In a sketch cut for time, the recent Sandra Oh-hosted Saturday Night Live made fun of the college admissions scandal that rocked America. It also highlights how the privileged’s enhanced access to college is unlikely to change anytime soon.
The sketch shows a college admissions team, cautioned to be careful in the wake of the scandal, doing no such thing. They skip over a high-achieving student who would be the first in her family to go to college—“It’s not a race,” snarks Kenan Thompson, as to why they don’t need to admit her. Instead, the team is delighted to admit such academic luminaries as the grandson of Lou Ferrigno, heirs to vast Big Name wealth, and, in a nod to the scandal, some crew players who clearly don’t play the sport.
The sad thing here is that while this is all played for laughs and comedically exaggerated, the real results of college admissions are not far off. As a nation we’ve long seemed to accept that children from Named Families will attend top schools, often with the considerable assistance of their parents or grandparents having paid for a building. Much of the sarcastic reaction on social media after the scandal involved people chastising those involved for not going about this the “traditional” American way, which is pouring money into the institutions through other channels.
When the admissions scandal broke, I was surprised not by the illegal shenanigans but that merely being the child of William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman, say, wouldn’t have been enough to greenlight their admission. Perhaps at the school of their choice it was not, but I guarantee you that for a great many universities, that would have been the rubber stamp of approval, all considerations of the student inconsequential.
While admissions committees are likely acting with more awareness since the scandal, their practices are unlikely to change. After all, the kids in the scandal were admitted because of fraudulent practices—faked sports team participation, having someone else take the SATs, having their test scores corrected.
But what goes on unaffected and unexamined will be the waves of rich kids who are still admitted because of their name, their “legacy,” a history considered that is not their own. This is to say nothing of the other ways privilege works to give some people a leg up: children awash in tutors, test prep, professional admissions advisors, and coming from high schools with their own Big Names have an advantage nearly impossible for a student of similar grades and scores to surmount in consideration for the same slot.
I don’t expect any of this to change, but I found the conversation that broke out after the scandal fascinating: many people seemed genuinely shocked to discover quite how much America is not a meritocracy. This is a conversation we should continue to have, since there is no escaping the real scandal of how much money buys access in a country grappling with the worst income inequality seen since the years that preceded the Great Depression.
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