The Agonist Journal

In the wake of what has been called the largest college admissions scandal the Department of Justice has ever prosecuted, much has been made about the role of “privilege” in the college admissions racket. The defendants’ actions were unpardonable, of course, but the greater scandal is that the progeny of the privileged continue to take up more than their share of space in our nation’s most prestigious universities. The fraud and the graft, the faking of racial identities and of learning disabilities, the doctored CVs and ghostwritten admissions essays, the bribed proctors and dummy nonprofits and bogus athletic recruitments—these are but the logical endpoint of a system that has come to be marked by a Gini coefficient impossibly skewed, in which brand-name degrees are divided among the children of oligarchs like peerages.

"The defendants’ actions were unpardonable, of course, but the greater scandal is that the progeny of the privileged continue to take up more than their share of space in our nation’s most prestigious universities."

The U.S. Constitution specifies that “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.” But what is a degree from one of our nation’s elite colleges—nearly all of which are funded in part by the generosity of the taxpaying public—if not a signifier of membership in a kind of de facto nobility? In the great national myth of equality, our country is alleged to be aristocracy-free, but there nevertheless exists a class of people who would appear to be suspiciously feudal in character: a class with its own set of norms and customs, and a tendency to go on reproducing itself through the generations, gobbling up desirable real estate and flexing its lobbying muscle at the highest reaches of government. After all, is it not clear that the top ten percent of income earners, with their mortgage deductions and low rate of taxation on capital gains, with their pseudo-environmental NIMBYism and excessively stringent professional licensing requirements, make up the most influential of the groups that seek to advance their interests? And what are zoning-restricted enclaves like Palo Alto, where the cost of real estate is prohibitive to all but the most handsomely remunerated, if not seigneurial realms in which a multitude of bumper stickers advertise elite alma maters like so many armorial bearings?

Indeed, the trappings of privilege would seem to be omnipresent among this cohort. But to speak of privilege as causative is to elide the complexity of its genesis as a phenomenon. For the last several years, I witnessed the operations of “privilege” firsthand. As an admissions essay consultant for the company that facilitated the scheme, a college counseling service called The Key, I spent my days driving from home to home in the tonier precincts of the San Francisco Peninsula, where I helped the children of Silicon Valley plutocrats get into the colleges of their choice. If my travels through this gilded realm taught me anything, it is that the case has little to do with privilege, a concept that should not be confounded with inequality.

For more and more we are coming to understand that personality and intelligence are heritable phenomena. In the great human drama of who succeeds in life, and who fails, and why, there may well be a place for heroic self-invention, for an individual through unilateral effort to rise above the others; but it appears, overall, that character and thus destiny are to some extent pre-ordained. And the progressive critique of privilege is necessarily invalidated in any case. For if privilege is traceable to autonomously undertaken hard work, then how can it not be in some sense earned, and therefore deserved? If, on the other hand, privilege is a kind of accidental inheritance—that is to say, the product of a fundamentally contingent interplay of genes and environmental influences—then a critique of the concept reveals it to be but an index of barely concealed ressentiment, one that regresses into infinity. Thus, a member of the “oppressed” in the United States is “privileged” relative to her counterpart in a Brazilian favela, who, in turn, is “privileged” relative to a subsistence farmer in the developing world. And so on. But notice: The bien pensants who have appointed themselves the oppressed American’s tribunes will assign to her no sense of guilt or obligation; the proper attitude for such a person, rather, is one of unappeasable entitlement with respect to those who enjoy advantages she does not. Never will she be asked to “check her privilege.” To conflate privilege with moral culpability is thus in a very real sense to indict the entire human race.

Could it be said of, say, an oncologist—like the head of one of the families I worked with—that his family was in any way privileged? The problem with charges of privilege is that they presume guilt while ignoring the crucial circumstances by which human differences emerge; they also ignore the value of those differences. Certainly, it is not easy to graduate from medical school, and to devote one’s life to the treatment of cancer patients is to achieve a significant social good. Any critique of privilege, then, must address itself to the ends of life, and to the purpose of work and enterprise. Would people work half so hard if they could not expect to provide a better life for their children? Does it not redound to the betterment of society to raise children who are what an admissions committee would call well-rounded, with all of the advanced placement courses and extracurricular activities which that entails? And how might privilege be eliminated, or moderated, in order to promote more-egalitarian outcomes?

Perhaps the most definitive study of equality of opportunity in education, the 1966 Coleman Report demonstrated that the home environment is the primary determinant of educational outcomes. And yet, the domestic sphere is also the realm of life that is least amenable to the manipulations of enlightened administrators. Even under the best of sociopolitical dispensations—namely, one which combines economic nationalism with a robustly enforced system of bourgeois values—considerable variation would continue to exist between individual households and groups alike. Plus, redistribution schemes and other forms of social engineering have shown themselves to be futile, because they incentivize the making of poor parental decisions—and punish the making of good ones. The College Board’s recently unveiled plan to assign to students a so-called “adversity score” is a case in point. Why bother to work hard, and move to a better neighborhood, when you will be penalized for it?

A political weapon wielded by the resentful, the war on privilege is profoundly wrongheaded, producing problems rather than solutions. It is a sign as well as a symptom of the contradictions that exist at the heart of liberalism itself, riven as it is by the yearning for freedom on the one hand and the desire for equality on the other. The success of some arouses the impulse to level not the playing field but the scoresheet. Therefore, those who have managed to scurry ahead in the rat race have to be forced back from the finish line. This is the effect of two fundamentally incompatible, yet under the liberal paradigm equally necessary, moral imperatives—one which seeks to promote equality, and another which seeks at the same time to deny it to others. If, through equality of opportunity, some people are able to rise in the world, then the opportunities their children enjoy will not be equal to those of the children of people who have failed to ascend to similar heights. In a world in which everyone had “the best,” then “the best,” being relative by definition, would cease to exist as a concept, and with it, the spirit of rivalry and emulation that inspires one to achieve great things.

In my dealings with the families of the elite, these contradictions led not just to cognitive dissonance, but to outright schizophrenia. At times, the warring ideological dictates they sought to obey could produce a kind of negative symbiosis that manifested as parasitism. In a perverse irony, we borrowed from the vocabulary of progressive egalitarianism in order to achieve the most inegalitarian of ends. In the perpetration of affirmative action fraud, in the fabrication of hard-luck biographies, and in the dreaming-up of all manner of humanitarian adventures, the only question was whether our deceptions would have the intended effect: namely, that of gaining the student admission to the school of her choice. It was entirely without guilt, or even the slightest inkling of sheepishness, that a student of mine, as straight and as white as could be, would concoct an essay about the micro-aggressions she had endured as a biracial lesbian; and how, although she is by now exhausted, her “lived experience” has rendered her ever more keen to advance the project of diversity and inclusion, of the dismantling of white privilege, of the smashing of the patriarchy, and of the securing of justice for people of color and LBGTQ persons everywhere.

In another telling episode, I wrote an essay with a student in which we discussed her experience as an intern with a community organization whose purpose was to provide assistance to victims of trauma, violence, and family instability in disadvantaged communities. What such people are most in need of, I said at one point, is probably birth control, a remark which elicited from her a look of momentary confusion, as if to say, “But then there would be no one for me to help!” And she couldn’t have that, now, could she?

Indeed, this parasitic relationship was embedded in the financial-accounting structure of the scheme itself: A number of parents charged in the case are alleged to have funneled bribes through the Key Worldwide Foundation, a nonprofit connected to The Key. Upon submission of payments to this entity, the parents were thanked, in writing, for helping the foundation “to provide educational and self-enrichment programs to disadvantaged youth.”

To members of the Palo Alto elite, the “marginalized” were but another source of profit and pelf—the “raw material,” as it were, for demonstrations of compassion. Thus the essays we wrote—subliterary exercises in the acquisition of what can only be called the secular woke equivalent of the Roman Indulgence—were chock-a-block with diversity fetish objects, with girls in rural Nepal the students were teaching to code, with twinkly old indigents they’d met in the course of participating in Habitat-for-Humanity-style projects in poor neighborhoods, with Third World agrarian proles given to making inscrutable, Yoda-like pronouncements: “All things are part of a great whole,” they’d say, or something comparably banal-yet-gnomic-sounding. These oracular utterances were proffered as evidence of continents roamed and wisdom acquired, and of a quasi-mystical openness to the more-esoteric forms of knowing that are said to be present among the oppressed. A common sentimental refrain in the essays we wrote was how relaxed and happy and stress-free such people were, in their villages, in their slums; and how we in the meritocratic enclaves of the West, overworked and anhedonic, would do well to emulate their more-laid-back approach to life. Notwithstanding this contrast, nobody ever raised the question, why bother to help these blissful Rousseauists if they’re so much happier than we are?

In one admissions essay, a student[1] and I wrote about how she’d helped a number of Latin American immigrants to settle in the United States. Though the essay was more or less apocryphal, it nevertheless got her into, or at any rate did not keep her out of, one of our nation’s most elite colleges. Why bother to fact check students’ admissions essays, when the purpose of such exercises is to demonstrate one’s ideological bona fides and general saintliness? The schools will claim that it is too expensive and time consuming to properly vet the applications of those to whom they are prepared to make an offer of admission. But if even the most impecunious of small-town newspapers can verify basic factual assertions, why can’t a university with an endowment in excess of $10 billion fact check? The daughter of a Latin American immigrant herself, albeit a high-achieving one, the student was also diverse; her test scores (fraudulently obtained, if the Department of Justice is to be believed) were moderately high as well, if they were not sufficient in themselves, for I’d seen any number of other students apply to the same school, with even better scores and better grades, only to be rejected.

On another occasion, in a palatial mansion whose style and opulence would not have been out of place in Havana circa the 1940s, a student and I crafted an essay about his Native American heritage, which in fractional terms approximated that of Senator Elizabeth Warren. In mien and bearing, he resembled nothing so much as a cross between Patrick Bateman of American Psycho and Hoyt Thorpe, the rakish frat boy of Tom Wolfe’s novel I Am Charlotte Simmons. He was the offspring of a Jewish billionaire and a mother so WASPy you’d think her principal activities were summering on the Cape, attending meetings of Daughters of the American Revolution, modeling lemon-yellow cardigans, and with an attitude of longsuffering forbearance scolding the Help for eating her kale chips. Nevertheless, he managed to turn the intersectional totem pole on its head. He was an intelligent student, and together we did what I thought was an admirable job. But he was hardly a shoo-in for the school—arguably the most prestigious college in the country—on which he’d trained his sights. It is not enough for one’s record to be unexceptionable. Yes, he had the grades, the test scores, the leadership positions, the cognitively demanding internships, and the varsity jacket. But it is also necessary to have the hidden x factor, the je n’ais se quoi, the ineffable out-of-left-field something and surplus value of specialness that marks one as fit for a life of traipsing through ivied quadrangles. And it was not clear, to me, that he did.

Yet he got in, largely, I presume, on the basis of his purported identity. We got a lot of rhetorical mileage, you see, out of a little service work he had done on a reservation somewhere, with promises—mostly, I suspect, empty—to do more once he had earned his degree. I have no idea whether any other forms of chicanery were afoot, but I will give the family the benefit of the doubt, although I do know that my soon-to-be-imprisoned former boss was able to secure for the essay a so-called “pre-read” from an admissions officer before the admissions cycle had begun in earnest.

This episode represents not so much a conflict of interest as it does a harmony of interests. The student pretended to be Native American and the school pretended to believe him, because diversity numbers. Although their public relations offices will portray them as victims of the admissions scandal, the schools were accomplices—if not, indeed, the scheme’s very instigators. In an age when many large industries have succumbed to financialization, more than a few of our nation’s most elite colleges have effectively become hedge funds. And to them, diversity is nothing more than corporate strategy, just another way in which capital goes about its business of plundering the oppressed. The cynicism beggars belief, especially now that Harvard has rescinded the admission of conservative activist Kyle Kashuv for the crime of having once written the N-word in a private document.

The fish, in other words, rots from the head. What, I am often asked, is the secret to getting into the school of your choice? While there is, for most people, an element of mystique about the process, since they don’t know which gods to propitiate and in what manner, it’s still possible to devise a formula that is almost algebraically precise in its efficacy: Be diverse and humanitarian as well as au fait with progressive politics; acquire grades and scores within the range of admitted students; and, whenever possible, be wealthy, for it turns out that colleges, however flush with cash they happen to be, like to get paid. Having helped hundreds of high-school seniors get into college, I have never seen a student with this combination of factors fail to get into a school that will grant her parents cocktail-party bragging rights in perpetuity.

In no segment of the admissions racket are the contradictions more pronounced—in no segment is the schizophrenia more fulminantly paranoid—than in the realm of standardized testing. The college entrance exams—the SAT and the ACT—are effectively IQ tests; once you have mastered certain basic concepts, it is not possible to improve your score by very much. There is also a high and consistent correlation between performance on the tests and success at the undergraduate level. These findings, though endlessly replicated by theorists of pedagogy, remain anathema to the egalitarian worldview of the progressive left. See, for example, the movement that is afoot to abolish the college entrance exams, as well as the vehemence with which leftists denounce any mention of tracking in high schools or “academic mismatch theory” as it pertains to college admissions.

See, too, the conflict surrounding New York City’s elite specialized high schools, where admission is determined by a single standardized test. The failure to achieve a sufficiently diverse (read: black and Hispanic) student body has led to calls for a lowering of the standards to which underperforming racial groups are held—by, for example, allocating a number of slots to the highest-performing students at each of the city’s middle schools. Students take the standardized test in 8th grade, and the top performers are able to go to the elite high schools. Under Mayor de Blasio’s plan, those schools would admit the top students at each middle school, thereby ensuring greater diversity (for being at the top of your class is not the same as gaining a high score on the test). Needless to say, white students, who are underrepresented at the schools, would not see their numbers increase under any such overhaul. Nor are Asians pleased with the idea. Although the Asian students are overwhelmingly drawn from working-class immigrant backgrounds, they would see their numbers decline precipitously, from more than two thirds to less than one third of the elite schools’ students.

In the milieu in which I traveled, progressive egalitarianism was something akin to a civic religion, a set of pieties to which everyone you might encounter subscribed. But when liberal orthodoxy belies a desire to see one’s progeny firmly emplaced at the top of the ant heap, the resulting dissonance can land a bourgeois householder in jail. If, according to Progressive Dogma, people do not vary in terms of intellectual ability; if anyone can succeed so long as she tries hard enough and does not experience oppression; and if the college entrance exams have no relation to academic performance, then why shouldn’t I drop upward of five digits on a quack who can vouch for my concern that my child—who doesn’t “test well”—has a learning disability, thereby entitling her to more time on the SAT? Better still, why don’t I just pay the proctor? Because the SAT and the ACT are effectively arbitrary measures, the students who do manage to score highly on the tests will fare no better or worse wherever they go. This may well be an injustice, but so is the very existence of the exams. So is it not my duty, as a liberal in good standing, to oppose injustice, particularly when my child is its principal victim?

Conceptually, this line of reasoning is an obverse reflection of the egalitarian-left assertion that transwomen should be able to compete against biological females in women’s athletics. Like the record-smashing transwoman athlete, the learning-disabled underperformer is nothing more than a neutral variety of different. Yet the implementation of egalitarian policies in these highly competitive realms would have the effect of conferring a distinct set of advantages upon the members of both groups. Of course, this leveling impulse is going to ruin women’s athletics, just as it has already compromised the integrity of standardized testing. With the moral confusion it has sowed and the resentment it has inspired in so many other areas of life, this leveling impulse does not bode well for the future of our civilization. After all, one’s alleged learning disabilities[2] will be granted few to no accommodations in the “real world” for which it is the purpose of college to prepare one. Would a lawyer with well-documented “learning differences” be granted more than the allotted 30 minutes in which to argue her case before the Supreme Court? Would an anxiety-prone doctor be given a chill-out period before performing an emergency surgery?

On my travels through the wilds of Atherton, California—home to the most expensive real estate market in the country—it struck me that the town was bringing to life the ideas presented in The Bell Curve. The families I worked with did indeed belong to the “cognitive elite” whose existence Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein identified—and warned us about—in their much-debated 1994 book. The families had come by their fortunes through a combination of brains and luck. Certainly, “white privilege” had nothing to do with it, for most whites occupy no such rarefied stratum, and many if not most of the students I worked with could, and did, claim to be non-white due to some phantom admixture of Latin or Asian or Middle Eastern blood. Or they were, in fact, visible and demonstrable Asian Americans of the first or second generation. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether many of my more-white-presenting students’ ancestors had arrived before the Civil War. So there goes class privilege, too. There is, I’ve heard it said, no old money in Palo Alto.

If, as Balzac said, behind every great fortune there is a crime, then in tracing the students’ genealogies one is likely to arrive at no more sensational a caper than that of a father or grandfather performing well on a standardized test, shortly after the advent of meritocratic college admissions in the wake of the Second World War. What this quietly revolutionary change in the way in which we sorted our high school graduates did was concentrate intellectual talent in a number of cities, most of it on the coasts, near elite universities. In time, through assortative mating, a class with its own set of values and interests began to emerge. Add to this change the compounding effects of geographical isolation, and the special premium that is placed upon brain power in an increasingly leveraged economy, in which sophisticated transactions can involve hundreds of millions of dollars, and you have the makings of an overclass in which status is all-important. Status is a proxy of wealth, and wealth is a proxy of brains. How better, then, to demonstrate brains than through the acquisition of that most precious of commodities, a degree from a brand-name school?

Members of the egalitarian left will protest that performance on standardized tests is a function of socioeconomic status. But it is even more so a function of intelligence, which, as anyone who studies intelligence will confirm, is in large part heritable. In this respect, the Coleman Report tells only half of the story. Intelligent people are more likely to have intelligent children, it is true. They are also more likely to have attained a higher socioeconomic status. There’s a catch, though. If the children of intelligent people are likely to be more intelligent than the children of unintelligent people, then they are also, in accordance with a phenomenon called “regression to the mean,” likely to be less intelligent than their parents. Still, in a meritocracy, you have to perform, and having children who fall behind you is a calamity. Hence all the anxiety, all the insanity. In fact, one does not tend to be smarter than one’s old man. It is, therefore, the inability to ensure, by means of intelligence, the high status of one’s children that drives the college admissions mania.

The Dumb Rich Kid, in other words, is a species that occurs naturally in the modern wild. And so millions of dollars have been spent in the effort of keeping her out of the lower-tiered colleges—witness the case of the disgraced fashion designer Mossimo Giannuli, who did everything in his power to get his daughter “into a school other than [Arizona State University].” His failure, as I see it, is proof that the system works. Barring occasional instances of fraud and bribery[3], the college admissions racket does a pretty good job of matching students with the schools at which they will be most likely to succeed. Contra leftist complaints, genuine academic talent seldom goes unrecognized.

For the most part, the families I worked with were concerned with signaling; what they sought was institutional cachet. Thus the better part of my job consisted of thinking up reasons why a particular student might plausibly want to attend a particular school. For, almost invariably, they didn’t know. Why Dartmouth?, the college’s famously abbreviated 100-word supplement asks. To which the only honest reply is, “Because nice things are nicer than nasty ones,” as Kingsley Amis put it in Lucky Jim. The practice of bribing coaches has come to be known as the “side door.” But for my students there were many side doors; one of them was to apply to an unpopular major, thus increasing the student’s odds of gaining admission to the school, after which she would switch, usually to business or computer science.

In the interstices of the rhetorical convolutions we performed in the supplements, in which we endeavored to mention every potentially relevant data point save that of prestige, I would attempt to afford my students a glimpse into the world of knowledge that existed beyond the U.S. News and World Report rankings. And to be sure, genuine intellectual curiosity did exist in my charges, though it was the exception, not the rule. A few of them cared passionately about the environment, and some young white men were what can only be called red-pilled, and so desirous of pursuing an education in politics. But most of my students wanted nothing more than to learn how to type code into a computer.

No wonder we are stuck with a middling and short-sighted overclass. Not to mention a polity that largely refuses to reckon with the conflicting ideological impulses which characterize the liberal project. We are committed to egalitarianism, even as we allow the massive importation of foreign students, a blinkered decision that places an American college education—a good subject to the principle of scarcity—beyond the reach of many American citizens. Then there is the proliferation of diversity bureaucrats. The University of Michigan spends an annual $10 million on this particular iteration of Totally Worthless Person, enough to give around 70 students per year a full ride to the school. The members of this administrative class contribute greatly to skyrocketing levels of student debt, to the ongoing blight of affirmative action[4], and to the exploitation, in the ways adumbrated above, of the very groups that it is the responsibility of such officials to serve. Finally, because bureaucracies are fundamentally expansionist, the hurt-feelings culture the diversity commissars sanction and codify will come to permeate the few remaining vestiges of the academy where it is not present. And as goes the campus, so goes the nation.

* * *

The mid-Peninsula idyll through which I traveled was itself a study in contradiction. Oaks and bay laurels, willows, and sycamores lined the avenues in a kind of reckless profusion; bosomy expanses of tule grass receded into the distance, recalling a bucolic Northern California past. It struck me as a strange place in which to situate a tech hub, for is there an industry more devoid of beauty, of soft edges and natural light? As that great moral philosopher the Unabomber said, “Imagine a world in which you have to take a pill to get through the day?” For more than half (I am told) of the teenagers in Palo Alto, that world—that dystopia—has arrived. The drugs—the long-term effects of which are unknown—are prescribed for socially constructed pseudo-maladies like ADD. Anxiety and depression are common too, especially among the girls. Every few years, there is an outbreak of teen suicides—what epidemiologists refer to as a “suicide cluster.” Suicide clusters are exceedingly rare events, and when they do occur something has gone terribly wrong in the culture at large. That something, in Palo Alto, is academic pressure. It is also the hell of Instagram. Guards keep round-the-clock vigil at the city’s train tracks.

Pulling into the drive ways of these manorial trophy homes, with their Teslas, their BMWs agleam in the soft Mediterranean light, I would often be struck by the brittleness of it all. How will it end, this Pinkerian techno-utopia of material plenty and physical comfort, and of strange, almost otherworldly beauty? Climatological disaster? Revolution? Then, inside, in one or another well-appointed room, as I prepared to churn out yet another 500 words of equalitarian boilerplate, in which minorities are helped and the poor uplifted, and potable water is delivered unto villages in the developing world, my charges would remind me, touchingly, of those portraits of the Romanov family in the final days of their exile, somehow aware of what was about to come. Yale or jail, indeed.


[1] Her parents have been charged in the case.

[2] Which often seem, tautologously, to be evidence of nothing more than an inability to perform as well as one’s higher-achieving peers.

[3] I should say, here, that the overwhelming majority of the families I worked with operated fully within the ambit of the law.

[4] Which has during the past 50 years noticeably failed to advance the project of racial equality, and now increasingly disadvantages whites just as their share of the population becomes proportionally smaller.