In March 2019, as high school students awaited the results of their college applications, federal prosecutors made a stunning announcement. They charged thirty-three wealthy parents with engaging in an elaborate cheating scheme to get their children admitted to elite universities, including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, and the University of Southern California.1
At the heart of the scam was an unscrupulous college-counseling consultant named William Singer, who ran a business that catered to anxious, affluent parents. Singer’s company specialized in gaming the intensely competitive college admissions system that had in recent decades become the primary gateway to prosperity and prestige. For students lacking the stellar academic credentials top colleges required, Singer devised corrupt workarounds—paying proctors of standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT to boost students’ scores by correcting their answer sheets, and bribing coaches to designate applicants as recruited athletes, even if the students did not play the sport. He even provided fake athletic credentials, photoshopping applicants’ faces onto action photos of real athletes.
Singer’s illicit admissions service did not come cheap. The chairman of a prestigious law firm paid $75,000 for his daughter to take a college entrance exam at a test center supervised by a proctor paid by Singer to ensure the student received the score she needed. One family paid Singer $1.2 million to get their daughter admitted to Yale as a soccer recruit, despite the fact that she did not play soccer. Singer used $400,000 of the payment to bribe the obliging Yale soccer coach, who was also indicted. A television actress and her husband, a fashion designer, paid Singer $500,000 to get their two daughters admitted to USC as bogus recruits to the crew team. Another celebrity, the actress Felicity Huffman, known for her role in the television series Desperate Housewives, somehow got a bargain rate; for only $15,000, Singer put in the fix for her daughter’s SAT.2
In all, Singer took in $25 million over eight years running his college admissions scam.
The admissions scandal provoked universal outrage. In a polarized time, when Americans could scarcely agree on anything, it drew massive coverage and condemnation across the political spectrum—on Fox News and MSNBC, in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Everyone agreed that bribing and cheating to gain admission to elite colleges was reprehensible. But the outrage expressed something deeper than anger at privileged parents using illicit means to help their kids get into prestigious colleges. In ways that people struggled to articulate, it was an emblematic scandal, one that raised larger questions about who gets ahead, and why.
Inevitably, the expressions of outrage were politically inflected. Surrogates for President Trump took to Twitter and Fox News to taunt the Hollywood liberals ensnared in the scam. “Look at who these people are,” Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, said on Fox. “The Hollywood elites, the liberal elites who were always talking about equality for all, and everyone should get a fair shot, when here is the biggest hypocrisy of all: That they’re writing checks to cheat and get their kids into these schools—when the spots really should’ve gone to kids that were actually deserving of them.”3
For their part, liberals agreed that the scam deprived qualified kids of the places they deserved. But they saw the scandal as a blatant instance of a more pervasive injustice: the role of wealth and privilege in college admission, even where no illegality was involved. In announcing the indictment, the U.S. Attorney declared what he took to be the principle at stake: “There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy.”4 But editorial and opinion writers were quick to point out that money routinely plays a role in admissions, most explicitly in the special consideration many American universities accord children of alumni and generous donors.
Responding to Trump supporters’ attempts to blame liberal elites for the admissions scandal, liberals cited published reports that Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, had been admitted to Harvard despite a modest academic record after his father, a wealthy real estate developer, had donated $2.5 million to the university. Trump himself reportedly gave $1.5 million to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania around the time his children Donald Jr. and Ivanka attended the school.5
THE ETHICS OF ADMISSION
Singer, the mastermind of the admissions scam, acknowledged that a big gift sometimes gets marginally qualified applicants admitted through the “back door.” But he pitched his own technique, which he called the “side door,” as a cost-effective alternative. He told clients that the standard “back door” approach was “ten times as much money” as his cheating scheme, and less certain. A major gift to the college offered no guarantee of admission, while his “side door” of bribes and fake test scores did. “My families want a guarantee,” he explained.6
Although money buys access in both “back door” and “side door” admissions, these modes of entry are not morally identical. For one thing, the back door is legal, while the side door is not. The U.S. Attorney made this clear: “We are not talking about donating a building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter. We are talking about deception and fraud, fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials.”7
In prosecuting Singer, his clients, and the bribe-taking coaches, the feds were not telling colleges they could not sell seats in the freshman class; they were simply cracking down on a fraudulent scheme. Legality aside, the back door and the side door differ in this respect: When parents buy their child’s admission through a big donation, the money goes to the college, which can use it to improve the education it offers all students. With Singer’s scheme, the money goes to third parties, and so does little or nothing to help the college itself. (At least one of the coaches Singer bribed, the sailing coach at Stanford, apparently used the bribe to support the sailing program. Others pocketed the money.)
From the standpoint of fairness, however, it is hard to distinguish between the “back door” and the “side door.” Both give an edge to children of wealthy parents who are admitted instead of better-qualified applicants. Both allow money to override merit.
Admission based on merit defines entry through the “front door.” As Singer put it, the front door “means you get in on your own.” This mode of entry is what most people consider fair; applicants should be admitted based on their own merit, not their parents’ money.
In practice, of course, it is not that simple. Money hovers over the front door as well as the back. Measures of merit are hard to disentangle from economic advantage. Standardized tests such as the SAT purport to measure merit on its own, so that students from modest backgrounds can demonstrate intellectual promise. In practice, however, SAT scores closely track family income. The richer a student’s family, the higher the score he or she is likely to receive.8
Not only do wealthy parents enroll their children in SAT prep courses; they hire private admissions counselors to burnish their college applications, enroll them in dance and music lessons, and train them in elite sports such as fencing, squash, golf, tennis, crew, lacrosse, and sailing, the better to qualify for recruitment to college teams. These are among the costly means by which affluent, striving parents equip their progeny to compete for admission.
And then there is tuition. At all but the handful of colleges wealthy enough to admit students without regard for their ability to pay, those who do not need financial aid are more likely than their needy counterparts to get in.9
Given all this, it is not surprising that more than two-thirds of students at Ivy League schools come from the top 20 percent of the income scale; at Princeton and Yale, more students come from the top 1 percent than from the entire bottom 60 percent of the country.10 This staggering inequality of access is due partly to legacy admissions and donor appreciation (the back door), but also to advantages that propel children from well-off families through the front door.
Critics point to this inequality as evidence that higher education is not the meritocracy it claims to be. From this point of view, the college admissions scandal is an egregious instance of the broader, pervasive unfairness that prevents higher education from living up to the meritocratic principle it professes.
Despite their disagreements, those who consider the cheating scandal a shocking departure from standard admissions practices and those who consider it an extreme example of tendencies already prevalent in college admissions share a common premise: Students should be admitted to college based on their own abilities and talents, not based on factors beyond their control. They agree, in other words, that admission should be based on merit. They also agree, implicitly at least, that those who get in based on merit have earned their admission and therefore deserve the benefits that flow from it.
If this familiar view is right, then the problem with meritocracy is not with the principle but with our failure to live up to it. Political argument between conservatives and liberals bears this out. Our public debates are not about meritocracy itself but about how to achieve it. Conservatives argue, for example, that affirmative action policies that consider race and ethnicity as factors in admission amount to a betrayal of merit-based admission; liberals defend affirmative action as a way of remedying persisting unfairness and argue that a true meritocracy can be achieved only by leveling the playing field between the privileged and the disadvantaged.
But this debate overlooks the possibility that the problem with meritocracy runs deeper.
Consider again the admissions scandal. Most of the outrage focused on the cheating, and the unfairness of it. Equally troubling, however, are the attitudes that fueled the cheating. Lying in the background of the scandal was the assumption, now so familiar that it is scarcely noticed, that admission to an elite university is a highly sought prize. The scandal was attention-grabbing not only because it implicated celebrities and private equity moguls but also because the access they tried to buy was so widely desired, the object of fevered striving.
Why is this so? Why has admission to prestigious universities become so fiercely sought that privileged parents commit fraud to get their kids in? Or, short of fraud, spend tens of thousands of dollars on private admissions consultants and test prep courses to boost their children’s chances, turning their high school years into a stress-strewn gauntlet of AP classes, résumé building, and pressure-packed striving? Why has admission to elite colleges come to loom so large in our society that the FBI would devote massive law enforcement resources to ferreting out the scam, and that news of the scandal would command headlines and public attention for months, from the indictment to the sentencing of the perpetrators?
The admissions obsession has its origins in the growing inequality of recent decades. It reflects the fact that more is at stake in who gets in where. As the wealthiest 10 percent pulled away from the rest, the stakes of attending a prestigious college increased. Fifty years ago, applying to college was less fraught. Fewer than one in five Americans went to a four-year college, and those who did tended to enroll in places close to home. College rankings mattered less than they do today.11
But as inequality increased, and as the earnings gap between those with and those without a college degree widened, college mattered more. So did college choice. Today, students commonly seek out the most selective college that will admit them.12 Parenting styles have also changed, especially among the professional classes. As the income gap grows, so does the fear of falling. Seeking to avert this danger, parents became intensely involved with their children’s lives—managing their time, monitoring their grades, directing their activities, curating their college qualifications.13
This epidemic of overbearing, helicopter parenting did not come from nowhere. It is an anxious but understandable response to rising inequality and the desire of affluent parents to spare their progeny the precarity of middle-class life. A degree from a name-brand university has come to be seen as the primary vehicle of upward mobility for those seeking to rise and the surest bulwark against downward mobility for those hoping to remain ensconced in the comfortable classes. This is the mentality that led panicky, privileged parents to sign up for the college admissions scam.
But economic anxiety is not the whole story. More than a hedge against downward mobility, Singer’s clients were buying something else, something less tangible but more valuable. In securing a place for their kids in prestigious universities, they were buying the borrowed luster of merit.
BIDDING FOR MERIT
In an unequal society, those who land on top want to believe their success is morally justified. In a meritocratic society, this means the winners must believe they have earned their success through their own talent and hard work.
Paradoxically, this is the gift the cheating parents wanted to give their kids. If all they really cared about was enabling their children to live in affluence, they could have given them trust funds. But they wanted something else—the meritocratic cachet that admission to elite colleges confers.
Singer understood this when he explained that the front door means “you get in on your own.” His cheating scheme was the next best thing. Of course, being admitted on the basis of a rigged SAT or phony athletic credentials is not making it on your own. This is why most of the parents hid their machinations from their kids. Admission through the side door carries the same meritocratic honor as admission through the front door only if the illicit mode of entry is concealed. No one takes pride in announcing, “I’ve been admitted to Stanford because my parents bribed the sailing coach.”
The contrast with admission based on merit seems obvious. Those admitted with sparkling, legitimate credentials take pride in their achievement, and consider that they got in on their own. But this is, in a way, misleading. While it is true that their admission reflects dedication and hard work, it cannot really be said that it is solely their own doing. What about the parents and teachers who helped them on their way? What about talents and gifts not wholly of their making? What about the good fortune to live in a society that cultivates and rewards the talents they happen to have?
Those who, by dint of effort and talent, prevail in a competitive meritocracy are indebted in ways the competition obscures. As the meritocracy intensifies, the striving so absorbs us that our indebtedness recedes from view. In this way, even a fair meritocracy, one without cheating or bribery or special privileges for the wealthy, induces a mistaken impression—that we have made it on our own. The years of strenuous effort demanded of applicants to elite universities almost forces them to believe that their success is their own doing, and that if they fall short, they have no one to blame but themselves.
This is a heavy burden for young people to bear. It is also corrosive of civic sensibilities. For the more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility. And without these sentiments, it is hard to care for the common good.
College admission is not the only occasion for arguments about merit. Debates about who deserves what abound in contemporary politics. On the surface, these debates are about fairness: Does everyone have a truly equal opportunity to compete for desirable goods and social positions?
But our disagreements about merit are not only about fairness. They are also about how we define success and failure, winning and losing—and about the attitudes the winners should hold toward those less successful than themselves. These are highly charged questions, and we try to avoid them until they force themselves upon us.
Finding our way beyond the polarized politics of our time requires a reckoning with merit. How has the meaning of merit been recast in recent decades, in ways that erode the dignity of work and leave many people feeling that elites look down on them? Are the winners of globalization justified in the belief that they have earned and therefore deserve their success, or is this a matter of meritocratic hubris?
At a time when anger against elites has brought democracy to the brink, the question of merit takes on a special urgency. We need to ask whether the solution to our fractious politics is to live more faithfully by the principle of merit, or to seek a common good beyond the sorting and the striving.