Do We Really Know the "Rich Kids"?

The admissions scandal reveals that, rather than stereotype them, academe must take a better look at children of affluence, argues Billie Wright Dziech.

March 25, 2019

The Varsity Blues admissions debacle created, as scandals usually do, an unsavory cast of villains and considerable public, media and political outrage, most of which is justified. Its costs to disabled, minority and rejected applicants are obvious and irrefutable. But discussions of scandals tend to be transitory and simplistic, as this one may become.

That may be the probability in this case for several reasons, the most obvious of which Forbes contributor Natalie Wexler identified in saying this scandal “won’t be solved by arresting parents, or even by making college admissions more transparent. The affluent will always be in a position to give their children an advantage in the application process, not to mention in life.”

If this is one of the complexities that belong in the current discourse -- and it is -- some of the focus needs to be on the presence of so-called rich kids in not only elite college environments but also on all college campuses. Is it possible that academe needs to take a better look at the children of affluence? To see if their challenges and needs equal those of the disadvantaged? We cannot, after all, improve a broken admissions system, combat problematic campus behaviors and care adequately for students unless we know something about all of them.

That is an enormous challenge, since the definitions and parameters of “wealth” and “affluence” in America are largely indecipherable and too nebulous to merit judgment by those who employ them based largely on their own experience. A “rich” collegian from Los Angeles or New York City is likely to enjoy a vastly different lifestyle from one whose home is Alabama or North Dakota. Impressive cars and real estate may not accurately reflect a family’s indebtedness, so judgments made on external appearances are simply appearances.

What do we really know about the elusive “wealthy”? Especially their children? Suniya S. Luthar’s research on children in both poor and affluent environments may be the most impressive to date. One of her studies points out that research on children prior to the 1950s was based primarily on middle-class youth. However, children in poverty subsequently became the major focus of empirical study, as recognition of risk factors in their lives became apparent. The result was that in response to the assumption that “privileged” young people generally faced few obstacles, research on them was sharply curtailed as limited funding was devoted to low-income child development. Thus, there began an extended period of “ near total neglect [of the study] of affluent youngsters.”

That has changed as 21st century studies have revealed that, despite the assumption that they are at low risk, children and adolescents from affluent homes are in great danger from anxiety, depression, stress and substance abuse -- all which might be linked to combinations of excessive pressures. There can be a plethora of pressuring factors: highly competitive school environments stressing simultaneous achievement in academics, activities and sports; parental focus on personal careers and maintaining a “perfect” family image; discouragement of seeking help and tarnishing the familial image; disbelief by outsiders, even professionals, about the need for help and so on.

Luthar explains the disturbing assumption that “rich kids” have no serious problems: “Over the years, several troubled youth have reported that disclosure of their depression has elicited negative reactions ranging from incredulity (that they could have anything to be unhappy about) to dismissal or even scorn of what are seen as self-centered and entirely unwarranted complaints. The cultural trivialization of their depression -- via the ubiquitous message that the rich have no right to feel emotionally deprived -- only exacerbates existing feels of isolation and alienation.”

That attitude can be seen in comments like that of Mario Anderson, a junior at the University of California, Los Angeles, who responded to an interviewer asking about the admissions scandal, "In general you can tell, like, when someone bought their way in." Rugile Pekinas, another student, agreed: "[I was] not surprised at all, really. What you're born into is a lot of what you get in life, as this shows."

But is it possible that these members of the same generation as those “rich kids” are mistaken? Statistics from the Higher Education Research Institute’s Fall 2016 American Freshman National Norms survey of incoming first-time freshmen include student estimates of family income. Almost half of freshmen are in brackets extending from $100,000 to above $500,000. Concern about college debt has risen somewhat over time, but in this last available version of the study, when asked if they had concerns about lacking funds to complete college, 30.9 percent replied “None,” and 55.9 percent answered “Some (but I probably will have enough funds).”

While debt appears not to be an extraordinary source of concern for approximately half of college students, is “easy street” simply a myth? Maybe not. For several years, rising and troubling data suggest that mental health and well-being concerns, along with disability and chronic illness problems, have increased substantially and seriously affected institutional costs. Asked about difficulties they frequently experienced, students reported the following: 40.8 percent being overwhelmed by all they had to do, 11.9 percent depression and 34.5 percent anxiety.

An internet site called “The Growing Trends in College Mental Health Statistics” reports similar results for 2018. The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors found that current students deal with three major psychiatric conditions: anxiety (48.2 percent), stress (39.1 percent) and depression (34.5 percent). In addition, the site notes that a recent survey of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State found that higher education counselors are dealing with more students exhibiting mental health problems than ever before. They range from depression to anxiety to serious psychiatric disorders. Yet another survey revealed mental health to be the third-greatest safety concern for campus leaders.

A 2019 PEW Research Center poll demonstrated that “rich kids” are not to be excluded from the disquieting statistics afflicting teenagers aged 13 to 17. Examining three income groups ($30,000, $30,000-$74,999, $75,000), it found teens believed anxiety and depression characterized all three groups almost identically by 70 percent, 73 percent and 67 percent. So affluence, whatever one considers it to be, may not guarantee emotional security after all. As a matter of fact, this group might face an additional burden peers do not.

Expressing gratitude for being helped through college by affirmative action, columnist Elaine Ayala described Varsity Blues as “an ancient morality play set at elite universities with an unseemly cast of characters: spoiled teens and shameless parents … Thankfully, there are more characters in this drama: hardworking, cash-strapped students who didn’t cheat on their SAT or ACT tests and didn’t lie on college applications.” She is absolutely correct. “Hardworking, cash-strapped students” do unequivocally deserve our respect and support.

But then there is that statement that deserves pause: “The case exposed an American underbelly: greed, naked privilege and our own appetite for seeing the privileged fall.” I wonder, does she fail to recognize that she herself is deep in that “underbelly”? Is it possible that she, like too many other people, is responding to this incident without recognition that her outrage extends not only to the rejected and injured applicants but also is the result of her personal experience and assumptions about people she supposes to have easier lives than she? People about whom as individuals she knows nothing?

Luthar makes another observation especially applicable to postadolescents for whom positive peer relationships are essential, as many initially encounter culture shock and anxiety over extended absence from home: “Social psychologists have suggested, in fact, that misfortunes of the wealthy can evoke a malicious pleasure in others, for people in general feel some satisfaction in the downfall of those far more successful than they themselves are … The desire to be liked and accepted by others is universal, and the rich are not only often the focus of envy and dislike … but are also aware that their misfortunes tend to evoke malicious pleasure in others. Although in no way detracting from the myriad and formidable challenges faced by the poor, it is vital that psychologists correct their long-standing lack of concern with the isolation unique to affluence.”

Her caution that “classism is unconscionable whomever the target” matters as institutions struggle to cope with students exhibiting high levels of pressure and emotional distress. If colleges and universities are beset by growing expenses for more and more staff members to deal with student emotional and psychological problems, we cannot assume the socioeconomic well-off have fewer stressors than their peers. Nor can we disregard the pressure to maintain a positive public image and conform to familial expectations that causes many of those students to suppress their needs for help.

The reality of the human hunger to “see the privileged fall” phrase is what should concern us as discussion of this fiasco threatens to stereotype students about whom we have limited personal or collective knowledge. I have taught long enough to know that some minor “celebrity’s” daughter declaring she “didn’t care about school … just game days [and] partying” does not represent the character or ambitions of my students who come from prosperous homes. If in our commendable desire to prove our commitment to those from lower socioeconomic brackets, we conflate all “rich kids” with the overindulged offspring of dysfunctional parents who dominate current news, we are stereotyping them as surely as people stereotype poor and lower-middle-class kids.

Facing momentous changes and challenges in their lives, all young collegians need acceptance and support from peers, educators and families. This is the reason higher education needs to approach discussion of admission procedures with concern for young people from affluent backgrounds as cautiously as it does with others. They are each in their own way as complex as others. As William Deresiewicz points out in Excellent Sheep: “Kids who have the yoke of perfection thrust upon them tend to strive for perfection within the boundaries of the system in which they find themselves. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential.”

Like it or not, there are always going to be income disparities, and our responsibility is to ensure that every prospective applicant and student is treated fairly and equally. And before we allow this moment in higher education history to pass, we might consider Ron Lieber’s argument in The New York Times, “Growing Up on Easy Street Has Its Own Dangers”: “Before you roll your eyes and mime the playing of violins, let us dispense with the nasty term ‘rich people problems.’ The well-off are human, too, and if some of their children are hurting, it’s indecent to mock or ignore them.” It is also prejudicial and indecent to stereotype them.


Billie Wright Dziech is professor of English at the University of Cincinnati.


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