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The zero-sum game of college admissions: we've been playing it, but we didn't know.

This past week provided painful evidence of why maintaining a democracy is so difficult, and why the American dream may be more shibboleth than reality.

The college scandal involving parents who paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions, to buy their children’s passage to upscale universities has opened up a pandora’s box of reasons why the country has gone wrong.

As Representative Ilhan Omar said recently under different circumstances, it’s all about the Benjamins.

Not that we thought money didn’t talk, but before this past week maybe we chose not to know how loudly it spoke, and who suffered most because of it. The impoverished, of course, have always understood. So too have minorities who have been constrained by prejudice, if not actual legislation. But now, apparently, it’s "just folks"—the ones who thought their children had the same chance as everyone else, who urged them to work hard to get into that college they dreamed of, only to learn too late that neither the children nor the parents never actually knew the rules.

I have urged hundreds of students—maybe thousands—to attend college. I told them it opens doors and expands their horizons. I still believe that, but now that the game is rigged, I want them to understand that part too.

And let’s face the hard truth: it’s not just movie stars with $100,000 contributions or water polo players with hydrophobia; it’s the kid from a one-parent family who works her butt off to get good grades competing against the same hard worker from a family with enough disposable income to hire an SAT tutor to increase her scores, or maybe a professional to pump up her college essay.


There's no magic bullet to stop this, but consider: isn't the true evidence of academic achievement the grades themselves? Don't they indicate work of a steady and consistent nature spread out over a dozen years or more? Of course in the college business—the need to cull 2,000 tuitions out of 20,000 applications—grades have given way to a few hours of testing, or a professionally edited essay, or—it seems—a check cut at the right time for the right amount to the right person. And most distressing of all: it’s zero-sum. If student A pays her way in, student B is rejected.

That recent Republican tax plan assured America of a journey further down the road to plutocracy, but our colleges and university have been complicit too; and their sin may have been even more nefarious. The Republicans unashamedly tended to the wealthy; higher education has always sold itself as a method of democratization. That may be a much harder sell in the future.


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