As a single parent and a city government employee, my mom didn’t have the money to send me to a fancy private school. So my best shot at a good education was testing into one of the few quality public elementary schools in Chicago.
When I spoke with her about this, she recalled walking with me into the building where I would take my elementary school entrance exam. In the building’s lobby, groups of parents sat whispering in anxious tones, quizzing their kids at the last minute and talking to each other about what questions their kids should anticipate. Within minutes, I was whisked away to an obscure back room and subjected to questioning by two adults whom I had never met. After some time, I returned, my mom unsure of what I’d been asked and what the outcome of my test would be.
If I didn’t do well on that test, I would have ended up at one of the elementary schools in my neighborhood, many of which were closed in 2013 because they were under-resourced, under-enrolled and underperforming. I probably would’ve dropped out or been funneled through the school-to-prison pipeline, as is often the case at my neighborhood schools. I never would’ve made it to this campus. And so my academic future largely rode on how well I, as a four-year-old prone to fits of distraction, impatience and crankiness, did on an arbitrary test.
I got lucky.
I have thought about this fact as the Supreme Court’s decision to hear lawsuits against Harvard and UNC has renewed debates about affirmative action. In recent weeks, I’ve heard everyone, from politicians to pundits to random people, offer their takes on the matter. I’m not here to add my voice to the already oversaturated debate. Rather, I’m here to say that this entire conversation is unproductive. It misses the broader, much more pressing, issue.
For whatever reason, we have come to tacitly accept the extreme selectivity of elite American universities as a given; that is precisely the problem. Instead of examining this selectivity, it seems we have leaned into, and thus legitimized, the idea that elite college admissions ought to be a ruthless zero-sum game. The lucrative college consulting industry is now an essential part of the college admissions process. Online forums where students and parents discuss ways to game their way into one of these schools are commonplace. The release of college decisions might as well be a holiday, with students YouTubing their reactions, and media coverage heaping praise and attention onto the few winners of this perverse system.
This alarming embrace of competition has bled into our high school and elementary school systems as parents increasingly view them as gateways to elite colleges. In my hometown, it wasn’t uncommon for parents to relentlessly drill their kids on test prep material, fake their home addresses to be considered disadvantaged and gain a leg up in school admissions processes and attempt to schmooze school leaders who could influence what students got into which schools. Stories like this, where parents and students train for the competition of elementary and high school admissions as though it’s the Olympics, are frighteningly common.
But the debate over affirmative action does not get at the heart of this systemic issue. Neither do debates about legacy and athlete admissions for that matter. They are fundamentally conversations about who deserves to walk these hallowed halls, to have access to a world-class education, to enter the elite class of American society. But every student deserves to be here, every student deserves an opportunity like this.
When we argue over admissions policies, affirmative action or otherwise, we indict each other and leave intact a system that forces us to compete for what should be available to all. We cling to the ill-defined ideas of merit that undergird college admissions and paint over the inequalities entrenched in our educational system. We neglect to critique the ability of universities like Yale to create exclusive elite classes, opting instead to tinker around the edges of a wholly unjust system.
For us, the winners of this twisted game, it’s easy to engage in these sorts of debates, because it keeps us from having to reckon with the troubling privilege we’ve all been afforded. It allows us to avoid examining the presupposition of those debates –– that it’s okay for elite colleges to exclude a majority of Americans from their spaces, so long as the method by which they choose to exclude seems unbiased.
And while we might be able to attribute our place at this university to our hard work, dedication and merit, our success is as much a result of our luck and privilege as it is a result of those all-nighters and intense extracurriculars. It’s as much a result of the hours of test prep as it is the result of getting test questions that played to our strengths. It’s as much a result of the strong essays we wrote as it is the good mood the admissions committee was in the day they considered our application. To deny this reality and defend the selectivity of universities like our own is a tragic moral failing.
When I tested into my elementary school, I effectively got into Yale. That test opened the doors to a lifetime of power and privilege. It gave me access to the best teachers, the best facilities, the best test prep programs, the best education. As I reflect on that, on how easily my test could have gone the other way, on how the test did go the other way for so many children, I feel so deeply disturbed.
When I’m walking around campus, I’ll occasionally pause to look at some of the students touring Yale. I see their eyes light up with some mix of wonder and anxiety as they see the grandeur of Old Campus and Sterling Memorial Library. This makes me sad. Sad because a lot of them won’t get to see the inside of an Old Campus dorm or study in the stacks. Sad because they’ll have to endure a grueling college admissions process to find that out. Sad because we continue to sell people on a false dream of opportunity and success.