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Posted on March 18, 2019 at 1:23 AM

by Kayhan Parsi, JD, PhD and Nanette Elster, JD, MPH

To say that we live in a classist society is to say that water is wet. Yet, we need occasional reminders of this reality.  For instance, the recent college admissions scandal brought to light the excesses of class and privilege.  Allegedly, parents spent millions of dollars to bribe coaches and administrators, faked involvement in sports and other activities, and even got extra time for students alleging disabilitiesIn an age where nearly everything generates shock and moral outrage, this triggered a tsunami of criticism.  How could people who are already wealthy and privileged perpetrate such a massive scam?

Since we were high school students, the level of competition to enter elite schools has skyrocketed.  In the early 1980s, one of us (KP) only applied to two schools. Such a number would be considered laughably low for an ambitious high school student today.  A few developments have occurred to possibly explain this. First, the media realized there were big bucks in the ranking game.  U.S. News first entered this territory in the early 1980s,producing annual rankings of schools that turned out to be among their best-selling issues.  Second, parents become more involved in the college selection process, as increasing tuition and housing costs prompted more scrutiny.  The college tour became a rite of passage. Third, economic anxiety among young people has also created this greater obsession with prestige schools. Although the conventional wisdom is that going to an elite school may not have a substantial impact on one’s life prospects, it may help women and people of color. Moreover, strong signaling occurs when someone is accepted into one of these elite schools (that often accept less than 10% of applicants).  Parents enjoy the halo effect of having a son or daughter who is accepted at one of these schools.  Despite the mantra among admissions counselors that it’s the fit that counts, these forces have undeniable power.

Which brings us back to the recent scandal that occurred. It’s clear that we live in a world in which the rich can purchase better goods, whether it’s a house, a car or a vacation.  Why are we filled with repugnance when we hear a person has used their wealth to gain access to an elite institution of higher education? First of all, we ostensibly believe in merit-based admission.  Despite the problems of a meritocracy, we want to believe that young people who are admitted to these institutions somehow deserve to be admitted. Yet, we know that some schools have a disproportionate amount of students whose families are in the 1% of income earnersWe like to think that schools are engines of social mobility. The truth is that elite schools are often engines of social stability, ensuring that students who are already wealthy and privileged stay that way.

The recent scandal also brought to light the fact that parents and others exploited our system to accommodate individuals with disabilities.  Students with disabilities are entitled to accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Not all disabilities, however, are visible, especially learning disabilities and anxiety disorders.  Students with disabilities such as ADHD, ASD, Dyslexia, or invisible physical disabilities such as lupus or ulcerative colitis often need accommodations such as extra time, access to a computer, or the ability to take breaks during extended classes or testing periods.  Students must undergo a rigorous process to have such accommodations granted for course work and for standardized testing such as ACT and SAT testing, including submitting documentation, the types of accommodations provided in the current school setting, and the type of evaluation done to diagnose the disability (including when and by whom the evaluation was performed).

The purpose of the accommodations is not to give these students an edge, but rather to place them on equal footing with their peers. The fact that any parent would invent a disability to “game the system” is patently offensive.  Those with invisible disabilities such as learning disabilities face constant scrutiny as it is, always feeling a need to justify their need for accommodations. The recent college admissions scandal will now make it even harder for these students have their needs met. Beth McGaw, President of the Learning Disabilities Association of America has said it best: “When individuals commit fraud and claim they have a learning disability in order to obtain testing accommodations this hurts every individual with a learning disability.”

The ethics displayed by the parents involved in this debacle are the antithesis of what we should be teaching our children in these particularly fractious times.  Money does not make one smarter or more worthy of acceptance to any institution of higher learning, just as disability does not make one academically inferior and less worthy of acceptance into these institutions.

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