College Admissions and the Ethics of Unfair Advantages

A boy walks through an aisle of books in a library.
"college" by Matt Madd licesned under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr).

News broke this month of a college admissions scandal in which it was discovered that wealthy and powerful parents were paying thousands of dollars to have their children admitted to prestigious colleges. The fraud was committed in two ways: in the first, SAT and ACT scores were falsified (generally by having someone else other than the student write the tests), while in the second, profiles portraying students as elite athletes were forged (often with students’ faces being photoshopped onto pre-existing pictures) and used as part of a bribe for admission under athletic scholarship. The primary organizer of the fraud has been arrested and pleaded guilty, while as of writing an increasing number of parents are being sought for prosecution.

As many outlets have reported, it is obviously immoral (and illegal) to pay to have one’s underperforming child accepted into college, not only because doing so involves widespread deception and abuse of power, but also since more deserving students will be likely be denied a position as a result. With college admissions becoming increasingly competitive it is little wonder why the story has attracted so much attention.

It is easy to be outraged by the situation precisely because it is so outrageous. It would be a mistake, however, to think that were it not for these few bad actors that the college admission process would be a fair one. Recent events perhaps exemplify how the wealthy and privileged don’t play by the rules, but the benefits of such privilege are endemic regardless.

As The Atlantic reports, there have always been different rules for the very wealthy when it comes to college admissions. Legacy admissions – preferential treatment given to children of alumni – give disproportionate advantages to students who tend to be from wealthier homes. Even more blatant preference comes as the result of donations, with students being admitted on the basis of parents who sometimes provide donations in the millions of dollars (one example being Jared Kushner, who was admitted to Harvard after his father donated $2.5 million to the school).

In discussing the recent instances of fraud, however, a US attorney attempted to differentiate them from these other advantages enjoyed by the very wealthy, stating that “We’re not talking about donating a building … We’re talking about fraud.” What, though, is the relevant difference between donating millions of dollars to have your child admitted to college, and bribing someone to falsify SAT scores? There is, of course, the fact that the former involves explicit falsification: presumably in cases in which students are admitted on the basis of large donations their test scores are not increased, but instead they are just ignored, or else not used to disqualify them from entry. There doesn’t, however, seem to be any important difference in terms of fairness: decisions for college admissions should be made on the basis of merit, and not on the basis of personal wealth.

This ideal will strike many as naïve. If one’s prospects for being admitted into college are not directly influenced in the sense of being purchased in any of the above ways, it can be indirectly influenced by wealth in numerous other ways. Athletic scholarships, for example, can help provide students with an opportunity for an education they may not have otherwise been able to afford, but are more often than not given to students who are able to exceed in their sport precisely because they come from a position of wealth and privilege. For instance, while college sports like basketball and football tend to receive the most attention, there is a much lower cost of entry into such sports than there is, for example, sailing. However, as Saahil Desai writes, such “lower-profile sports,” along with “golf, water polo, fencing, and lacrosse” are dominated by white students who come from wealthy families; as such, Desai describes college sports as “affirmative action for rich white students.”

While bribing someone for admission to college is unambiguously immoral, what about the other advantages that wealthy parents can provide for their children? Students from wealthy families will, of course, benefit in myriad other ways: they are able to make use of tutors, SAT prep courses, college counsellors, and many other forms of support that other students simply cannot afford. But if you are able to afford to pay for your child to take an expensive SAT prep course, knowing that it will provide them with an advantage that their classmates will not have access to, is it okay to do so? Is this not just another form of providing an unfair advantage?

As reported at CNN, one parent struggled with this kind of dilemma when considering whether to spend money on a prep course for their child: “On one side, you want the world to be a meritocracy. But at the same time, you have a moral imperative to do what you can for your kids and educate them to the best of your ability.” Ultimately the parent did indeed decide to spend the money:

“Is there a societal good if my kid drifts downward? Maybe someone could make the argument that if my kid slides back it would give someone else a shot. But it’s not so clean,” he said. “Odds are, in the world we live in, with the table so slanted towards the wealthy, that those resources are going to move to the people who already have more.”

Is this the right way to think about the problem? We have seen that one of the reasons why people have felt so outraged at the prospect of parents buying their children a spot in college is that doing so likely means that a more deserving student will not be admitted. If that is a reason that these acts are wrong, then it seems that providing one’s children with a less direct but still unfair advantage might also be wrong for the same reasons. There is an addition problem that comes along with providing one’s children with unfair advantages, which is that doing so puts additional strain on those who are unable to afford them. To compete with those who, for example, have the advantage of expensive prep courses, a parent may very well feel the need to spend beyond their means in order to try to establish a more level playing field.

When faced with the dilemma of whether to provide one’s child with an advantage at the cost of fairness, few would, I think, hesitate too long before writing a check. As we have seen, while one’s special obligations towards one’s children can conflict with obligations towards fairness for everyone, the former will almost certainly continue to win out over the latter. Whether this is morally acceptable is up for debate. However, that the world is “slanted towards the wealthy” hardly qualifies as a decent justification for one’s actions. Nor does the rationale employed by another parent interviewed by CNN, who stated that “[a]n important lesson from this to teach your kids is that sometimes life is just not fair. You have to do your best and that’s all you can do.”

Ken Boyd is currently lecturer in philosophy at the University of Toronto at Scarborough. His philosophical work concerns the ways that we can best make sure that we learn from one another, and what goes wrong when we don’t. You can read more about his work at kennethboyd.wordpress.com.