How the college admissions scandal busts racist stereotypes about who gets into elite schools

The campus of Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Georgetown and several other schools including Yale, Stanford, and the University of Texas, were named in an FBI investigation.

And shows why we need affirmative action.

A massive college cheating scandal was uncovered this week. Dozens of wealthy parents, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, have been accused of using bribes to get their children into exclusive colleges. I read the list of the 33 defendants and noticed something: Nearly all of them were white.

As a researcher who studies race and elite universities, I know that when many Americans hear “college fraud,” they associate it with people of color. Whether that’s black students getting into school solely because of affirmative action or Asian-American students pushed by merciless “tiger moms” to do whatever it takes, popular stereotypes around race tend to fuel the idea that people of color are “cheating” their ways into elite schools.

The narrative that black students are given an unfair leg up in admissions through affirmative action is pervasive among critics of the program. The idea — that beneficiaries have not earned their place in top colleges — is damaging to many black students. It ignores the historical and ongoing ways that race shapes opportunities for children in the United States. The truth is that black students on elite campuses tend to come from less wealthy families than their white peers. Affirmative action is one of the few non-academic criteria of admission that attempts to reduce inequality in access.

Then, of course, there is another famous admissions scandal at the T.M. Landry school in Louisiana. An unaccredited private school in Louisiana serving a predominantly African-American student body, T.M. Landry was exposed in November for large-scale fraud in the college admissions process. School officials exploited narratives of hardship among African-American youth, asking students to lie about adversity in their lives in order to gain admission to top colleges, in addition to falsifying transcripts. This fraud played into elite colleges’ love for stories of the most disadvantaged black youth succeeding despite all odds, and the need for unlikely stories like the ones the school fabricated to have a chance for admission to top colleges when a teen does not come from privilege.

Then there are the ugly stereotypes surrounding Asian-American students and their “tiger moms” who supposedly push overachievement through means that many deem unacceptable. In her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua claims that Asian parents push their children to attain uber-high levels of achievement in academics and extracurriculars through means that some perceive as abusive and downright wrong. In college admissions, some worry that stereotypes of Asian Americans as high-achieving but robotic might affect admissions officers’ evaluations, or about the “personality” rating at Harvard that has been under scrutiny in an admissions lawsuit there.

In my research in suburban communities, I’ve found that some parents even suggest that the pressure Asian parents place on their children can affect their peers’ mental health, because it raises standards at school to seemingly impossible levels. Still, I found that black students reported more pressure from their parents than did white and Asian-American students, suggesting that the reality of students’ lives is much more complex than these simplistic accounts.

In contrast to these stereotypes, most plaintiffs in this week’s college scandal are wealthy whites from the top 1 percent. The suit makes clear that all parents, across lines of race, class, and, of course, celebrity status, will do whatever they can to ensure their children’s success, however advantaged those children already are. A small minority will even turn to illegal means, as the families in this case are accused of doing.

While parents always do their best by their children, they have different resources at their disposal to do so. White and Asian-American families, for example, benefit from higher incomes than black, Latinx, and Native American families and face less discrimination in the housing market, more frequently enabling their children to live in areas of concentrated wealth and to spend more money on developing their children’s extracurricular talents. Legacy families are also disproportionately white, given the enrollments of elite colleges in the past, another mechanism that boosts white enrollment on those campuses. The list of mechanisms that promote privilege in college admissions is long.

The way forward is to implement systems that ensure, as much as possible, that families without privilege, wealth, and social connections also have a chance at success. But it also serves as a warning not to place such a high stake in the admissions game. Beyond these criminal activities, privilege will always play some role in an unequal society because advantaged parents, just like disadvantaged parents, will do everything they can to help their children succeed.

Natasha Warikoo is an associate professor of education at Harvard University and the author of The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities. Find her on Twitter @nkwarikoo.


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