American Scheme

I go to USC (graduating in less than 2 months let’s GOOOOO). I joined in on the hearty laughter and jocular memeing of the admissions scandal currently rocking the nation—Aunt Becky paid half a million dollars for her vlogger daughter to cover one of our finest gross dorm rooms in Pottery Barn decor. A bunch of other wealthy people have been implicated in bribery and racketeering (I don’t know what that is and at this point I’m too afraid to ask), and all of us whose parents didn’t drop half a Jennifer Aniston-On-Friends-Salary to buy our admission to college are having a good laugh. But it’s important to take a moment to interrogate how all the rest of us got here, too.

Most people have some degree of privilege. There are grotesque examples of privilege on display in the United States all the time—cis white male billionaire evades taxes, brags about sexual assault on tape, colludes with hostile foreign power, somehow is president. 21-year-old white heiress to multimillion dollar media empire becomes a billionaire, somehow lauded as self-made. Wealthy white actresses pay millions of dollars for their wealthy white offspring to attend schools they are not qualified to attend. But privilege is not always or even often grotesque. It is subtle and thus more insidious, because it’s harder to call out.

Every aspect of higher education and college admission is classist. Research shows that wealthy, mostly white legacy students benefit from affirmative action far more than their less fortunate peers of color. The SAT and ACT are designed to trip up students who can’t afford expensive tutors. And the public education system in most parts of the US is such a disaster that kids who can afford private high school automatically get access to smaller class sizes, more individualized attention from teachers and counselors, and more AP and honors classes to choose from—not to mention that those kids probably have time to focus on their schoolwork & engage in extracurricular activities because they’re not working a part-time job. How do I know this? Research. Common sense. And also because I lived it.

I have parents that attended a top college, one of whom also has an advanced degree. I went to a month of SAT tutoring with a private instructor. I took AP and honors classes at my plush private high school while doing improv and slam poetry and songwriting on the side, because my parents told me my only job was being a good person and a good student. The privilege was all around me and I scarcely noticed I was swimming in it. To quote David Foster Wallace, this is water.

I worked very hard in high school, and I received a full merit scholarship to college. But the circumstances that led to that merit scholarship could not have arisen without immense privilege. Yes, I am black and Jewish and a woman. But I’m also an affluent kid from Los Angeles, and that gave me a crazy head start. The system that ultimately gave us this intricate admissions scandal is not broken. This revelation is the next step in the logical progression of false meritocracies. Much like Donald Trump’s presidency is a result and not a defect of the American political system, outright bribery is a natural byproduct of American educational elitism.

I have a faint hope that one day, the United States will undergo a cultural shift that rips the price tag off a college education and enables people of all socioeconomic backgrounds to pursue advanced degrees without strings attached. I hope one day student loan debt is forgiven. I hope one day, everyone involved in this deeply prejudiced system is taken to task. Today is not that day. Today, we begin the tough conversation. Today, we meme.