Admissions scandal highlights divide over class in America

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The families ensnared in the college bribery scandal embody wealth and privilege in America: CEOs, Hollywood stars, Wall Street millionaires. A California vineyard owner. A prominent Manhattan lawyer.

If they’re villains, they’re villains made to order for a time preoccupied with deep divisions of class, privilege and race — a time when many regular Americans often feel they have no chance of getting ahead in a system that’s engineered in favor of the richest of the rich.

For those Americans, the corruption in the college admission system exposed by Tuesday’s indictments further shatters any notion that hard work, good grades and perseverance are the way to get into a prestigious school.

“For most people outside the elite, these institutions might as well be on the moon. This story just reinforces that, the way in which money buys opportunity in America,” said Richard V. Reeves, whose book “Dream Hoarders” argues that the American upper middle class hoards opportunities.

Prosecutors said dozens of parents paid bribes to alter their children’s test scores or get them into colleges like Yale, Georgetown, Stanford and USC as athletic recruits, fraudulently.

In court papers, the ringleader explained the realities of getting into top colleges in America in stark terms: There’s the front door, which involves getting in legitimately through academic achievements. There’s the back door, which involves donating huge sums of money to a university to influence admissions decisions.

His scheme — much easier and cheaper — was through the side door.

The back door was common knowledge, and bad enough. The description of a side door — a corrupt advantage on top of the advantages already accorded the rich — has set off outrage, especially for hard-working kids trying to get in on merit.

Lalo Alcaraz’s son is a Los Angeles high school senior who is waiting to hear back from over a dozen schools that he’s applied to, including some in the top tier.

“It really infuriates me right now. These people jumped ahead in line of my kid, I mean, literally my kid, this year,” said the author and cartoonist.

For Alcaraz, there’s also outrage at seeing wealthy, white families try to cheat the system, especially when many minorities have experienced being questioned over whether they got their spots because of their race.

“They had all the advantages but they had to cheat,” he said.

The scandal resonated largely because it’s hard to avoid conversations these days about the wealth gap, the 1 percent and a “rigged system,” a term used by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — and by President Donald Trump, though the billionaire developer-turned-politician and his administration exemplify that system to many.

Wealthy parents can pay for a stellar K-12 education, athletic coaches and test prep, as well as donations to the Ivy League schools — all legal ways to influence admissions decisions. They have personal or legacy connections at elite schools that they can use to gain admission. They understand how to navigate the complicated admission system.

In his 2006 book, “The Price of Admission,” journalist Daniel Golden detailed how the real estate developer father of Jared Kushner — Trump’s son-in-law — pledged $2.5 million to Harvard in 1998 . Kushner was later admitted, even though his high school administrators told Golden they didn’t think he was qualified.

There are other impediments to the non-elite. Research has shown that the all-important college admissions tests are biased and not a good predictor of college success for black students, said Darrick Hamilton, a professor of economics and policy at Ohio State University.

Hamilton said social movements led by the young are contesting the notion that we live in a meritocracy where Americans can improve their standing by working hard and playing by the rules.