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Shocked That College Admissions Are Unfair? Don’t Be.

You’re shocked to learn that wealthy parents allegedly paid bribes to get their children into elite colleges? Really? You shouldn’t be.

Wealthy parents have been paying big bucks — perfectly legally — to get their children accepted into prestigious colleges for decades. The family makes a huge donation, and suddenly the kid who seemed headed for State U. is bound for the Ivy League. The shocking thing is that nobody seems to care.

If a couple of black or Latino kids get into Harvard or Yale through an affirmative action policy that allows for admission with slightly lower test scores, well, that’s fodder for outrage, fuel for several Fox News shows, the preamble for a lawsuit.

But the longstanding practice of allowing the less-qualified children of graduates to get into elite colleges — known as “legacy” — barely stirs interest, much less headlines. And even wealthy moms and dads who didn’t graduate from Stanford or Harvard or Princeton can pony up a substantial donation to prop the doors open for their kids, as Daniel Golden outlined in his well-researched 2006 book, The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.

Earlier this week, the Justice Department disclosed a sweeping college admissions scandal in which the wealthy, including well-known Hollywood actors, allegedly could not be bothered to follow the legal purchase-a-place-for-your-child practices already established at so many prestigious institutions. Instead, reports say, working with corrupt coaches and entrance exam officials, they lied outright — claiming a child was a championship rower, for example — or paid for fraudulent test scores, according to federal prosecutors. If that’s true, it lays bare a system of college admissions that is corrupt at its core.

Americans are deeply invested in the idea of meritocracy, the idealistic notion that people fail or succeed on their own merits. But for most of the history of this country, Americans of color were denied the opportunity to succeed — no matter how much grit, gumption and determination they demonstrated. And an economy that increasingly favors those who are already advantaged is now closing off opportunity to less-affluent whites, too. In other words, the myth of meritocracy is largely that: a myth.

Education, of course, is supposed to be the great equalizer, a path that will advance the masses. While many prestigious colleges remained the playgrounds of wealthy WASPs through the first half of the 20th century, the increasing use of standardized college entrance exams helped to change that in the latter half. High-achieving students from middle-class families — the sons and daughters of teachers, nurses and small business owners — were admitted. That cemented the myth of meritocracy, but it hardly made college admissions fair.

For centuries, black and brown people were denied the right to a decent education and were barred from entry into many of those elite schools. We could not give our children the advantage of basic academics, much less legacy. Black and brown children started off with educational deficits that made stellar test scores far less likely. Even now, many children of color are stuck in failing schools.

Affirmative action policies — which don’t admit unqualified students but do admit those with slightly lower test scores — were put in place to redress those longstanding disadvantages. But those policies provoke widespread condemnation. Universities across the country have been subjected to lawsuits seeking to end affirmative action in college admissions.

The practice of legacy admissions, however, has not prompted that sort of backlash. Nor has the practice of just giving an elite school a huge donation, the sort of legal bribe that probably helped Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, get into Harvard University, according to Golden’s book. He quoted a former official at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey, Kushner’s tony high school, who said, “There was no way anybody … thought [Kushner] would on the merits get into Harvard. His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it.” But Kushner’s wealthy father pledged $2.5 million to the school, and he was admitted.

It seems that less-affluent children of color aren’t smart enough to be admitted to prestigious institutions of higher education. They didn’t have sense enough to be born rich.

How College Admissions Are Tilted To Favor The Rich

My 2006 book, The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, was intended as a work of investigative journalism.

But many of its more affluent readers embraced it as a “how to” guide. For years afterward, they inundated me with questions like, “How much do I have to donate to get my son (or daughter) into Harvard (or Yale, or Stanford)?” Some even offered me significant sums, which I declined, to serve as an admissions consultant.

They may have been motivated by a tale I told in the book about a youth whose admission to Harvard appears to have been cemented by a $2.5 million pledge from his wealthy developer father. The then-obscure Harvardian would later vault to prominence in public life; his name was Jared Kushner.

Those requests from people who misunderstood my aim in writing the book came back to mind on Tuesday when I heard about the latest and most brazen scandal involving upper-crust parents — including chief executives, real estate investors, a fashion designer and two prominent actresses — manipulating college admissions.

One would think that the rich and famous would care less than the rest of us about foisting their children on elite colleges. After all, their kids are likely to be financially secure no matter where, or if, they go to college. Yet they seem even more desperate — to the extent, according to a complaint, that dozens of well-heeled parents ponied up six or seven figures for bogus SAT scores and athletic profiles for their children to increase their chances at Yale, Stanford and other brand-name universities.

The parents allegedly paid anywhere between $200,000 and $6.5 million to William Rick Singer, who ran a college counseling business in Newport Beach, California. Singer in turn bribed standardized test administrators and college coaches in upper-class sports like crew, sailing and water polo, even staging photos of the applicants playing various sports, prosecutors said.

The parents “chose to corrupt and illegally manipulate the system,” Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, said at a press conference Tuesday. “There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy.”

Perhaps these parents were pining to boast at Hollywood cocktail parties about their Ivy League imprimatur. Possibly their offspring, like those of many successful families, lacked the motivation to strive and excel academically, and without a substantial boost would have been consigned to colleges of lesser repute.

In any event, such allegedly criminal tactics represent the logical, if extreme, outgrowth of practices that have long been prevalent under the surface of college admissions, and that undermine the American credos of upward mobility and equal opportunity. Although top college administrators and admissions officials were apparently unaware of the deception, their institutions do bear some responsibility for developing and perpetuating the system that made it possible.

I began looking into this issue in 2003, at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court was considering the fairness of affirmative action for minorities. I documented another form of affirmative action — for the white and privileged.

According to one poll after another, most Americans believe that college admissions should be based on merit, rather than wealth or lineage. Through their own intelligence and hard work, students with the best grades, the highest test scores, the most compelling recommendations and other hard-earned credentials achieve a coveted ticket to higher education — and with it, enhanced prospects for career success and social status. So goes the legend perpetuated by elite colleges, anyway.

But decades of investigating college admissions have led me to conclude that, for rich and famous families, it’s more like a television game show, “Who Wants to Be an Ivy Leaguer?” complete with lifelines for those who might otherwise be rejected. Instead of phoning a friend or asking the audience, the wealthy benefit from advantages largely unavailable to middle-class and poor Americans — what I described in my book as “the preferences of privilege.”

The best-known and most widespread of those preferences is conferred on alumni children, known as “legacies,” who tend as a group to be disproportionately white and well-off. But rich applicants whose parents didn’t attend the target university, like Kushner, still have a leg up.

Rich candidates can enhance their standardized test scores with test-prep and tutoring. They don’t have to rely for college recommendations and advice on an overburdened public high school guidance counselor with a caseload of hundreds of students. Instead, their parents can afford a private counselor who discreetly advises the desired university that the family has a history of philanthropy and, in case of acceptance, would be inclined to be especially generous.

Similarly, inner-city schools often don’t field teams in patrician sports like crew, squash, fencing and the like. But prep and suburban schools do, giving their affluent students an opportunity for the significant edge given to recruited athletes, even in upper-class sports limited to a relative few. Colleges favor recruits in these sports at least partly for fundraising reasons; they’re important to wealthy alumni and donors who played them in college or enjoy them as leisure activities.

So the parents charged in the current case followed customary practices of the entitled: hiring a private counselor, getting test help and participating in a patrician sport. The difference is that they allegedly took blatant short cuts: The counselor was unscrupulous, a stand-in secretly took the tests and the applicants didn’t actually play those sports. But, without the tilted system of preferences already in place, the parents would have had to choose a different route — or actually let merit determine their children’s college destiny.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Supreme Court Upholds Race-Based College Admissions Program

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the practice of considering race in college admissions, rejecting a white woman’s challenge to a University of Texas affirmative action program designed to boost the enrollment of minority students.

The court, in a 4-3 ruling written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, decided in favor of the university in turning aside the conservative challenge to the policy, meaning a 2014 appeals court ruling that backed the admissions program was left intact.

The Supreme Court was weighing for the second time a challenge to the admissions system used by the University of Texas at Austin brought by Abigail Fisher, who was denied entry to the school for the autumn of 2008.

Affirmative action is a policy under which racial minorities historically subject to discrimination are given certain preferences in education and employment.

Fisher said the university denied her admission in favor of lesser-qualified black and Hispanic applicants. She maintained that the program violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

Kennedy said that “considerable deference” is owed to universities when they are seeking to determine student diversity. He said that “it remains an enduring challenge to our nation’s education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity.”

But in the Texas case, the challengers had failed to show that the university could have met its needs via another process, he said. Kennedy noted that the university “tried and failed to increase diversity” through other race-neutral means.

The university has disputed whether Fisher would have gained admission under any circumstances. University officials contend that having a sizable number of minorities enrolled exposes students to varied perspectives and enhances the educational experience for all students.

The high court upheld a July 2014 ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of the university. That court endorsed the school’s “limited use of race in its search for holistic diversity.”

President Barack Obama’s administration backed the university in the dispute.

The university admits most freshmen through a program that guarantees admission to students in the top 10 percent of their Texas high school graduating classes. It uses other factors including race to admit the remainder. Fisher was not in the top 10 percent of her high school class.

The high court had considered Fisher’s case once before. In June 2013, it did not directly rule on the program’s constitutionality but ordered the appeals court to scrutinize it more closely.

‘SOMETHING STRANGE’

Writing in dissent, Justice Samuel Alito contended that the court’s majority had turned its back on principles from the first Fisher ruling, which he said required judges to give more scrutiny to racial admissions and defer less to university officials, and he opened his dissent remarking, “Something strange has happened since our prior decision in this case.”

“Here, UT (the University of Texas) has failed to define its interest in using racial preferences with clarity. As a result, the narrow tailoring inquiry is impossible, and UT cannot satisfy strict scrutiny,” Alito added.

Alito added that while the university’s stated goals are laudable, “they are not concrete or precise, and they offer no limiting principle for the use of racial preferences. For instance, how will a court ever be able to determine whether stereotypes have adequately been destroyed? Or whether cross-racial understanding has been adequately achieved?”

While the university’s program has resulted in a measure of racial and ethnic diversity, the percentage of black and Hispanic students on campus still remains lower than in the state’s overall population.

Fisher, now 26, graduated from her second choice college, Louisiana State University, and now works as a financial analyst in Austin. Fisher said she has stayed in the case to help others in similar positions.

“I am disappointed that the Supreme Court has ruled that students applying to the University of Texas can be treated differently because of their race or ethnicity. I hope that the nation will one day move beyond affirmative action,” Fisher said in a statement.

Edward Blum, a conservative activist who engineered Fisher’s challenge, said that racial classifications and preferences are among the most polarizing policies in America today.

“As long as universities like the University of Texas continue to treat applicants differently by race and ethnicity, the social fabric that holds us together as a nation will be weakened. Today’s decision is a sad step backward for the original, colorblind principles to our civil rights laws,” added Blum, the president of the conservative Project on Fair Representation.

 

Photo: University of Texas President Gregory Fenves speaks outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington December 9, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque 

Immigration, Abortion, Race Rulings Due At Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court is heading into its home stretch, with major rulings due by the end of the month on President Barack Obama’s unilateral immigration plan, racial preferences in university admissions and a restrictive Texas abortion law.

Producing decisive rulings has been complicated by the fact that the court has been down one justice since conservative Antonin Scalia died in February, leaving it evenly split with four conservatives and four liberals.

The justices also are set to rule on whether to overturn Republican former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell’s 2014 corruption conviction, one of the 13 cases yet to be decided.

The court appeared divided along ideological lines when it heard arguments on April 18 over whether Democrat Obama exceeded his constitutional powers in bypassing the Republican-led Congress with a 2014 plan to spare millions of immigrants in the country illegally from deportation and give them work permits.

Twenty-six states led by Republican-governed Texas brought the lawsuit. A 4-4 ruling, which appeared to be one possibility after the arguments, would deal Obama a huge defeat because it would affirm a lower-court ruling invalidating the plan.

Split rulings do not set nationwide legal precedents, but a 4-4 decision would effectively kill Obama’s immigration plan.

The court also seemed split along ideological lines during March 2 arguments in a challenge to a Texas abortion law brought by abortion providers backed by the Obama administration.

A 4-4 ruling would deliver a victory to Texas because it would affirm a lower-court ruling upholding the law. Because such a ruling would set no nationwide precedent, it might not serve as a legal blueprint for other conservative, Republican-dominated states to enact similar laws.

The question before the justices is whether the law, which imposes strict regulations on abortion doctors and clinic facilities, violates a woman’s constitutional right to abortion as established in the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

There cannot be a 4-4 ruling in a challenge by a white woman, enlisted by a conservative legal activist, to a University of Texas student admissions policy giving preferences to racial minorities in a program aimed at fostering campus racial diversity. Only seven justices heard that case.

Liberal Elena Kagan, the Obama administration’s solicitor general when it supported the university in earlier litigation, recused herself. That means four conservatives and three liberals will decide the case. Conservative justices expressed reservations about the affirmative action admissions policy during Dec. 9 arguments.

 

(Editing by Will Dunham)

Photo: A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S., May 19, 2016.  REUTERS/Carlos Barria