When Their Kids Don’t Make the Cut

The rich cheat to get ahead in college admissions, but celebrities and CEOs aren’t the only ones playing the game, writes Jessica Calarco.

March 22, 2019
 
 

“I don’t want them to suffer.” That’s what one affluent, white, stay-at-home mother -- and former teacher -- told me as I sat at her kitchen table one July afternoon. From the mother’s tone, it would’ve been easy to assume she was talking about protecting her kids from some sort of serious physical or emotional hardship. But no. She was explaining to me why, when her kids leave their homework or projects or lunch boxes at home, she always drives over and drops them off at school.

If, by privileged logic, forgotten homework counts as suffering, then not getting in to a “top” college or university does, too. And privileged parents are willing to do just about anything -- even cheat and lie and potentially go to prison -- so their kids don’t have to “suffer” that fate.

In some ways, the recent college admissions scandal shows that it’s getting harder to game the system. It takes a lot more than just a phone call or a $5 million donation for a celebrity or a CEO to get their kid into a top school. And that’s because celebrities and CEOs aren’t the only ones playing the game.

Today, parents with mundane amounts of privilege -- white doctors, lawyers, college professors, accountants and even teachers -- are playing the admissions game. And the game starts long before kids take the SATs.

Mundanely privileged parents game the system by living in the “best” neighborhoods. By sending their kids to the “best” schools. By signing their children up for music lessons, tutoring sessions and travel sports. That’s Privileged Parenting Level 1. But the game -- the quest for elite college admissions -- doesn’t stop there.

For some privileged parents, Level 1 might be enough to achieve their goal: a kid with an elite college or university degree.

But for other privileged parents, and especially those whose children are, shall we say, academically mundane, Level 1 doesn’t cut it. Those parents need Level 2.

Level 2 is where privileged parents declare themselves above the rules of an already unfair game. By finding a specialist who will declare their kid gifted because they didn’t qualify on the school’s standard test. By emailing the teacher to excuse their kid from homework because they left their materials at school. By doing their kid’s project for them because they can’t do it perfectly on their own.

When celebrities and CEOs are competing with scores of other mundanely privileged parents, and especially when the kids of those celebrities are academically mundane, those celebrities and CEOs have to up the ante. They have to take privileged parenting to Level 3.

That’s how we get to where we are today: with exceptionally privileged parents bribing and cheating their kids to the top in ways that mundanely privileged parents simply can’t afford.

And if mundanely privileged parents can’t afford Level 3, then what hope do poor and working-class parents and parents of color have of getting their children into elite colleges? They don’t have the money to game the system. And they don’t have the race and class privilege to get away with breaking the rules. So, despite the fact that first-generation college students and students of color often have the most to gain from going to an elite college, they’re also the students least likely to get those degrees.

But if the kids in privileged families already have such a huge leg up over their more marginalized peers, why do privileged parents feel like they have to game the system? Why are they so desperately focused on getting their children into elite institutions?

Certainly, there’s a link between going to an elite college and getting an elite job -- plenty of powerful people have degrees from Stanford, Yale or Georgetown Universities. But, as I teach my college students, correlation is not causation. And privileged kids -- and especially the kids of celebrities and CEOs -- will probably do just fine, whether they go to Stanford or State U.

The fact is that when privileged parents play the college admissions game, they’re playing for the title of World’s Best Mom or World’s Greatest Dad.

From the outside, being the “world’s best” means being better than every other parent in the game. And in our status-driven, hypercompetitive culture, having a kid who goes to Stanford or Yale is the ultimate acknowledgment of one’s worth as a parent.

From the inside, being the “world’s best” also means having the happiest kid. In our self-esteem-obsessed culture, the happiest kid is the one who earns the biggest prize. And that’s why the celebrities and CEOs in the suit didn’t just opt for a legal route to the top, like a $5 million donation for a new building. Those parents probably wanted their kids to believe that they deserved to be at an elite institution -- that they got there on their own merits and not just because of what their parents could buy.

So what would it take to keep privileged parents from gaming the system? The possibility of prison time might discourage celebrity and CEO parents from attempting Level 3 -- but it could just encourage them to be more careful in hiding their tracks. And it seems unlikely that this scandal will have any impact on privileged parenting at Level 1 or Level 2. Deluded by the rhetoric of meritocracy, and steeped in their own entitlement, most mundanely privileged parents don’t even see themselves as privileged. So they probably see no need to change their ways.

What it would take is radically reducing the power of privilege -- by raising the minimum wage, offering a guaranteed basic income and raising marginal tax rates, as well as estate taxes and taxes on capital gains. By decoupling school funding from property taxes (and from PTA fund-raisers). By dissociating measures of school “quality” from test scores (and from home-buying websites).

And, directly related to college admissions, it would be by using state and federal funds to cover the full cost of public colleges and universities. By setting equitable minimum standards for admission and letting a lottery decide who gets in. And by ensuring that when privileged people do try to game the system, they can’t use their privilege to get out of punishment in the end.

Bio

Jessica Calarco is an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University and the author of Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School (Oxford 2018).

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