Privilege comes in many forms

When talking about the recent series of allegations against parents who bribed sports coaches and admissions officers at elite schools in exchange for admission for their children, we often express the sentiment that the behavior of these parents seems unethical because their actions make the college admissions process “unfair.” If certain students are given a competitive advantage because of wealthy parents who pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes or to doctor SAT scores, it is not fair to limit the number of spots available for the students who worked hard legitimately to get into college. The implicit premise of these condemnations is that the college admissions process is largely fair and that those who don’t have parents paying off coaches will get in because of their natural ability, hard work, or intrinsic worth.

I think that rather than exposing a relatively limited set of behaviors that a tiny fraction of college applicants exploit to gain admission, this scandal shows us extreme examples of the advantages many of us in the school community already enjoy. Instead of simply condemning these cheating parents, we should examine closely the systems of privilege that they abused but from which we still benefit. 

If we found out, for example, that someone paid $200,000 to bribe admissions officers and facilitate a dishonest SAT assessment for their child, we would label this as wrong and unfair. Yet, as the Upper School (US) tuition rises above $50,000 for the first time, those not supported by financial aid pay just as much for four years of a private school education with undeniable benefits come college admission time. And BB&N tuition dollars do more for students than simply earn them an attractive stamp on their application—they also provide them with tools for success in the remainder of their academic career and in life. US students benefit tremendously from the support systems in place for them to succeed in college admissions, including but not limited to an excellent college counseling program. 

Undeniably US students still have to work hard to get into highly competitive schools, but is it fair that they will have a much more appealing application with the same amount of hard work and talent as someone at a less prestigious, less supportive school? A private high school education is clearly a less direct way of gaining an edge in admissions than outright cheating, yet it is a strong leg up that is unavailable to most.

More troubling to me is the attitude many still hold about athletic recruiting in the face of the scandals. Many parents were alleged to have paid coaches exorbitant sums to favor kids with mediocre (in some cases non-existent) athletic careers and subpar grades. A clear violation of recruiting policy, the alleged behavior should encourage us to reexamine how ethical athletic recruiting is to begin with. An article in Slate Magazine entitled ‘Sports Recruiting Is the Real College Admissions Scandal’ claims that recruiting practices produce outcomes that almost universally favor rich, white, male candidates. These results are magnified within less big-name sports like water polo, swimming, and crew, where the barrier to entry is high for students without the resources to participate. 

Last year, according to NCAA data, only 160 of 7,277 women to row crew competitively in college were black. Of water polo players, only 31 of 2,263 were black. The Slate article also cites a Harvard Crimson survey which found that one quarter of recruited athletes in the freshman class were from families with incomes above $500,000, and only 12% of recruited athletes belonged to families with incomes lower than $80,000.

Clearly recruited athletes and private school students who do not write the rules but play by the rules and benefit from them are not individually culpable for the broken systems. Nevertheless, we ought to understand and recognize that we benefit from a structure of privilege whose natural extension is outright cheating. 

—Sam Klein Roche ’19

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