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College Admissions and Access to America's Elites

College Admissions and Access to America's Elites
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By Friday, 15 March 2019 04:30 PM Current | Bio | Archive

The scandal of blatant cheating, lying, and other deceptive misconduct for access to places at colleges opens up the question of ways into American college and universities in general.

Despite Donald Trump's attack on elites as part of his campaign for the presidency, great portions of Americans aspire to access the higher social strata for themselves and their children.

Just as Europe has struggled with centuries of elites holding too much power and influence, America has allowed wealth to create elites that leave the old elite system in Europe with nothing to envy.

Europe did succeed, often with terrible violence as evidenced during the 20th century wars, to tear down at least to some extent its rigid social class structure.

America on the other hand never witnessed a serious upheaval in its formation of its elites based on, at the origin, quite simply money.

Robber barons, or as some would say captains of industry, amassed huge fortunes sometimes through questionable means: money, exploitation of cheap labor, bootlegging, and stock market speculation, and their enormous wealth became part of the mainstay of a social and economic elite.

Eventually, going into the mid 20th Century, one gateway to membership in the elites, independent of pure and simple wealth, was elite colleges and universities.

But is it so simple to say that in reality this gateway is independent of family wealth?

In many instances we satisfy ourselves that the playing field is even, entrance depending on academic achievement.

But a crack opens in what are purportedly objective criteria to admittance to institutions of higher learning where athletes, minorities, candidates from remote geographical areas, and foreign students receive privileged treatment. It has become general knowledge that a New York City white male applicant has a much higher entry barrier than a black female from Idaho.

There are lots of ways to rationalize college priorities in recruiting students. Difficult moral and intellectual questions, however, do come up for example when schools justify accepting athletes who barely attend classes because winning records in athletic competition bring in money and notoriety.

College admittance criteria become much more problematic where it appears that applicants born to wealth achieve disproportionate success.

Aside from these applicants having greater leisure time and a broader exposure to a more diverse cultural and intellectual environment, there exists an advantage in acceptance for children from families that have attended the same schools and more importantly make large donations.

Should a child born to a philanthropist who donates a library to his or her alma mater have an advantage when applying to the same school?

Is it perfectly ok for some schools to accept a disproportionate number of alumni children?

And here we arrive at the core issue.

Even considering that the schemes to cheat on entrance exams are clearly illegal and subject to criminal sanctions, should not also other means of fostering favoritism be at the very least subject to scrutiny and perhaps legislation rendering such practices illegal?

The issue becomes even more complex when considering the widening gap in wealth and influence between the privileged and those who struggle to earn a living.

The most fervent defenders of the American exceptionalism, the right of all to participate in the American dream, must not forget that the very foundation of our system is fairness. This means, if not total equal opportunity, at least a framework where bias based on wealth and influence is morally reprehensible and in many cases illegal.

It is imperative that the atmosphere created by the list of untruths credited to the man at the top of the heap, the United States president, does not creep down to the point where in general people consider that the ends justify the means. What differentiated America from many regimes throughout the world was the refusal of the Founding Fathers to accept the privilege of nobility proposed by the English king and to render the means themselves sacred in the Bill of Rights, whatever ends were to be achieved.

It is disconcerting, to say the least, that many upstanding Americans dismiss cheating at the top because results in the economy are considered positive and now we see that some have themselves stooped to the level where cheating has become business as usual.

Mark L. Cohen has his own legal practice, and was counsel at White & Case starting in 2001, after serving as international lawyer and senior legal consultant for the French aluminum producer Pechiney. Cohen was a senior consultant at a Ford Foundation Commission, an advisor to the PBS television program "The Advocates," and Assistant Attorney General in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He teaches U.S. history at the business school in Lille l’EDHEC. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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The scandal of blatant cheating, lying, and other deceptive misconduct for access to places at colleges opens up the question of ways into American college and universities in general.
college, admissions, elite, education
Friday, 15 March 2019 04:30 PM
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