that sometimes means rejecting more qualified students in favor of those who fit a more desirable profile. It’s a sticky business. Just ask Harvard, which is currently embroiled in a lawsuit alleging that it discriminated against Asian-American applicants.

All this to say, spending $50,000 to doctor your kid’s SAT score still might be futile.

Of all the questions this scandal raises, we might start asking why we continue to put so much emphasis on degrees from institutions for which promoting privilege and discrimination is the norm?

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