Maybe you’ve heard this one: Suzy Weiss is a graduating high school senior who sported a .000 admissions batting average for her top college choices of Yale, Princeton and Penn. Rather than take the news gracefully, Suzy took to the streets—er, the pages of the Wall Street Journal.
Read Weiss’s inflammatory article here if you haven’t done so. It’s a wonderful introspective into the minds of entitled and, to be fair, brutally overworked and overstressed high school teenagers (in an aside, what should readers conclude when the ostensibly nonpartisan motivations of a naïve teenage girl perfectly align with the talking points of the anti-pluralism right?).
The reactions to the Op-Ed covered usual territory, although some are remarkably searing. Kendra James at Racialicious.com points out the double-standard of “blame the blacks” narrative; when white girls fail to get into college, they have that option, but when minorities do not, whom can they blame? And Aaliyah Martin writes the best combative response yet: “I Took Your Spot at Harvard.”
But each of these responses has a fatal flaw: they fail to address Suzy’s fundamental claim, not that she was treated unfairly, but in fact that “we were lied to,” as Weiss asserts. By not addressing that point, these responses seem to say implicitly, “Yes, you were lied to—but in the name of diversity.” That, to my mind, grants Weiss far too much credit.
Because in fact, Suzy wasn’t lied to at all. If Suzy actually were honest, her closet-emerging, head-dress wearing polemics are far from the heroic truth-telling she fantasizes. It’s not as though colleges try to hide this stuff: Brown posts its affirmative action policy on its web site. And if Suzy actually read the pages of the newspaper in which she wants her “satire” to be widely distributed, she would have known that Fisher v. University of Texas has been ascending through the US Federal Court system for years.
And yet Suzy is right, even if she doesn’t know it. Colleges did lie to her—and to all of us—although rarely at the expense of middle class white girls from suburbia. The myth of meritocracy in college admissions exists not in opaque diversity policies, but the unabashed and outrageous money-grab that occurs every April during admission decisions.
These are the whisper-through-the-vine stories that, though obviously never officially corroborated, transform that iconic acceptance letter into a shameless annual fundraising drive. In short: rich people pay for their children’s entry, or behold the obvious promise of future donations to achieve the same. A New Jersey real estate magnate paid Harvard $2.5 million to ensure his son’s acceptance. A son of then-Senator Bill Frist got into Princeton because the Frist family donated tens of millions of dollars for a student center. Harvard has a longstanding tradition of “Z-Listing” wealthy legacies, an attempt to split the baby of egregiously under-qualified applicants and the politics of potential fundraising: would-be rejects receive a sort-of acceptance in which they’re told to take a year off before matriculating, sneaking them (and their low scores and grades) through the back door when no one, including the US News College Rankings, is looking. In a nail-biter, I’ve decided not to share personal accounts of millionaires’ or billionaires’ children getting into Harvard despite far lower grades and scores than their peers, but if you don’t believe that this happens, your Brown degree has already been revoked (part of Paxson’s new graduation requirements).
This is an entirely separate issue from the already-prohibitive cost of getting to the Ivy League fair and square, including expenses varying from test prep to a $35K tuition at Dalton. This is truly something else–an ethical nightmare where we sell our most revered perches in the “meritocracy” to the highest bidder.
The left and the right, then, would clearly agree that blind meritocracy is absent from admissions decisions. But the right’s bête noir, affirmative action, can at least be justified on putative ethical grounds. What is the moral justification for taking Suzy’s “spot” by selling it to the child of a hedge fund manager?
This is not to defend Weiss and her worldview, even if she insists it was “just satire.” It’s hard not to believe that, given her sense of entitlement, Suzy wouldn’t have taken the opportunity to buy her way in to her favorite schools had her family been so fortunate. After all, getting the Wall Street Journal piece was itself a matter of pulling some family connections. The left seems to indulge in the preening idea that Weiss is a sour-grapes reject on the outside looking in. In fact, proverbial Weisses are all around the Ivy League—certainly plenty are here at Brown. While the “rest of us” took the textbook route, they took the checkbook route.
It’s a blight on the integrity of the Ivy League, whatever may be left of it. But that reputation is not static. Forging an inter-Ivy Code of Conduct that explicitly ignores family wealth determinations would be an excellent, and courageous, first step.
Late update: Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden has written a book about the issue of wealthy donors and the prospects of their children’s admissions into elite universities. It was not a source consulted in the research for this article.