One of my earliest memories is getting drunk: The refrigerator and air conditioning in our apartment had broken down, and the juice I had for breakfast had brewed, swampy and bubbly in the summer heat. My mother complained to the building manager. The refrigerator stayed broken; we were kicked out. I think of this today — and the bone-wearying hours that my parents work for too little money, the discrimination we’ve faced as Asian-Americans — and still I have to learn to say to myself, as disorienting as it may feel: I am the emerging American elite. Not multigenerational-wealth, yacht-club, summer-estate elite, but immensely privileged nonetheless. All of us are.
In the wake of the admissions bribery scandal, there’s a lot of discussion about talent and opportunity, about who deserves a spot in a place like this. But debating the most legitimate way to purchase a Yale degree, be it through fraud, building donations and legacy status or a lifetime of upper-middle-class rearing in neighborhoods with high property taxes and pristine public schools, is beside the point. Looking for ways to admit more defied-the-odds poster children is helpful, but not immensely so.
Instead, zoom out. I am sure that most colleges provide an education where students befriend interesting people and develop their intellectual curiosity alongside professional skills. For a sticker price of a half-million dollars, Yale and its selective counterparts provide an excellent education, but it is no secret that they are also, maybe even primarily, a golden ticket to high-paying and exclusive paths: finance, law, medicine, management consulting and academia. We anticipate lucrative careers and second degrees. Like the aristocracies before us, we expect nothing less than living comfortably and wielding power at varying levels.
Unlike them, however, we’ve justified our monopoly not through myths and bloodlines but through the gospel of hard work, tying our self-worth with our résumés through the concept of deservingness. The real admissions scandal is not about bribery, but the landscape that made it unsurprising: a process that inherently prizes competitive and independent individuals, where money is often synonymous with merit, where the education system tracks students into different tiers of an increasingly unequal society. The real scandal is about a world where we start to believe our success is a mark of character and forget to question whether any of us deserve the outsized benefits we reap from being here.
The multiple college admissions debates that have surfaced over the past year, between the fraud cases, T.M. Landry and affirmative action, all point toward a more deeply rooted problem in the concentration of educational and other opportunities in the hands of a few. There need to be more colleges that provide pathways to power, more schools that offer mobility and opportunity. Regardless of the myriad of other identities that compose us, we ought to scrutinize our own place in this: We are the budding top 10 percent, all of us, as diverse and progressive as we may be. We are the winners of a dangerous game that has nothing to do with merit.
Dangerous, because believing in our own merit allows us to perpetuate the same cycles of inequality without so much as a second glance: We move to the same cities, gentrifying and segregating neighborhoods, expecting to have our children attend good schools and excel in extracurriculars, rarely willing to make the personal sacrifices necessary to build truly inclusive local communities. Already, we complain about our duties to the broader American community, like paying taxes. What will we do when it comes to making the decision of where to live? How to consume ethically? This is unsustainable, and it spells social, political and economic disaster for all of those people who weren’t lucky enough to be in our shoes.
And secondly, dangerous also because the merit mentality pressures us to continue competing, excelling and “working hard” to be the “best and brightest,” putting our own individual success before collective goals. It raises the price of risk-taking and makes it harder for us to take unconventional paths that explore our interests, setting us up to live unfulfilling lives. And it makes us believe that we’ve failed if we do not achieve or are not recognized for our achievements, siloing us into a narrow and unsatisfying understanding of what our lives ought to look like.
Today, I call this castlelike campus home, where nearly nothing is ever broken, where I have the impossible luxuries of exploring countless ideas, traveling to places previously unimaginable and spending time amongst kind and driven people. Like in Roald Dahl’s novel, I received an opportunity three years ago that has expanded my world and horizons in fantastic, unbelievable ways, for which I am grateful. In a few days, a new class of Yale students will get a letter that welcomes them unceremoniously into elite society. Owning that status — and acknowledging the sheer amount of unearned privilege within it — is a first step toward recognizing our duty to actively create stronger, more equal communities, while simultaneously freeing us to reimagine what it means to live a good life.
Liana Wang is a junior in Davenport College. Her column runs monthly. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .