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It’s time to look beyond celebrity admissions scandals

Editor's Note: This op-ed was updated after publication to remove the author’s byline.

The Granoff dinner was an embarrassment for the University, and it is undeniably immoral that the uber-rich, like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, can pay or cheat their way into elite institutions and receive special benefits once admitted. Indeed, these events are representative of deep injustices in our education system, threatening the most fundamental values of our so-called meritocracy. But, I don’t want to talk about exclusive dinners reminiscent of Gossip Girl episodes or photoshopped athletes anymore.

In the context of revelations about wealth’s influence on college campuses, the richest of the rich are painted as the root of all evils. Following these scandals, many Brown students have pointed to Loughlin, Huffman and Granoff and exclaimed: “they’re the problem here.” While it’s easy to see where Loughlin and Granoff went wrong, it’s harder — and arguably more important — to understand how many Brown students contribute to the very inequitable structures we claim to protest.

Over half of Brown students come from families who earn over $200,000 a year, and 70 percent of students have annual family incomes over $110,000, placing them in the top five percent or at minimum in the upper-middle class income bracket. But most of us didn’t make the Granoff list, so we can’t be the problem, right? It is a little more complicated than that.

Richard Reeves writes in a New York Times article, “the rhetoric of ‘we are the 99 percent’ has in fact been dangerously self-serving, allowing people with healthy six-figure incomes to convince themselves that they are somehow in the same economic boat as ordinary Americans, and that it is just the so-called super rich who are to blame for inequality.”

Brown has revealed to me the unique ability of upper-middle class students to leverage their socioeconomic privilege — highlighting their status in some circumstances while claiming victimhood in others. Many of those students paid for test-prep, hired private college admissions counselors and enjoyed other privileges that stem from having a certain level of wealth when navigating the college admissions process. Some even capitalized on legacy status. Once at Brown, financial security, connections to well-educated family members who know how to succeed in this environment and privileged K-12 educations only continue to make life easier. But when scandals surface, these very students can see themselves as victims of inequity.

It’s an easy trap to fall into — one that I admittedly have myself. Just a few weeks ago, I was reflecting on my own college application process and thought, “​it must have been nice for the photoshopped ‘athletes’ to avoid that stress.” ​When my housing group ended up near the bottom of the lottery list, I complained to friends about how preferential treatment for housing was allegedly given to students who attended the Granoff dinner.​ Finally, I comforted myself with the fact that at least I wasn’t buying my way into college or cheating the system as Loughlin did. But then I stopped myself.

In perseverating on the ​huge ​legs up of those that bribed their ways into college, I ignored my own smaller, but nonetheless present, leg up in this game of academia. My family had the resources to move to a community with strong public schools and pay for SAT tutoring. I was lucky enough to spend a year studying abroad in France as a junior in high school — which likely looked good on my college application — and my family proofread draft after draft of college supplements. While I worked summer jobs, my financial situation allowed me not to work during the school year and instead focus on my academics and extracurriculars. I had guidance counselors who knew me, and I have family and friends who’d been through similar college processes and could provide advice. The list goes on.

We’ve come to frame inequality at Brown and beyond as only a problem of the ultra-wealthy. And while Huffman and Loughlin play an egregious role in this story, inequality cannot be dismantled unless upper-middle class families also recognize their complicity in a system that stratifies wealth.

When we discuss the myth of meritocracy, Granoff dinners and celebrity scandals should not be our go-to anecdotes. The story of many Brown students does enough to illustrate this very point; ultimately, the status quo is maintained not only by the richest families but also by those of us who reap the rewards of an unjust system while pretending we are not the problem.

By pointing only at the super rich, we create a façade of a level playing field for the rest of us. By solely claiming victimhood, we disrespect and minimize the struggles of those who were not given the same leg up. Let’s not let this façade serve as a barrier to real change.

It’s time for us to recognize that upper-middle class families are beneficiaries and not victims of inequality. We should not pat ourselves on the back because we didn’t pay millions of dollars to get here, and exclusion from the Granoff dinners doesn’t make us the “good guys.” So next time we relieve our guilt by liking a Dear Blueno post that rails against the one-percent, let’s ask ourselves whether our behavior is truly progressive or whether our anger exists only within the pre-existing structures of wealth distribution.

Reeves writes, “For Americans to solve the problem of their deepening class divisions, we will have to start by admitting their existence and our complicity in maintaining them. We need to raise our consciousness about class. And yes, I am looking at you.”

Be furious with a University administration that caters to the ultra-wealthy. Fight against the most egregious of plutocrats. But at the end of the day, it’s imperative to recognize that real solutions involve pushing for systemic change. And systemic change means it’s time to start giving up some of the privileges that only reinforce hierarchies.


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