A Response to Richard V Reeves’s Op-Ed in The Guardian

Just this morning, I read the article by Brookings Institution researcher Richard V Reeves on how elite university entrance is rigged, an op-ed written in light of the recent scandal with college prep fraudster William “Rick” Singer being caught for bribing and highly unethical activity to get children of the wealthy into prestigious universities.
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/12/us-college-admissions-scandal-corruption-rigged
I am irate, as my alma mater of Stanford was one of the schools cited in “Operation Varsity Blues” (the FBI’s name for this bribing for admission scandal). Yesterday, the president of the Stanford Alumni Association sent out an email condemning what has happened:

Dear Stanford alum,

By now you may have seen news that the U.S. Justice Department has charged several dozen people around the country, including Stanford’s head sailing coach, as part of an alleged bribery scheme to try to win the admission of prospective students to a number of U.S. colleges and universities.

This behavior runs completely counter to Stanford’s core values. The university has consequently fired the head sailing coach, who later today pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering.

The university has issued a public statement here:https://news.stanford.edu/2019/03/12/stanford-statement/ and the President and Provost have published their own blogpost on this situation here: https://quadblog.stanford.edu/2019/03/12/the-sailing-case-and-our-resolve/

No evidence has been presented indicating that the conduct of the head sailing coach involves anyone else at Stanford or is associated with any other team at Stanford. However, we will be undertaking an investigation to confirm this.

As I hope you know, the integrity of our admissions process is absolutely central to the mission and purpose of our university. We will consequently continue working to actively address this situation so as to regain your trust in that process.

Sincerely,

Howard E. Wolf, ’80
Vice President for Alumni Affairs, Stanford University
President, Stanford Alumni Association

A necessary statement to assure is that the institution will not tolerate any sort of corrupt or unethical behavior.

I would like to comment on Mr. Reeves’s intelligent article. The key points he makes are that Singer’s behaviors were rightly caught and apprehended by the FBI, the whole system is corrupt and rigged in favor of the affluent, legacy children are admitted preferentially, as are the children of major donors, and that upper-middle-class families can afford to give their children tutoring, prep classes, and any sort of educational advantages possible. He also concludes by saying that these Ivy League and elite universities perpetuate socioeconomic inequality, and that the whole system is unfair. Mr. Reeves is British-educated, at the no-less-elite Oxford University (where I myself was an exchange student during my junior year, and which I would argue is even more unequal than any American Ivy League university), and holds a doctorate from the University of Warwick, a public research university. His body of work is quite impressive and is exactly the sort of highly-researched, intelligent, liberal writing that we need. He writes of his own background in a NY Times Op-Ed piece from two years ago:

which describes his own background, but again, makes some generalizations about American society. There were some things in The Guardian article that nettled me, a few sweeping generalizations again that seemed to ignore a more complex picture.

Both while at Stanford and after, I have sometimes felt that it is by and large an upper-middle-class institution, in terms of its ethos. The student body did seem to come from this socioeconomic stratum, and I have seen also how the upper-middle class is able to send their children to good private schools or live in wealthy areas where the school districts are very good but the housing costs are very high. The majority of my Indian-American peers were from well-to-do suburbs of big cities and from more prosperous families. I, in contrast, grew up in a very middle/lower-middle-class college town in the country in the Midwest, the daughter of Indian immigrants, and it was certainly a loving sacrifice for my parents to send me to a school like Stanford. I was fortunate that my parents valued education, that my father was a college professor, and that I got to visit a few campuses before applying for undergraduate admission. My public schooling was quite mediocre. My high school offered only one AP class, and I was able to take another AP exam on my own and do well enough to give me advanced standing in one subject in college. A number of students in my school did not go to college, or if so, they attended ordinary public institutions that were not at all selective. At Stanford, I often felt dazzled and bewildered, that I was truly on a different planet and with a very different social class of people. But the experience did indeed offer me mobility, as I had escaped my small town completely by my own efforts and volition. I also had other friends from the area in which I grew up who had a similar background, some of them children of immigrants, and some of them not. And some students who were quite bright were not able to apply to and attend private universities, so Reeves’s point does hold true in terms of economics playing a big part of one’s higher education.

But still, Mr. Reeves overlooks that quite a high number of students who attend the elite schools in America are children of immigrants, self-made, and whose parents made sacrifices to send their kids to top institutions of higher education. There are also a number of very ordinary middle-class and lower-middle-class students who attend elite universities (some of my closest college friends were from these backgrounds), and students who work during college in order to help support themselves. Also, the big schools’ large endowments mean that they offer loans and scholarships (if only Stanford’s generous package now offered existed when I was in college!), and the admissions are need-blind.

There is the issue of legacy students, but from what I have seen, the children are no less worthy of admission to Stanford than their parents and are highly accomplished in their own right. But I have indeed often questioned this system and felt it unfair, wondering if I did not get in to some universities because a legacy student who was equally or less qualified did. In terms of wealth, I had also wondered if I didn’t get into one of the Ivy League schools to which I applied because another girl with a similar profile came from a wealthy family. In the past couple of years, Harvard has come under fire and is being investigated for discriminating against Asian-Americans; having looked at some of the data from around the time of when I applied to college, I suspect I could be one of those who was not admitted due to this alleged racial bias. There is no question that children of donors and ultra-wealthy are being admitted and alarming fashion – Jared Kushner is indeed a prime, horrible example. At top public universities, there are also a number of very wealthy students who come from out-of-state and more and more, overseas. This has raised a lot of questions in places like California, where in-state residents have been protesting that they have been shut out due to wealthy internationals who pay more.

I can somewhat agree with Mr. Reeves’s point that these universities perpetuate elitism and inequality—but to a certain point and to a certain amount of the population. My feeling is that Mr. Reeves has commented on the recent scandal in a bit of a knee-jerk fashion, that he has overlooked the complexity of the picture of who attends Ivy League schools, that he does not see the subtleties of class mobility and class-crossing in the United States (would the son or daughter of an executive in Britain work at a pizzeria in the summer? I doubt that), and that he is overgeneralizing what is indeed true about the rich and upper-middle-class to all of the applicants to elite universities. Britain is an extremely class-conscious society, and though they acknowledge it openly unlike us here, there is a more ingrained sense of one’s place and perhaps even less mobility.

He fails to recognize that the top universities in the US also happen to draw the best minds and talents. If you are a physics genius, but happen to be the son or daughter of a doctor, are you admitted only because you are upper-middle-class? I think not. I recently have been involved with interviewing prospective Stanford students, and I have been impressed by the intelligence and ability and public service of these kids.

Stanford is very different from a Harvard which is very different from a Georgetown. This is very important to understand. Stanford is a younger university and an engineering school, and in any STEM-focused university, there is a no-BS atmosphere, due to the amount of work students must do.

In sum, does money contribute to and affect one’s higher education and class status? Absolutely. Is there inequality in the elite institutions? Yes, but not to the degree Mr. Reeves suggests, or at least not in the way he describes it. Do we need to do more as a society to work on reducing inequality? Absolutely yes, and it is dangerous how our society is becoming more and more class-stratified. Am I critical of Stanford University and other elite institutions? Yes. Am I a product of them? Yes, but I do think critically and don’t follow things blindly. And perhaps that is the first step toward reducing inequality and creating a more democratic society.

Class Distinctions in America, Part II

This post is a continuation of the previous post on class distinctions in America.

-Access to culture. It is a sad truth of the fine arts in America that generally speaking, only the well to do can afford high culture. True, museums offer free nights on occasion that are funded by large corporate sponsors, orchestras offer open rehearsals at a reduced rate and free concerts for children, and there are a number of outdoor festivals in various communities supported by taxpayer dollars. These are indeed positive. However, the cost of attending classical music and fine arts performances is often very high. Unfortunately, the cost of tickets alone does not cover all the expenses an organization needs to keep itself alive, maintain the performance space, pay the artists, et cetera. Wealthy individuals are able to contribute to cultural organizations, attend performances, and therefore they have a say in the programming and choices made. We do not have adequate government funding for the arts in the same way there is in many countries in Europe. Nor do we have a tradition in our culture that values the fine arts to the degree that other cultures do. Pop-culture and mass media are dominant in American society, and they are easily consumed due to lower costs.

-Air travel. This particular distinction has changed quite significantly over the decades, becoming more accessible to everyone. Lower-cost airlines have boomed, such as Southwest, and if we look at the cost of airline travel over the decades, we might find that proportionally it is cheaper and more affordable than it was before. But for an entire family to fly cross country (or even somewhere that would ordinarily require a day or two drive), it is very expensive. Therefore, only the well to do or the people who save carefully can travel by plane, or unfortunately, the people who go into debt. Our family culture and social structure is affected by geography in America, and traveling great distances is not always possible due to high costs. During peak travel times, such as summers and holidays, even those who can afford to travel have to deal with increased prices. Sometimes the cost of an airplane ticket can be almost double in peak seasons. Train travel over long distances is not always possible due to the time it takes, and sometimes trains do not reach particular areas of the country. Therefore, air travel is still somewhat of a “luxury.”

-Technology. While smartphones seem to abound lately, and many people make sacrifices to own them, they are still expensive devices. Consider the cost of the sleek new iPhone X: it could pay for a month’s or more rent, or a mortgage payment. One could argue that nobody even really needs a smart phone. Lest we digress into issues of consumerism and spending habits, we have to remember that basic Internet connectivity has become a vital part of American life. Therefore, one needs to have a computer or tablet device in order to access it at home, and then also the Internet. These two things are not cheap, and for many people, not even affordable. Public libraries have been good at trying to fill the void by providing access to the people; therefore many lower income individuals have been able to get connected. But as so much information is disseminated via the Internet, such as test results from a doctor’s office, we need to revisit the question of providing better Internet access for everybody. Consider this study from the Pew Research Center, and we can see how across the world, there is still a gap based on economic prowess.
http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/02/22/internet-access-growing-worldwide-but-remains-higher-in-advanced-economies/
America is indeed quite connected compared to most other countries in the world, but this does not mean everybody in our country is connected or is able to do so without financial hardship. Schoolchildren benefit from computers and are often required to use them for homework, but again, the cost and the access to these devices varies greatly across SES.

-Savings and investments. This relates to the point above about consumer spending. But in America, in order to have a secure financial cushion as well as a strong retirement fund, it is necessary to save and invest. Simply put, those who do not make enough money to cover their expenses cannot afford to save. The working poor have long known this. Conversely, those who are able to save reap the benefits. By the basic principle of compounding interest, people who invest see their money grow exponentially over time. For doing nothing other than shelling out the capital, you can see your mutual fund or investments grow over years or decades. So the system is inherently unequal and creates stratification. I am in no way advocating not investing or saving; it would be absolutely foolish not to. We live in a capitalist society, and so we must abide by its unwritten rules in order to have a financially sound life. However, it is worth pointing this out, as it is indeed a factor in why the rich get richer and why the SES gap is widening in our society.

-Home ownership/property ownership. This is something that is very much a part of the American mentality and American Dream. The general goal is to own one’s own home. However, as our society becomes more stratified, and real estate becomes prohibitively expensive in various parts of the country due to speculation, greed, market value increases, and foreign investors, many people cannot afford to own a home. Or, they cannot afford to own a home near their place of work and experience long commutes. Property/real estate developers these days seem to be getting greedier, gentrifying neighborhoods, flipping properties, building more and more “luxury homes,” and colluding with local politicians to get special privileges to build. Meanwhile, many longtime or local residents get pushed out of their homes, or find their rents going up prohibitively. People who have the means purchase their own homes and houses, and often base this decision on the quality of the schools. Those who can afford it even purchase second or vacation homes in order to have a place to go to on a regular basis. Many people believe that the market is unstable, so investing in homes is something concrete and tangible that one can use or rent out. There is much wisdom in this, as a house can be passed on to future generations. However, our government and society need to ensure that the poorest members of our society are adequately, affordably, and safely housed. Homeless people have somehow become an apathetic part of our collective consciousness: we become inured to the “shaggy” people begging on the corners or sleeping on the sidewalks. We have to remind ourselves that the word really means someone without a home, and that we have failed as a society if we have let human beings come to this sad condition. Everyone deserves a home in America, the wealthiest country in the world.