Many Americans believe that our society functions as a meritocracy, an informal governing system where people climb the ranks based on their ability. The best, brightest, and most hardworking can get all the way to the most influential positions in the country. While everyone else exists in lower roles that are better suited for their skill-level.
The belief in an American Meritocracy is heartening for a couple reasons. It tells us that anyone can reach the top if they try hard enough, including you! And if you don’t quite reach the top, then at least the people who managed to climb higher deserve to be there. It can be comforting to know that those serving at the highest levels of government or those put in charge of the biggest corporations are qualified to make decisions that affect millions of people. There is a reason we spread the word about our favorite candidate or read the Forbes “400 Wealthiest People” list: we think these people are inherently smarter and better than we are.
On March 12, this idea was challenged. Federal prosecutors announced an investigation into a college admissions bribing scandal. The FBI investigation (nicknamed “Varsity Blues”) found that William Singer, a college admissions counselor, had unethically carried out admissions for more than 750 wealthy families. District of Massachusetts prosecutors have released indictments and complaints against 50 people, including parents who have used bribery and various kinds of fraud to gain admission for their children at the country’s top colleges and universities. The federal prosecutor revealing the scheme assured the nation that there would be justice, and that “There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy.”
Despite the valiant efforts of these federal prosecutors, there is a separate college admissions system for the wealthy, and it will continue to exist even after this investigation concludes. There are many ways that wealthier families get advantages in the admission process by the simple virtue of having more money, and most of them are very legal.
Nearly half of private colleges and universities take into account whether an applicant’s family members attended that school, giving special preference to “legacy admission” students who are more likely to have come from richer backgrounds. Many colleges consider if an applicant has made a campus visit, which can be trip that’s too expensive for other families. Wealthy parents can pay thousands of dollars for test prep and college consulting for their children, in contrast to struggling families who may need their children to spend their time working jobs in order to support the household.
Wealthier school districts can offer far more sports and extracurriculars which can help those students distinguish themselves in ways that kids from poorer school districts can’t. Wealthier parents can also simply donate large amounts of money to schools in order to get their children unofficial special preference. And some high school students will simply never be able to afford college no matter how smart and talented they are, unlike their more privileged peers.
The college admission scandal is not an isolated event in well functioning system, it’s a crack in the lie that there is a meritocracy that deserves to rule over us.
Many of the people at the top aren’t there because they’re far smarter or more hard-working than you are, they’re there because they had more money or knew the right people. The CEO of Mylan, Heather Bresch, who raised the price of EpiPens from $50 to $600 didn’t become CEO and jack prices because she was smarter than you, she did it because she was the child of a senator and was provided every opportunity in life. White House advisor Jared Kushner didn’t get into Harvard because of his spectacular GPA and SAT scores, which his high school administrator says “did not warrant it,” he got in because his father donated $2.5 million dollars to the school. Bresch and Kushner now both make decisions that affect millions of Americans because of their parent’s wealth rather than their own merit. And they aren’t the exception, they are the rule.
You could consider me hypocritical for writing about this. My family’s secure financial position allowed me to spend more time studying so I could perform better academically than the average student. My high school had enough money to run a whole host of extracurriculars which I had the time to join because I wasn’t working to support my family. My decision to go to Alma was aided by the fact that my mom’s employment here grants me an almost tuition-free college education. I could afford to work an unpaid internship over the summer and use it to build my resume. I’m the result of many privileges. Yet, I have also turned down my favorite college because of the costs associated with it, like many other people have.
There are students who are far smarter and more qualified than me who aren’t in college because of their financial situation. Similarly, there are students less smarter and less qualified than me who are in more prestigious colleges because of their financial situation. We’re all products of our environments, and some of these environments are better than others. None of us are hypocrites for admitting this.
We don’t live in a meritocracy, we live in a system ruled by inequalities. To recognize this doesn’t mean we should all be ashamed of the advantages and privileges that we have or don’t have. You may have deserved better or worse than what you got, and you may have gotten more or less opportunities than the person next to you. But you aren’t defined by what you deserved or how many opportunities you had. You are defined by how you use what you have to make sure that those after you are more deserving and that they have more opportunities.