I was groomed for college since I was a baby. And not just any college: my parents were envisioning an elite university. So they paid to make their dreams come true.
There was no bribery involved. There was no fraud or scheme similar to the college admissions scandal that made news this week, in which 50 people were charged. But in the years between my birth and my admission to the University of Oxford in England, my parents spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on my education, on private tutors and everything else necessary to boost my brainpower, scores and resume so I’d succeed.
It literally began when I was born. My mother gave up her job as a kindergarten teacher so she could stay home and teach me letters, numbers and grammar. That almost certainly wouldn’t have been possible if she were among the nearly one in four mothers raising kids on their own (or if she fell into the 30 percent of solo moms who are poor, according to the Pew Research Center). She taught me to read when I was 2, and I was enrolled in every New York City enrichment class she could find, from art to music and beyond.
Next came two years of public school before my parents decided that I should switch to private school, despite the hefty price tag. In the second grade, I was enrolled in Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn (other alums include Jennifer Connelly and Zac Posen), which I attended through eighth grade before switching to an arts magnet high school. My parents paid for my twice-weekly oboe lessons, my chemistry tutors (I couldn’t grasp science), my piano lessons and my expensive music sleepaway camps. Everything I ever needed was provided to me, with no comments or questions about cost.
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2015, 84 percent of parents with a yearly family income of $75,000 or more said their kids took part in athletics the year before; 62 percent said their kids took dance, art or music lessons. Ask parents with incomes less than $30,000 a year, and those extracurricular activities start to drop; 59 percent of those parents said their kids participated in sports, and 41 percent said their children took dance, art or music lessons.
When it was time to start thinking about college, my mother flew with me across the country to check out schools, complete admissions interviews and explore college towns to make sure they were a good fit. My parents paid for a private SAT tutor, and they worked with me for hours at a time on vocabulary words.
Yes, I did my part, too. I studied. A lot. I was a good student who had a ton of drive. I wrote the essays that would eventually land me acceptance letters. I took the tests myself, without help from a bribed proctor, and I got the necessary grades in school. There was no one pretending to play my oboe — just me.
And yet, if I did not have parents who supported me financially and emotionally throughout my childhood, would Oxford have been within reach? It’s a question I can’t possibly answer. It is, however, a question that must be considered. There’s more to gaining admission to top colleges than bribery.
I don’t fault my parents at all for doing what they did. I love them for it. But most kids don’t have the same advantage. Wealthy, privileged people have always had an educational leg up, be it the funds to donate millions to a university or the ability to make use of the legacy system.
Instead of pointing fingers at the celebrities who leveraged their wealth to give their kids a big, albeit very unfair, boost — who’s to say that some of us wouldn’t do the same if we had the money and the power to ensure our child’s education? — it’s time we started looking at the bigger picture.
With money comes access: to the best neighborhoods, to the best schools with the smallest class sizes and richest resources. With money comes tutoring, test prep, enrichment and after-school activities, all of which provide avenues into top colleges.
Some wealthy people grow so accustomed to unfettered access and opportunity, engaging in an admissions scheme likely doesn’t feel beyond the pale. If you’re used to exercising power and privilege, it’s no stretch to abuse it — especially if you claim it’s in service of your children.
I’m a mom to two young kids, and I moved to a different neighborhood in Chicago because I preferred the public schools here over those in the area where we previously lived. I wanted a better education for my children. Meanwhile, there are parents who’ve served jail time because they listed someone else’s address as their own to help their kids have the same advantage as mine. Switching neighborhoods, as I did, is not the same as cheating and bribing. But it’s an example of using money to forge a path, to make it that much easier for my kids to get ahead.
The moment is ripe to ask, how can we give all kids the same access? Tackle the monumental wealth inequality in America? Pursue a federal free-college solution, as many 2020 Democratic candidates are pushing? Remove geographic restrictions when it comes to public elementary, middle and high schools, so that every school is open to any child?
There’s no easy answer, but the question is urgent.