A former college admissions dean explains the mundane reverse affirmative action that lets the rich send their kids to the front of the line

Thanks to the college admissions scandal the issue of inequality and access to postsecondary education is now in our national conversation, but despite the glitz of the bribery scandal, the real issue is a much more mundane form of reverse affirmative action that allows wealthy Americans to dominate college admissions, muscling out better candidates from poorer backgrounds, especially Black students.

In an excellent and comprehensive article for Vox, Jason England — a former admissions dean for an elite liberal arts college — maps the many ways that the system is tilted in favor of wealthy, white applicants, especially men, and puts the lie to the idea that education is a "meritocracy" where the best people are admitted.

For example, the majority of applicants are women, but admissions committees seek to establish a gender balance, which means that men face much lower standards than women. On top of that, the low academic standards for admitting students with exceptional athletic ability favor men, as men's teams are more valued than women's teams.

But not all men are created equal. According to England, admissions committees routinely refuse to consider admitting Black athletes under the athletic programs; instead, these candidates are deferred to the colleges' "diversity programs," ensuring that mediocre white men can be admitted even if they're less academically qualified than their female counterparts, and even if they're less athletically qualified than Black athletes applying at the same time.

It's quite an affirmative action program for mediocre white dudes!

That's just the icing on the favoritism cake. College admissions favor prep school students, and prep schools are better at gaming the admission system, from extensive SAT tests (if a test is evaluating "aptitude" then it should produce the same scores whether or not you study for it — the fact that SAT outcomes are sensitive to preparation tells you that what they measure is "SAT-taking ability," not academic aptitude) to the florid, multi-page letters of recommendation that prep school teachers can pen for their students thanks to small class sizes and explicitly budgeted time for these activities (in the space of two years, England got three letters from the same teacher descrbing different applicants as "the most exceptional student I've taught in 25 years").

England says that colleges are beholden to the "junk science" of "rankings like the US News & World Report Best Colleges list" and that this distorts the entire process towards favoritism for the rich.

It's never really clear which candidates are more qualified. Even less clear is who deserves a spot in the class, and how anyone could comfortably determine such a thing. The bulk of those credentialed enough for serious consideration are in that position because of circumstance and wealth. As William Munny said to Little Bill Daggett in Unforgiven, "deserve's got nothing to do with it."

I spoke to Doron Taussig, a visiting assistant professor of media and communication studies at Ursinus College, who is writing a book about perceptions of meritocracy. He said, "Our cultural standards for what it means to earn or deserve something are extremely subjective and flexible, probably necessarily so. This means that when people tell stories about how they got to where they are and what merit had to do with it, most of us can conclude whatever we want."

In other words, it's difficult to get anyone to acknowledge the luck of birth and circumstance. To do so undermines a key cog in the American dream machine: the myth of the self, which reduces wealthy children's built-in advantages to irrelevant biographical footnotes, while transforming others' disadvantages to personal faults. It's difficult to get those on the short end of the stick to see that diligence and acumen can take you only so far; they internalize failure or seek out scapegoats ("the black kid stole my spot").

The mess that is elite college admissions, explained by a former dean [Jason England/Vox]