Buying Your Way into College: The Advantage of the Wealthy that Persists Past College

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It’s been alleged that dozens of parents have bought their children’s way into some of America’s most prestigious colleges. As a result of these allegations, many people have been forced to confront the myth of equal opportunity in America.

The image that once you are 18, you are making your own way through the world and that class doesn’t matter is a myth. However, exposing the illegal practices of gaining admission will not solve the problem of inequality.

The arrests this week won’t address the deeper issues of income inequality that exclude primarily black and latino students. As writer Matt Kwong for the CBC pointed out in his article “What bribery in U.S. college admissions says about the ‘myth’ of meritocracy”, wealthy parents will still be able to give their children an unfair advantage. They will still “send their children to SAT tutoring, place them into learning academies, or fly them to another state for on-campus tours to boost their admission chances by showing ‘demonstrated interest’ in the college.”

Even more troubling is that once students graduate college, the set of advantages or disadvantages from growing up wealthy or from a working class background continues throughout people’s lives.

In the article by Joe Pinsker “The ‘Hidden Mechanisms’ That Help Those Born Rich to Excel in Elite Jobs, Pinsker writes about research that shows how the customs of elite workplaces can favor those who grew up wealthier. The research was conducted by Daniel Laurison and Sam Friedman and can be read in their new book, The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged.

Laurison and Friedman’s research shows that a series of “hidden mechanisms”, such as unwritten codes of office behavior and informal systems of professional advancement, benefit individuals that grew up wealthy. These same systems simultaneously disadvantage those with working-class backgrounds. For example, young adults from wealthier families may have their housing subsidized at the beginning of their career. Thereby allowing them to take lower paying jobs that can lead to greater professional advancement. Or the set of advantages may help people know the “unwritten” rules of appropriate office wear or talk. Making it easier for children of the wealthy to be “sponsored” by leaders in their office.

The effect of the series of hidden mechanisms can be seen in the New York Times article “Elite Law Firm’s All-White Partner Class Stirs Debate on Diversity. In the article, the announcement of the law firm Paul, Weiss of its new partner class was dissected. The new class of partners was made of 12 lawyers. All lawyers were white. Almost all of them were white men. “More than 20 women and people of color interviewed for [the New York Times] article described obstacles to achieving diversity at Paul, Weiss. Many said that opportunities to be groomed for partner are harder to come by for women and minorities. … they failed to break into the good graces and social circles of the firm’s top lawyers, who must champion those hoping to earn a lucrative spot as a partner.”

The researcher Laurison points out that one way to even the playing field is to “change workplace cultures to be closer to what … working-class people—and women, racial and ethnic minorities, and other historically excluded groups—bring rather than just trying to teach those ‘others’ how to adapt.”

Although inequality in opportunity will likely never be eradicated, we can begin to break down barriers by recognizing our own unconscious biases and working towards overcoming them.

(Views are my own and do not reflect the views of any organization.)

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