We Regret to Remind You That the Meritocracy Has Never Been Real

The college bribe scandal is more proof that elites will hang onto power at any cost

After graduating college, I faced the same reality as many former liberal arts students: Employers aren’t looking for someone to quote Foucault or write Marxist critiques of Victorian novels. My most marketable skills, it seemed, were those that had gotten me into a reputable school in the first place — and so I wound up in the Manhattan offices of a vaunted test-prep company, interviewing for an SAT tutor job. The founder told me I could expect flexible hours and a kingly salary were I to join the team. When it came time to ask a few questions of my own, I had just one: Were all the clients rich?

The services were indeed expensive, my interviewer said, but a handful of less advantaged teens got them for free, or at a significant discount, by winning a kind of scholarship. This pro bono work sounded nice and well-intentioned, yet I found it discouraged me from pursuing the gig. I already felt weird about charging outrageous fees for my SAT “expertise” when I owed my testing success to the same cheap study guide that every high schooler gets, and here I would also have to reckon with a hierarchy where the lower classes had to prove themselves worthy of the exam techniques that well-off kids accepted as an endowment. It was as though the fabled meritocracy were trying to force itself into being right where it couldn’t possibly exist.

You can’t call it a revelation that dozens of wealthy parents, including some Hollywood celebrities, were indicted this week for orchestrating college admissions fraud with the help of university staff, test-prep companies and exam proctors. If anything surprises here, it’s how brazen and dimwitted these scams were: bribes for administrators, fake athletic achievements and SAT scores fixed under special accommodations obtained by claiming disability. To the parents, it was obvious that there are no rules in the admissions process; all is fair in love, war and enrolling your kid at Yale. Anyone in their position, with their resources, would do the same, they must have figured — and how might they have concluded otherwise? The American aristocracy pays millions to secure Ivy League pedigrees for their children, barely concealing the quid pro quo. When private, for-profit, luxury-branded education is the prize, money is a language.

It’s even harder to be ignorant of the paths to an ivory tower when you’re living in one. I and college classmates able to plausibly claim that we’d “earned” a spot — ignoring our systemic privileges, of course — delighted in teasing the third-generation legacies and anyone whose family name was on a campus building as undeserving ne’er-do-wells, regardless of their academic performance. The joke became an inversion of the actual order: The rich, connected kids were supposed charity cases instead of heirs to power.

This stopped being funny to me the summer I led tours and did clerical work for the admissions office, where I read (and shredded) the internal notes on hundreds of applications. While a complex rubric allowed the department to assign a numeral grade to each person vying for an acceptance letter — their “objective” worthiness as a candidate — the written evaluations assessed, with ambiguous reasoning, whether someone was a “good fit,” and whether they could “thrive” in this environment. That environment, overwhelmingly white and upper-class, with a strong investment in the sports, extracurriculars and social culture of that sector, gave the edge to students with a similar background. Plus, if you came from a dynastic fortune, the alumni society would have an easier time siphoning donations from you down the line, all for gleaming construction and renovations to entice another batch of affluent 18-year-olds.

And with more and more applicants boasting perfect scores and grades, such data is necessarily devalued next to the intangible factors, wherein bias looms as a bigger issue. It’s natural for old, selective schools to default to their blue-blooded history as the gentry fight to maintain control of these institutions. Indeed, the agonies of increasingly competitive applicant pools, the white panic over affirmative action and the failure of measures like the SATs to level the playing field in some ways serve to distract from the long-term effects of unfair and unequal admissions: an “educated” class that functions more like the membership of a country club, hobnobbing and making introductions and swapping favors for decades to come. Access to a network of well-positioned graduates was a prime selling point when I visited my now alma mater, one I happily repeated as a tour guide. This very morning, I received an email from an alumnus I’ve met a couple of times, asking if I could patch him through to an alumna who may help get him hired at her glitzy place of business. I barely know either party, yet the secret handshake of having attended the same small college tends to erode that awkwardness.

This, you realize, is what the rich are trying to steal for their offspring: a few years of grade inflation at a pricey sleepaway camp, followed by a lifetime of open doors. That they appear not to recognize how either wealth or celebrity alone can unlock those doors, with or without a degree from the right kind of university, is a testament to how ruthlessly those schools exploit their status anxiety. The high cathedrals of academia convince them that admittance, in theory, cannot be purchased — and is therefore crucial to a continued illusion of earned prosperity. Then, in their predictable fashion, the millionaires turn around and try to buy that prestige, too. Is Harvard going to let them? Absolutely, yes, because they are aligned on a principle: Enough is never quite enough.