The Fallacy of Meritocracy

“I do want the experience of like, gamedays, partying … I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know” says Olivia Giannulli, YouTube star known as Olivia Jade and daughter of actress Lori Loughlin, in one of her videos. When news first broke of the recent college admissions scandal, I was unsurprised by the information that the college admissions process is rigged for the rich. The question I kept returning to, however, was why? The children involved in the investigation (known internally as Operation Varsity Blues) were enormously privileged, and in the case of Giannulli, already semi-famous. Giannulli clearly had no interest in getting an education. So why did these wealthy parents go to such lengths to guarantee admission for their children?

I’ve realized that the answer has to do with meritocracy. Yes, the children involved in this scandal could probably maintain their wealthy status without having to go to college. However, their parents were aware that this kind of success is publicly frowned upon, and that their children must at least appear as if they earned their place. Meritocracy in America was invented in order to legitimize a new kind of elitism. The very concept of merit favors the privileged, but getting into an elite college is so competitive nowadays that a simple donation won’t guarantee admission anymore. To combat this, wealthy parents — ranging from high-ranking executives to CEOs to actresses — turned to William Singer, the founder of a California-based college preparatory business called Edge College & Career Network, otherwise known as The Key.

When Singer appeared in federal court and pleaded guilty to counts of racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice, he reportedly described his business as a “side door.” He was making the claim that in college admissions, there already exists a front door, through which deserving students are admitted, and a back door, through which students are admitted because of legacy status or extravagant donations (for instance, Jared Kushner was accepted at Harvard after his father pledged 2.5 million dollars to the school).

Singer envisioned his organization as a side door through which students would be guaranteed admission based on fabricated athletic profiles and bribery, a door which was much easier than earning your way in and much cheaper than multimillion-dollar donations. In a country where there is no narrative for downward mobility, anxieties about class preservation and mobility run rampant. Wealth is so stratified in America that most of the 33 parents indicted in the investigation are actually considered to be within the bottom rung of the top 1 percent. Therefore, they could afford to pay $400,000 to Singer’s organization in exchange for a doctored application, but perhaps did not have the means to donate millions of dollars like Jared Kushner’s father did.

It is easy to dismiss Operation Varsity Blues as the ridiculous headline of the week. It is easy to think of what happened as simply hilarious. We can mock Gianulli for her vapid videos on “college life” and laugh at the antics involved in the scandal, from photoshopping students’ faces onto photos of professional athletes to parents flying their children across the country to take their entrance exams with bribed proctors. The situation quickly becomes less funny when we start thinking about the scandal’s implications and about educational inequality in America as a whole. The New York Times reported that, in a letter to the college community, Wanda M. Austin, the interim president of the University of Southern California, claimed she did not believe admissions officers were aware of the scheme, describing the university as a victim. But can the university really claim itself as a victim when, as Singer described, there has always existed a “back door” for the wealthy in the admissions process?

There are lessons to be learned from the scandal. We need to acknowledge that “equal opportunity” and “meritocracy” are concepts which exist only in theory. We should reconsider our obsession with the elite (obsession which can result in toxic, abusive environments like the T.M. Landry College Preparatory School in Louisiana) and reevaluate the tools we use to determine merit. We should be concerned about the fact that we constantly hear complaints of reverse discrimination and see fingers pointed at black and Latinx students, but rarely ever talk about institutional privileges given to the wealthy. Our conversations should go beyond the ridiculous details of this scandal, to discuss systemic inequalities which consistently favor certain groups of people over others. Our amusement should turn into anger as we continue to have these discussions, and continue to ask for change.