The price you can't pay

College admissions and how the Not Rich feel themselves falling behind

Welcome to I’m Late To This, a newsletter about things I haven’t stopped thinking about. 

If you haven’t yet, make sure to sign up so you don’t miss an issue. I’ll be publishing once a week on Saturday or Sunday mornings.

And now, for the inaugural edition…

It’s been more than eight months since the college admissions scandal first broke. The story continues to have legs because people love seeing the rich taken down. Obviously. 

But this story also continues to have legs because it combines the pleasant schadenfreude of seeing rich, insecure parents get caught while also tapping into an intense upper middle class fear: the fear of Things Not Working Out. 

Because for the 2%-5%ers — the class I call the Not Rich — things are still, even in this moment, supposed to be fine. You’re supposed to be able to work hard, get ahead(ish), send your kids to college, save for retirement, have a healthy family, own a house, (maybe a vacation house, too), and ask for the manager at your leisure. But the evolution of our class divide over the last few decades has established the Not Rich as people of great means accompanied by an anxiety-inducing awareness of just how much they don’t have.

And what they don’t have, among other things, is enough money to buy their kids’ ways into college.

The crowning achievement of a life spent striving in the world of the Not Rich is sending one’s children to college. An entire ecosystem of tutors, consultants, and actual colleges has emerged to serve these families with educational paths forward for their offspring that will run you upwards of $70,000 a year. The Not Rich send, or want to, send their kids to the schools embroiled in this scandal: Yale, USC, Georgetown, UCLA, and so on.

The Not Rich’s group of target schools is also deeper than the national brand names the FBI investigated. These colleges sound made up to the vast majority of Americans. They are schools like Colgate, Bucknell, Hamilton, Tufts, Williams, Trinity, Amherst.

All these schools cost a fortune to attend.

So when we talk about the cost of college rising, we’re really doing so at the behest of the Not Rich, the class of folks who spend their entire working lives knowing full well they’ll never have $300,000 per kid in cash on hand when it’s time to go to college. The exploding cost of college is really about these schools.

And without digressing into a discussion of the relative merits of each college listed — do not, under any circumstances, email me to let me know that Williams is actually on the level of the Ivys — it suffices to say that these are all excellent schools that also emotionally and financially extort the families of high-achieving suburban National Merit Scholars. 

Of course, it’s not like most of these parents don’t know what’s going on. Few people really believe that any school is worth $70,000 a year. (Except the parents of Syracuse kids: they 100% believe that tuition is worth it.) 

But when these parents later read in The Wall Street Journal that entry to some of these schools is being fraudulently bought and sold, the offense is too bold to let go. (The “above board” buying and selling of admission to these schools is its own scandal.) Because as always, the Not Rich are the marginal bid in highlighting injustices in America. 

Everyone knows our current system is rigged. Everyone knows you can buy your way to just about any kind of invented success (and what is a B.A. if not an invented accomplishment). But break the law while hindering the ability of the Not Rich to provide their children a four-year vacation and now you’ve gone too far.

Another element of the story that has gnawed at me for months is the role sports played in the whole thing. Because athletics, as anyone who went to a four-year college of any size knows, play a role on campus that ranges from outsized to suffocating. Athletics occupy this role because sports are often the school’s most public facing endeavor. And sports are also an often-overlooked bastion of privilege on campuses where athletic achievement is still marketed as meritocratic. 

Back in October, Derek Thompson at The Atlantic detailed the findings of a recent study that quantified just how influential sports can be on small, elite campuses. At Harvard, for instance, 20% of the student body — or 1,200 kids — are involved in sports. Derek notes that 90% of Harvard’s recruited athletes get in and that recruited athletes are twice as likely as non-athletes to come from families with household incomes north of $500,000. 

The interplay between wealth and athletic success, of course, has a number of chicken-egg questions embedded within it. Because when it comes to sports like squash or crew or lacrosse, everyone knows these are the domains of rich kids. But what about baseball, softball, track, basketball? You know, the sports everyone plays. Are college athletes really, truly the best athletes, or just the ones who could pay for private coaching, travel to showcase events, and didn’t have to work in high school in order to have a bit of spending money? 

Jeremy Lin, for example, is the most famous Harvard athlete of the last decade. And while Lin’s athletic story might be an underdog tale, he went to Palo Alto High School, which boasts a 97% graduation rate, is located in a city that has a median income of $137,000, and is literally located on Stanford’s campus. Jeremy Lin didn’t need to play for the Knicks to make a career in New York: his upbringing had already sorted him into the group of kids who end up at elite colleges and big cities. 

Many schools also don’t offer athletic scholarships at all. They can offer financial aid for academic or need-based reasons, but explicit assistance for athletics is a rarer part of paying for college than an ESPN college football Saturday makes it seem. This narrows the field of recruitable athletes significantly. It also turns athletic teams into exploitable areas for administrations to find students who will pay full price to attend. And to find students who without that something extra wouldn’t merit admission otherwise.

Last week, the Journal highlighted the roles coaches played in facilitating the buying and selling of admissions to various schools as part of Rick Singer’s program. The story highlights a thing already as well-known as any in the world of competitive college admissions: be good at a sport and you can get in. But also: be rich.

When scouting recruits, some coaches say, they consider factors such as talent, whether a student’s GPA could boost the team average (a metric that can lead to bonuses for coaches) and family finances.

“I certainly know of people who will come in and say, ‘What do you need?’ said Andy Whitcomb, the field hockey coach at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and president of the national association of field hockey coaches. “I don’t see that as a bribe, but you see it as this family has great means and can really help us.”

It’s always funny to hear the quiet part said out loud. “I don’t see it as a bribe,” the coach says. Because it’s absolutely a bribe, but if you don’t see it that way then it all disappears. 

And “how you see it” is what we’re really talking about with college sports and the college admissions scandal broadly. The FBI sees the buying and selling of seats as fraud. Rick Singer thought — nay, knew! — that this process was not fraud but just part of the game. 

And the story continues to have legs because it reminds the Not Rich, in new and novel ways, of what they don’t have, can’t have, and shows the rest of us in excruciating detail how things really get done.

We now know a little bit more about what “achievement” really is, who can buy it, what it costs, and who we take away from. The whole story exposes the fragility of privilege, and reminds us that everything is on sale.

Except for the Not Rich: this, they can’t afford. 

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