On a quiet Tuesday morning, just days after the hustle and bustle of campus life began to slow for spring break, the Massachusetts attorney general ignited a firestorm involving Yale — he was indicting the Yale women’s soccer coach for accepting bribes to falsely admit students as soccer recruits. Not long after, news outlets scrambled to jettison their reporters across the nation’s college campuses in an effort to reveal the “hidden money” behind college admissions.
At first, Yale students and alumni seemed to be divided into two camps — those shocked by the possibility of a $450,000 bribe in a supposedly meritocratic system and those who questioned why this was news at all. In other words, is it truly groundbreaking to discover that privilege and money hold an inordinate influence over the college application process? Is this something we were previously unaware of? I personally don’t think so. Rather, I’m more inclined to believe that many of us already knew that bribery is merely another way that wealthy parents pull their kids out of public education systems, “elevating” them toward a better life.
The college bribery scandal is anything but unimaginable; rather, it is a predictable product of the United States’ neglectful attitude toward public education. The pursuit of education is just one façade of America’s neoliberalism, an ideology grounded in the lionization of individual freedoms and restriction of government intervention rather than the assumed “liberalism” of the American left. In other words, neoliberalism argues for a return to “the markets” as a solution for societal inequality.
In regard to education, neoliberalism has taken off in the wake of a crumbling public education system. From Oakland to Oklahoma and beyond, educators have witnessed a painstakingly long process of disinvestment in public education institutions at all levels. Furthermore, the current Department of Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has focused her energy on promoting “school choice” and the rerouting of public funds to private and charter schools, so parents can opt out of a deteriorating public good instead of giving it the reinvention it needs. In the course of all this, we are observing a major shift in American attitudes toward education — education is no longer a right that all Americans deserve irrespective of socioeconomic background, race or gender. Rather, education has gotten caught in the whirlwind of neoliberalism — it has become a good to be purchased. We no longer concern ourselves with the arduous process of rebuilding our public education system. After all, why do so when you can buy your way out of it altogether?
The college admissions bribery scandal isn’t the root of the problem — it is a symptom of the deep-rooted neglect of public education, of our misplaced belief in the neoliberal hope that “the market will fix it.” The motivations behind the $450,000 bribe at hand are the same ones behind the proliferation of private schools across the country. In the United States, there are innumerable ways in which families have come to purchase access to education, from pre-K all the way to graduate school. If public schooling is not “enough” for your child, you purchase private school education; you purchase private tutors; you purchase countless prep books. This is how we arrive in a world where you bribe a soccer coach to pretend that your child (who has never touched a soccer ball in their life) is a rising soccer star. Rather than purchase books and private schools and tutors, now, you purchase admissions.
Granted, I am not necessarily arguing for a dismantling of private education — that’s a separate conversation. Sometimes, there are very legitimate reasons for seeking out private education. For instance, it is not entirely the fault of parents for choosing private education for their children when they witness crumbling public schools — they do it out of a desire to give their children the very best. In spite of this, I firmly disagree with the sentiment that private or alternative education (re: charter schools) is the be-all-and-end-all solution to a decaying public education system; it is merely a bandage ready to fall off. By becoming complacent with the idea that money is the key to opportunity in a broken education system, we are allowing the immensely wealthy to conjure up new ideas (like photoshopping your daughter’s picture onto the face of a soccer player) about how they can give their children an unfair leg up.
If we are truly upset up by this scandal, then we cannot view it as an anomaly. Instead, we must question how we have allowed the pursuit of education to arrive at this point. We must demand that our society sincerely address an education system where opportunity has become something to be purchased by the few rather than offered to all. We, especially those who benefit from higher education at a place like Yale, must challenge the idea that education is merely another good to be purchased exclusively by those who can afford it. Only then do we deserve to be shocked when the absurdly wealthy choose to buy their way into college.
Aiden Lee is a sophomore in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .