Michelle Li

On March 17, five days after news of the admissions scandal broke, The New York Times published an opinion by Jennine Capó Crucet entitled “Wait, How Did You Get Into College?” In the piece, Capó Crucet recalls choking on pasta the first time she heard the term “legacy.” An inner-city public-school graduate from Miami, she had bought into the “lie big time” that admissions were based “solely on merit.” So, she was shocked to learn during her first semester at college that the woman sitting across from her in the dining hall had received preferential treatment in admissions. She couldn’t believe that her classmate had been given an advantage because “several generations of her family had gone to Cornell and … her family had, for decades, made large donations to the school.”

After graduating , Capó Crucet worked as a college counselor to low-income, first-generation high school students. She explained to her advisees that some “parents spent millions on services that all but guaranteed admission into the country’s best schools.” She wanted her students, she writes, to “realize how much more they belonged on whatever campus was lucky enough to snag them than the students who’d essentially bought their way in.”

In the last couple weeks, many people have pointed out that bribery is, in fact, not all that different from the legal methods affluent parents use to help their kids get into elite schools. An article ran on Vox with the headline “The Real College Admissions Scandal is What’s Legal.” A piece posted on OZY carried a similar title: “In College Admissions, like Politics, the Real Scandal is What’s Legal.”

News of William Singer’s operation provided those who distrusted the system with a rare opportunity. It allowed them to equate something that everyone agrees is wrong — handing a soccer coach a $400,000 check — with actions whose morality is more ambiguous. It’s a slippery slope from bribery to donor preferences to legacies to private tutoring, and so on. And the critique is justified. College admissions are unfair.

Capó Crucet knew from her own experience how difficult it is for low-income students to step onto elite campuses. When she told her students that they “belonged” more than their wealthier classmates, her words were clearly meant to offer encouragement. But even so, speaking about “belonging” in this way has its hazards.

The more we focus on who deserves to be at Yale and who doesn’t, the more we play into a collective fantasy. We have become obsessed with the idea that we are here because of our own merits, that we won admission solely through our intelligence, energy and hard work. In this narrative, getting into Yale is some sort of hard-earned prize. But the reality is that almost every one of us needed help to get here.

I am, like Capó Crucet’s classmate, a legacy. My mother graduated from Yale, and as a result, my application was given special consideration. But this is just one of many boosts I got. I went to a rural public school, which put me in a different category from suburban and private school applicants. In my senior year, I had the opportunity to take college classes — likely another lucky break.

I suspect that for nearly all of us, even for those who faced much longer odds than I did, some lucky breaks pushed us along on our path to Yale. Maybe we were fortunate enough to have parents who cared a lot about our education. Maybe we had a devoted teacher who served as our unwavering mentor. I bet that each one of us can think of someone we knew growing up who lacked that crucial advantage. That person would have loved to be at Yale but isn’t.

I’d like to imagine that we can conceive of “deserving” in a different way. Perhaps instead of thinking we deserve to be at Yale because of how we got in, we can think of deserving in terms of what we will do when we get out.

The profound inequalities that were brought to light in the last couple weeks are by no means limited to college admissions. We can see similar biases in many other areas of our society: housing, health care, employment, incarceration, etc. Maybe those who deserve a Yale education are those who choose to use the advantages it endows to work against these injustices. The more we challenge the imbalances around us, the closer we will get to an equitable world. And in such a world, whether or not we get into Yale might not loom so large.

Aaron Kleiner | aaron.kleiner@yale.edu .