The independent news organization of Duke University

Beyond Varsity Blues

Last week, the ivory tower was stunned by the news of a college admissions fraud scandal connected to a number of prestigious higher education institutions. Dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” the FBI charged fifty people in six states—including famous actresses, business leaders and other well-heeled parents—for involvement in a nationwide bribery and fraud scheme to help their children gain admission to elite colleges and universities. Also accused are top college athletic coaches for facilitating the scheme by pretending to recruit the students as top athletes and the SAT proctors who helped the students falsify their scores. For the cynics among us, this scandal may not have seemed so scandalous. The college admissions process is rife with glaring—and entirely legal—inequity on nearly every front.

Both recruited athletes and students with high SAT scores are disproportionately wealthy, and their ability to jettison to these ranks is largely due to the resources their class status affords them. In fact, even the College Board’s own data shows that wealthy students from college-educated families are more likely to excel on the test.

Zip code income disparities and fewer educational opportunities play an influential part in limiting lower income students' options as well. The National Center for Education Statistics found that even after local and state governments increased education spending, educational inequity persisted, in part because many states primarily finance schools through local property taxes. In terms of the federal funding, chronic funding problems for public schools will only be exacerbated as President Donald Trump calls for a 12 percent—or $7.1 billion—cut to funding at the Department of Education, a major budget cut for the third year in a row.

A year ago, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights published a report, “Public Education Funding Equity: In an Era of Increasing Concentration of Poverty and Resegregation,” on how residential segregation led to inequity in educational opportunities. It allows for higher-income neighborhoods to fund predominantly white school districts with larger sums of local tax revenue, while lower-income neighborhoods with more people of color are left with comparatively under-subsidized facilities, teachers and class materials. This issue has led to desperate parents being sent to jail for lying about residency in an attempt to get their children into the better school districts with better opportunities. Despite a diversifying overall population, the United States still remains deeply segregated according to census data. This is especially true for Black Americans due to the legacy of de facto segregation from the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras and endemic racial preferences among white people who choose to live with other white people.

There are still a number of legal ways rich parents can cheat the supposedly meritocratic college admissions game. Duke has not been scathed by this scandal, but at the University and beyond, the legacy preference persists as a nepotistic mechanism to ensure that power and wealth are preserved inter-generationally within predominantly white, affluent genealogies that are already disproportionately represented in college. At Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn, Brown and 33 other colleges (including Duke), there are more students from families in the top 1 percent than from the bottom 60 percent. University attendance has always been a status symbol to facilitate a branding and perception of successful parenting for rich families. 

As such, meritocracy is a myth, and it would be irresponsible and myopic to pretend otherwise. Outrage over the boogeyman of the undocumented valedictorian student or that Black or Latinx student with the "race card" maliciously "stealing" a spot from "deserving" students is misplaced and disingenuous. With the cards of historical socioeconomic inequity stacked up against them, disadvantaged low-income students of color know best how they have had to move heaven and Earth in order to get their feet into the doors of prestigious universities. The rules of the game have always been unfair, and the legal parameters around what actions are acceptable feel rather meaningless when you were never meant to win in the first place.

This was written by The Chronicle's Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff. 

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