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Four Takes: On college, opportunity, and merit, The Boston Sunday Globe

Defendant John B. Wilson of Lynnfield was one of the parents charged in the college entrance scandal.ERIN CLARK/GLOBE STAFF

October 24, 2021

After days of immersing myself in the state of US college admissions, the story I could not shake was this: In 2015, Jancen Power, a high school junior from a tiny Texas ranching town, managed a disappointing sixth place in the state pole-vaulting championships. Determined to do better, he logged hours of training, driving 90 miles twice a week for lessons. A photo of him clearing the bar the next year, and winning, appeared in an area newspaper. It also appeared, doctored, in the college application materials of Spencer Kimmel, a boy who wished to attend the University of Southern California.

Spencer Kimmel was not, remotely, a pole vaulter. Jancen Power could not, remotely, aspire to a school as selective and costly as USC. He did get a walk-on position with Abilene Christian University’s track team; to help pay for school, he waited tables.

For trying to ease her son’s way, Elisabeth Kimmel, a media executive, wound up ensnared in the now-infamous “Varsity Blues” admissions scandal. Altogether, more than 50 people have been accused in the eight-year bribery scheme masterminded by William “Rick” Singer, aimed at getting well-off children into prestigious universities. Kimmel is among dozens who have pleaded guilty. Earlier this month, in the first case to go to trial, a Boston jury convicted John B. Wilson, a Lynnfield investor, and Gamal Abdelaziz, a former casino executive. Prosecutors said both plotted to inflate their children’s credentials.

Jancen Power’s story appears in “Unacceptable: Privilege, Deceit & the Making of the College Admissions Scandal,” by Melissa Korn and Jennifer Levitz. The two Wall Street Journal reporters have assembled a deeply reported, often infuriating piece of narrative journalism that takes readers into the world of the haves. Bad enough in itself, Singer’s fraudulent “side door” strategy has brought unwelcome attention to perfectly legal practices that similarly favor the wealthy. Several recent books warn that without significant reform to higher education, divisions will widen, and populist resentment grow.

In “Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost,” Caitlin Zaloom points to a cultural shift that began in the 1980s. A college-educated workforce was considered a societal good after World War II, and accordingly subsidized (though mostly for the benefit of white males).

More recently, however, a college degree has been viewed as conferring a largely private benefit. Costs have been shifted onto students and their families, profoundly redefining the experience of being middle class. Loans became the main source of funding, requiring families to engage with the world of finance. There, Zaloom argues, they are locked in a self-contradictory moral vise. Lenders preach saving and sober planning while encouraging families to bet on their children’s potential.

Zaloom’s interviews made clear how much parents valued their children’s future autonomy, yet were locked through indebtedness into a system that prolongs dependence. Most suffer silently, resignedly shouldering the often-ruinous terms of this new social contract.

The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America” suggests that things are even worse than they look. Authors Anthony P. Carnevale, Jeff Strohl, and Peter Schmidt observe that most Americans view higher education as the main route to upward mobility. Yet while presenting themselves as bastions of equal opportunity, today’s colleges and universities foster a self-perpetuating elite, exacerbating rather than mitigating a widening income gap. At Vanderbilt University, to note just one example, nearly a quarter of the students come from families in the top one percent of earners. Using “merit-based” aid, schools compete for students who can pay, leaving less assistance for needier applicants.

The American belief in individual responsibility runs deep: we rely on colleges to validate it. Yet as the authors write, “the veritable religion we’ve created around merit” obscures how tilted the playing field actually is. Worse, as political philosopher Michael J. Sandel notes in “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?,” it bolsters the idea that society’s winners have earned their advantages, and that those less fortunate are to blame for their fate.

It is hard to imagine anyone sitting higher on the meritocratic mountain than Sandel. His courses at Harvard are mobbed; his writings are internationally acclaimed. A parent filling out financial aid forms might say that it is easy for him to talk.

Still, Sandel presents a powerful critique of where blind faith in merit has led us. He is especially attuned to the humiliation dealt American workers by globalization. If more education is politicians’ answer to everything, Sandel usefully reminds us that only about one in three US adults has graduated from a four-year institution. The amount of financing poured into higher education nevertheless dwarfs spending on technical and work-retraining programs.

Several of these writers propose repairs; most seek to make opportunity more equal. Sandel drives deeper, raising a question Americans have always been loath to face: why do the fortunate deserve more?

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