Kate McCabe / Gavel Media

The Good, the Greedy, and the Ugly American Dream

Money can’t buy happiness—at least, that’s how the idiom goes. But how close can you get? This question is one of many raised by the recent college admissions scandal, the fallout of which is still unfolding. Apparently, the answer is: pretty darn close. With opportunities for low-income households decreasing due to the rise of automation and an increase in cheap exports made by exploited laborers abroad, receiving an advanced education, whether in trade school or university, has become increasingly important in the pursuit of the “American Dream.”

To many children of low-income families, a college education is an avenue to social mobility, a road to opportunities and self-betterment. This idea of higher education as a bastion of knowledge, equity, and a way into the middle and upper classes of America has been further amplified through the media. Institutions of higher learning have indeed grown larger than life. They have become places of cultural significance, depicted as fairytale-esque portraits of young adult life where dreams can be accomplished through hard work, perseverance, and capitalizing on diverse experiences.

However, for thousands of current college students, rising adolescents in secondary school, and concerned parents, the threads around the great hope that college symbolizes are starting to fray. Although admissions are presented as “holistic” and unbiased, with many institutions proudly toting their “need-blind” nature in big font on glossy trifold pamphlets, some general understanding has always existed that wealth can tip certain scales in the right direction. As fun as it is to pretend higher education is completely virtuous, college is still a business, and not everyone can afford to donate a building. By understanding this, one can explain the unimpressed reactions of many college students who reflect upon their own experiences in elite universities across the country in the face of the recent scandal. Far greater than shock at the actual corruption seems to be surprise that those involved actually got caught.

While this case is certainly of deep importance, especially regarding what precedent it will set moving forward, optimism is limited as to what can actually be done to prevent similar cases of fraudulent admissions going forward. After all, money talks, and there are undoubtedly other families abusing networks of connections in order to gain unwarranted admission to top schools. For myriad families and students alike, the scandal points to a much larger issue in the United States education system: the inequitable funding of public schools.

It’s no secret that the grade school and high school a child attends are incredibly important. From formational, well-run after-school programs, to educational field trips, to enhanced programs for gifted children, where students start the race on the education ladder can have strong effects on where they finish. Just as beneficial early development and continued support from a capable school system can slingshot adept students forward into success, the opposite is also true for a school system in decline; deteriorating, underfunded schools have a knack for weighing down their own students, creating more obstacles than they remove. As such, it is crucial to ensure that the public education system is a well-funded, well-oiled machine, since so many depend on its performance to bolster their own.

Unfortunately, there are holes in the armor other than the famous and wealthy paying off college coaches or cheating through standardized tests. A report released last year by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights opened with the jarring statement, “The federal government must take bold action to address inequitable funding in our nation's public schools.” Entitled “Public Education Funding Inequity: In An Era Of Increasing Concentration Of Poverty and Desegregation,” it details the barriers students coming from lower-income households face far before the college search begins. From public schools that remain acutely segregated, to a lack of qualified teachers, to antiquated textbooks and equipment, it is clear that the short end of the stick extends much farther than a million-dollar bribe to get into the Ivy League.

Although it is great to finally be able to hold a small number of those who abuse their economic advantages in order to further cheat the system accountable, this scandal only reveals a larger number of potholes that must be patched up if the road to education, the American Dream, and so much more, is ever to be one of equity.

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