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Actress Felicity Huffman is among 50 people indicted in a nationwide college admissions cheating scandal. There’s much more K-12 schools could do to help level the playing field for less advantaged students. (DAVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images)AFP/Getty Images

Like a train wreck, the celebrity-studded college admissions scandal is hard to look away from. But the hand-wringing over the misdeeds of a few affluent parents is a distraction from far greater, if more complex, barriers to equity in education.

We now know that if you’re desperate to get your kid into a prestigious college—and you have enough money—you don’t have to gamble on the uncertain returns from SAT test prep, generous donations, or your child’s athletic prowess. There are more sure-fire ways to gain admission: for example, you can hire an adult who’s a test whiz to take the SAT for your child or bribe a coach to lie about her athletic abilities. Or at least you used to be able to do those things, until the scandal broke earlier this week.

For all the coverage, there’s still a lot we don’t know. For example, were these parents trying to secure their children an unearned leg up or to shield them from crushing disappointment? Any parent of a college applicant can understand the urge to smooth a rocky path to the school your child has her heart set on—although presumably the vast majority will draw the line well before these parents did. Not that parental tenderness justifies their actions. The rational response to a teenager’s cry that his life will be ruined if he doesn’t get into a particular college is: No, it won’t. There are plenty of good schools out there. Still, there’s a difference between humoring a beloved child’s delusion and entertaining that delusion oneself.

We also don’t know exactly who got harmed or what the extent of the harm was, although that hasn’t stopped individual litigants from crying foul. The mother of one applicant who was rejected from some of the schools implicated in the scandal—despite a 4.2 grade point average—is asking for no less than $500 billion. In another complaint, a current Stanford student is suing because she didn’t get into the University of Southern California. Good luck proving damages there.

Still, someone was harmed: better qualified applicants were shunted aside to make room for others. As many have pointed out, that happens all the time, albeit not in so blatant—and illegal—a fashion. Athletes and children of wealthy alumni have traditionally gotten a helpful finger on the scale. At the other end of the spectrum, efforts to diversify the student body have benefited applicants from traditionally disadvantaged groups. The latter kind of boost is easier to justify on grounds of equity, but all of these factors have helped to create the impression that college admissions isn’t based on “merit” alone—that to some extent it’s arbitrary. And that can lead to at least some parents and applicants saying: well, if it’s so arbitrary, why not find a way around it?

But there’s a deeper problem that won’t be solved by arresting parents, or even by making college admissions more transparent. The affluent will always be in a position to give their children an advantage in the application process, not to mention in life: private schools, trips to Europe, tutoring. Wealthier parents are also more likely to be well educated, enabling them to expose their children to more sophisticated language and concepts beginning at birth.

As is clear from the machinations of the parents involved in the scandal, these advantages don’t guarantee that a child will get good grades and high SAT scores. But they make it a lot more likely. And in recent years, the investments wealthy parents have been making in their children’s intellectual capital have been rising exponentially. Meanwhile, the children unlucky enough to be born to less wealthy or less educated parents have fallen further behind, generally not getting to the point where they even think of applying to schools like Stanford and Yale, let alone competing against more advantaged applicants in the admissions process.

We can crack down on outright cheating, but there’s not much society can do to prevent wealthier parents—or any parents—from spending money on their kids. Nor can we monitor dinner-table conversations to ensure that all children are exposed to the same level of vocabulary. But what we can do is change our system of education, beginning at the elementary level if not before, to maximize the chances that all kids have access to the kind of knowledge and vocabulary that will give them a fair chance of getting into college and enjoying a fulfilling life. Right now, we waste many precious hours drilling disadvantaged students in “skills” that are intended to boost their reading comprehension and test scores while depriving them of the exposure to history, science, and the arts that could actually help level the playing field.

If the privileged children so unfortunately caught up in this scandal had matriculated at less prestigious colleges, their lives would probably have turned out just fine—especially if they had applied themselves to their studies wherever they ended up. But there are millions of other children whose potential to succeed at the highest levels remains untapped and unknown, largely because our schools have failed to teach them anything that could help them realize it. That’s a far larger scandal, but few are paying much attention to it.



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