College admissions scandal exposes the fantasy of the American Dream

College admissions scandal exposes the fantasy of the American Dream
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If you’re shocked to learn there is a college admissions scandal in which the wealthy are accused of rigging the game of opportunity to their own benefit, don’t be — that is exactly how America works, every day at every level. The rigging often is legal and starts way earlier than college. In Manhattan, for example, there are preschool admissions counselors who advise parents which play group to get your toddler into so that he or she can be on track to get into the “right” preschool.

The rich can buy their politicians, their tax breaks, their ability to endow their privilege to their children. And as Anand Giridharadas points out in his book, “Winners Take All,” they even have bought the idea that they are benevolent monarchs charged with saving the world. With all the economic gains flowing to a top 1 percent, we must throw ourselves at their mercy and count on the goodwill of billionaires to provide the rest of us with adequate schools, health and safety.


The wealthy have rigged the game so completely, with such a large share of the gains flowing ever upward, that they now live in fear of losing their own game. It’s not enough that their children could simply roll down the hill of their absurdly tilted playing field; they must have a guarantee. Such parents want absolute certainty that their kids will not be subject to working-class hell.

The pure economics of this story don’t totally add up, though. At least some of the parents accused of bribery by the FBI have enough money that no matter how well or how badly their kids do, they will be fine. Better than fine, actually; pampered, coddled, privileged. So why, then, might it be worth risking actual prison time to assure their admission to top universities? The answer is that being elite in America comes with psychological, as well as economic, benefits: You made it. You’re a winner. You are worthy. And even if your celebrity parents are accused of bribing the crew coach to secure your university admittance, you still believe you made it on your own. You buy into the American Dream mythology that you’ve earned it.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Ivanka TrumpIvana (Ivanka) Marie TrumpUS should support Ngozi for WTO Director General   Trump administration awarding M in housing grants to human trafficking survivors Deutsche Bank launches investigation into longtime banker of Trump, Kushner MORE, who wrote a book offering her tips for life success and recently opined on how people want to make it on their own. Or, ask President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeWine tests negative for coronavirus a second time Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally MORE, who portrays himself as a self-made man who received only a “small loan” from his father … but in fact benefited from his father’s largesse to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Believing that you somehow earned your fortunate position apparently helps you to sleep at night and absolves you of any responsibility to help the less fortunate.  

The rich and influential enjoy a psychological benefit from the American Dream, but for those who aren’t making it, there’s a measurable psychological cost — an added dose of shame to go with that basic economic struggle. For his book, “The New Minority” Justin Gest performed a comparative study of the white, working class in Youngstown, Ohio, and the white, working class living outside of London. He found similarities in their worldview, but there was at least one significant difference: The Americans had internalized the American Dream, and so, when they could not provide for themselves and their families as their fathers and grandfathers had, they didn’t blame an unfair system; they tended to blame themselves.  

Of course, part of what the college admissions scandal reveals is just what a fantasy this idea of a meritocracy — the core of the American Dream — really is. Increasingly in America, your lot in life depends a lot more on your birthright than on your talents, hard work or other positive qualities. Class mobility has been steadily declining in America since the 1940s. In spite of our national mythology, we actually have significantly less class mobility than our friends across the pond in the United Kingdom, France and Italy. We also have massive inequality.

Naturally, the greater the divide between the top and the rest, the more incentive there is to rig the system for yourself and your kids — leading to an ever-spiraling cycle of increasing inequality. In simple terms, the more inequality, the more college-admissions cheating scandals might occur, because the cost of falling out of the 1 percent becomes too great.

I hope, however, that we draw an even more important lesson from this scandal. Not only is the meritocracy not remotely meritocratic and the American Dream a complete fantasy, but the whole concept is immoral nonsense in the first place. The idea that one person is worthy and another is not, and that we might figure that out based on SAT scores, is morally repugnant. The college admissions scandal is not remotely surprising, or out of the ordinary in that regard. The sooner we accept that this is how America operates, the sooner we can move past the mythology of a worthy elite class and create a system that recognizes the worthiness of all.

Krystal Ball is the liberal co-host of “Rising,” Hill.TV’s bipartisan morning news show. She is president of The People’s House Project, which recruits Democratic candidates in Republican-held congressional districts of the Midwest and Appalachia, and a former candidate for Congress in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @krystalball.