Varsity Blues: An interview on the systemic bias of America’s colleges

The issue of elitism does not only apply to the college system. Furthermore, the only reason that this scandal has come to the fore is because the perpetrators were caught, not because the moral and ethical flagrancy has finally ignited the system. 

America is perhaps the most interesting nation for in which this story to unravel, as John Steinbeck says: ‘“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Yet as an internationally renowned university, Edinburgh is not averse from the systemic elitism of academia. The whole university application process is a high pressure vacuum of achievement and talent measured in numerical, clinical worth. Incidentally, it is a microcosm of the world we live in today. 

Therefore, the notion that the system might be ‘’rigged’’ is only foreign to those who have never profited or been a victim of this- essentially nobody. As John Legend said: “So many  wealthy parents have so many advantages that they confer onto their kids,” so the system is fundamentally not an equilibrium. 

The illegality  of Operation Varsity Blues, however, is what places this scandal above the everyday advantages many people have.  It shows the everyday impact of the deception and duplicity that permeates through our universities. Features editor Octavia Dunlop interviewed Kate Huangpu, a visiting student from Barnard College, Columbia University, as to give an insight onto the personal impact of Ivy League students who have not had a leg up. 

Hi Kate, Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a history and human rights major in my third year.  I plan to go into journalism, hopefully covering Middle Eastern politics. 

At what point did you decide to go for the Ivy League?

I don’t think I ever consciously decided. It was something that was always in the back of my mind. I tried very hard in high school, and I knew I wanted to go to the best university possible so for me, that was always embodied by the Ivy Leagues. Especially coming from an immigrant family, my grandparents always knew what the Ivy League was even if they didn’t speak English. 

Growing up, what was your family background?

My parents immigrated from China back in the early 1990s. My dad came over here for school, and my mum followed him over. My grandparents later moved over to live with us once I was born, to help take care of my sister and I. My mum is a Chinese teacher now, and my dad works in the pharmaceutical industry as a consultant. My older sister went to UPenn, and my little brother just started high school.

Did you go to a public or private high school, and in your experience, where did the majority of your college peers go?

I went to a public high school, but it definitely seems like the majority of Columbia,and Barnard included, went to private high schools. There are certain private schools that feed into specific Ivies. (They’re called feeder schools). So these would be schools like Horace Mann, and Trinity. 

 Is there a social division between the privately educated and those who came through the public school system?

I don’t think there’s a division per se, but people who went to private schools do seem to all kind of know each other. The main prep schools often interacted with each other. So it often seems that there are fewer degrees of separation between students who went to private schools.

Regarding the issue of legacies, where do you stand?

I’m against it. I think it particularly puts first-generation and immigrant students at a disadvantage. And if universities truly want to practice the meritocracy that they preach they would get rid of the system. 

Being a British publication, many do not know the rigour and expense of the college application process. Could you give us a quick overview?

Apart from your actual grades, you have to take standardized tests: either the SATs or the ACTs. You can also take the PSATs your sophomore year, though those aren’t required for college admissions. They can be useful to add to your application, and get scholarships later on. Apart from the mandatory tests, there are optional Advanced Placement tests. These are subject tests such as European History, or Chemistry, that are technically college level. You can use these to show your proficiency as a student and if you do well enough on the test, some colleges take them as credit. On top of that, there are SAT subject tests, or SAT2s. These also aren’t mandatory for most colleges, but some more prestigious universities require them. If a student is applying to an Ivy League University, or any university on that level, they typically take APs, IBs, or SAT2s, or some combination of all three. All of these testing cost money-some cost $750 each. . I know I had to take the SATs, ACTs, PSATs, APs, and SAT2s. 

Sorry in advance for the flashbacks, but taking into account all the prep courses and the actual exams you took, what was the total cost (roughly)  solely for applying to Columbia?

Oof. I’m not quite sure. It was a lot. I took eight or so AP courses over the course of high school. I think I took the ACTs and SATs twice each. I took the PSATs both freshman and sophomore year. And I took 2 or 3 SAT2s. I also took SAT prep classes. Thanks mum and dad. 

The response that many public figures have had is apathy, especially because many do not see a discernible difference between Operation Varsity Blues and the plethora of donations, college reps, legacy students and privilege that gives many students a leg up anyways. Where do you stand? 

I think what makes Operation Varsity Blues so different is that it’s an explicit cheating, where someone is actually changing the answers on a student’s test, or faking athletic abilities. Even the guise of meritocracy is removed. But it’s no surprise to anyone that those who make it into the Ivy League are those that have money. With the costs of testing, and the high standard for grades, students who succeed are those who have the resources to not have to work weekends, and are able to take additional test prep. 

Without the dystopian attempt at a completely egalitarian society, some will always be in a better position to apply for elite schools than others. What do you think is the main issue regarding the bias of the application process, and what can we do to stop it?

I think need-blind applications are a good first step. But I think overall reducing tuition, so no student feels that they can’t afford school. Further, making testing free, so low-income students still have even the opportunity to take tests necessary for acceptance. 

As this scandal unfolds, two of the most notorious culprits, actress Lori Louglin and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, have been released on a one million dollar bond. With assets such as a $35 million dollar Bel-Air mansion readily available to put up as collateral, those charged have an advantage even in the penal system. With colleges as prestigious as Yale, Georgetown and the University of Southern California being implicated in this scandal, this is not a drop in a bucket, but an example of the bias that undercuts the founding principle of the American Dream. The disenfranchisement of the franchise that is the applications process, perhaps indicates that  this dream is fallacious. And that Olivia Jade should have stuck to YouTube, or have joined the crew team. 

 

Image: USC, via wikimedia

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