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Bribing college officials is not the same as hiring a tutor

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The news that the Department of Justice has unearthed a massive college admissions conspiracy has sparked a lot of head-shaking in higher education. The scandal encompasses at least six universities — including prestigious institutions like Stanford, Yale, and Georgetown — and has led to 50 indictments of those involved in schemes to offer bribes, falsify records, cheat on entrance tests, and more. 

Actor Felicity Huffman departs an initial hearing for defendants in a racketeering case involving the allegedly fraudulent admission of children to elite universities, at the US federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, California, US, March 12, 2019. Reuters/Mike Blake 

The whole nauseating scheme casts a harsh light on the higher education cartel and the way in which admission to certain institutions has come to be regarded as a golden ticket to the good life. It calls for hard questions about the troubling ways in which selective colleges and universities have encouraged and profited from this dynamic. Instead, though, the higher education lobby moved to squelch such uncomfortable questions by pivoting to focus on the real enemy — law-abiding parents who didn’t pay bribes, collect bribes, or have any role in creating the cartel that contributed to such behavior.

The real problem isn’t the crime, you see — it’s what’s legal. In an Inside Higher Ed piece yesterday, Scott Jaschik wrote: “[T]o many observers, the controversy was an opportune time to note all the advantages wealthy applicants have that don’t violate any laws. They attend, on average, better high schools. Their parents hire private counselors and testing tutors and essay tutors and more.” Left-leaning media found the meme irresistible. New York Magazine ran a story titled “All College Admissions Are a Pay-to-Play Scandal,” and Vox published “The real college admissions scandal is what’s legal.”

Let’s keep this simple. Parents who search out good schools for their children or pay tutors to instruct their children are not analogous to those who bribe crooked university staff. These are distinctions that need to be drawn. Instead, in their wandering but unceasing war on “privilege,” the self-styled champions for social justice are vilifying parental behaviors that are more rightly regarded as normal, even admirable.

Advantage is a complex thing. As one of the coauthors mentioned last month in Forbes. “It’s pretty clear that some children get a giant head start when it comes to competing for some of the world’s most celebrated and lucrative jobs. And some of this is undoubtedly due to things like parental wealth and networks.” At the same time, he noted, many of these advantages are nothing more than the inevitable consequence of good parenting: “Parents will inevitably share passions, knowledge, natural gifts, and habits with their children. In fact, doing so is part of the parental job description. It’s intertwined with filial love, and it’s part of helping children become accomplished, confident, responsible adults.”

It’s a troubling window into the politics of resentment that so many have responded to this appalling scheme to buy indulgences from the college cartel by focusing and responding by, bizarrely, racing to condemn parents going about the mundane business of trying to help their children succeed in school.

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