fb-pixel Skip to main content

In college admissions, the American Dream has gone bad

US Attorney Andrew Lelling spoke at the federal courthouse in Boston on Tuesday as he announced charges against dozens of individuals in a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The veil has been lifted. So now what?

Will we finally fix the way we do college admissions in this country? Or will we still cling to the useful — and destructive — American fiction that every kid of equal merit has an equal shot?

Tuesday’s charges by US Attorney Andrew Lelling uncovered a bribery scheme in which wealthy parents and dirty operators engineered college acceptances for kids so privileged they shouldn’t have needed extra help. The corruption revealed in this case was shocking, but, as others have pointed out, it was only a click or three beyond the perfectly legal measures that rich parents take to give their kids unfair advantages: greasing their applications via huge donations (Oh, hey, Jared Kushner), legacy preferences, and the influence of their social networks, for example.


“It’s a spectrum,” says Richard Reeves, an economist at the Brookings Institution who studies social mobility. “And somewhere along it is a line which is the law, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that everything on the other side of the line is OK.”

Reeves has written a book called “Dream Hoarders” about the ways in which wealthier Americans maintain their strangle hold on elements of the American Dream, including a good education.

Even at the more benign end of the spectrum, kids from affluent families enjoy advantages way beyond those of other kids. To name just a few from a very long list: better K-12 schools; access to tutors, college essay coaches, and SAT prep; the luxury of working in unpaid internships; the support and money to pursue sports, music, and other extracurricular activities that admissions officers love.

In the face of a profoundly unequal society that is only growing more so, a rigged college admissions system “rubs salt in the wound,” Reeves says.


But Americans increasingly find such egalitarian thinking unwelcome. There is open hostility in some quarters (the line starts in the White House) to attempts to tilt the system back in favor of those who don’t begin life with advantages.

In this view, college admissions are rigged — not against poor applicants, disproportionately black and brown, but against white kids, whose places are being stolen, they absurdly contend, by kids of color who don’t deserve them.

What’s left of affirmative action is under assault, including here in Massachusetts.

Conservative legal strategist Edward Blum, who has made it his mission to attack policies that benefit people of color, assembled a case challenging Harvard’s admission policies, in which race is one factor. This time, Blum and his conservative allies are hiding behind a group of Asian students, but their aim is clearly to get the case, currently with a federal judge in Boston, to the US Supreme Court, where the conservative majority is likely to rule in a way that makes Harvard’s student body more white.

President Trump is on Blum’s side, of course, since white grievance is central to his electoral strategy. Recall how the dim bulb who now occupies the Oval Office demanded the college transcripts and test scores of the nation’s first black president, accusing him of having used his race to get ahead — “I heard he was a terrible student, terrible” — even as Trump’s underlings and allies threatened his alma maters to make sure his own dreary academic records never saw daylight.


Trump’s political survival depends upon the lie that ordinary white folks are struggling, not because rich men like him hoard privilege and avoid the taxes that might improve education for everybody, but because black and brown people are cutting to the front of the line.

Which is why this federal bribery case is potentially huge. Reeves thinks more Americans will now see the fullness of the unseemly iceberg when it comes to college admissions process, and that there will be pressure to close off all of the ways the system is rigged for the affluent.

“Between this corruption scandal and the [Harvard] court case, the whole house of cards is going to come down,” he says. “Elite institutions are going to have to rethink their admissions policies and philosophies from the ground up.”

It’s also possible that Americans will look at the sordid world revealed by this outrageous scheme and — as with so many other revelations of these times that should have been game-changers — they will simply shrug, and move on.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.