When federal prosecutors revealed on Tuesday that they were charging 50 people in an alleged college-admissions cheating scheme, it garnered plenty of discussion and outrage on social media and throughout schools.
Emotions have been strong. Many people weren’t surprised by the news—and for good reason. This scenario is indicative of the status quo. While Tuesday’s indictments reveal extreme abuses of power, they also underscore the very real and very legal ways that people with wealth and privilege have always manipulated systems and institutions to gain access that isn’t extended to others—particularly, people of color and those without wealth.
The concept of upward mobility—that hard work is all you need to succeed—is deeply embedded in American culture.
But we know that barriers are in place to block access and opportunity for people of color, and sometimes the goal post is moved a little further to sustain lopsided access. It’s why people of color, particularly black people, are taught at a young age to work twice as hard as their white counterparts. It’s an often-unhealthy adaption to push back against the implications of an oppressive system, but it’s all about survival.
That’s why teachers should go beyond finding ways to help their most vulnerable students thrive. They must also work to deconstruct these structures.
Students Know This Is Wrong
Students are aware that American society is rigged against people of color and people without wealth.
And they’re speaking out.
On Wednesday, The New York Times invited students ages 13 and older to express their thoughts about the college-admissions scandal.
A student in New York put it this way: “As an international student with a scholarship in college, I have seen how money can take people far in life. We live in a society where the amount of zeros in a check is more important than a student who has the capability to actually make a change.”
A student in North Carolina highlighted the need for economic justice: “If wealthy families are able to bribe their kids into the top college the economic gap will grow even wider, causing an even bigger problem.”
And a student from Philadelphia brought attention to the people whose opportunities are being squashed when those with privilege feel entitled to these spaces: “Some people worked so hard; they started with nothing. They were so close to grasping the light until money stole it.”
These young people make a case for justice and equity, and they know that we shouldn’t value status, money and power over integrity and real work.
It’s important to empower all students—not just those who aim for higher education or just those from marginalized communities—to think about how they can challenge these deeply rooted institutions, even when those institutions don’t affect them personally. After all, it’s our job as educators to prepare students to recognize and act against injustice when they see it.
What Can Educators Do?
This scandal is an important teachable moment, but providing support to students who have to navigate these systems is even more critical.
It may seem like a daunting task to explain to students that we’re embedded in a system that pushes people into the margins, but it’s necessary that they have this understanding. The first step in confronting an unjust system is to acknowledge it exists. We do a disservice to youth by not alerting them to this fact.
For example, a 2017 study shows that marginalized middle school students acted out more and experienced lower self-esteem when taught that society is fair. On the other hand, talking honestly about racism—and other discriminatory structures that shape our world—helps free students of color from the burden of thinking they’re solely responsible for the struggles and setbacks they experience while trying to achieve their goals. They understand that there’s a history and a well-orchestrated system at play.
Telling the truth, validating students’ experiences and identities and providing support can prepare students for the admissions process and higher education or other life after high school. Here are five considerations for reflecting on your own views about higher education and for preparing to talk about post-graduation options with students:
- Be open and honest. Talk about admissions policies and clarify for students that the process is not a science. It is also not a reflection of character or worthiness. It is about a multitude of factors, some of which are out of their control. Explain that wealthy families and people with access aren’t the sole actors in economic injustice. It is both people and institutions that allow for this to happen.
- Validate student concerns and fears. Honor students’ vulnerability and recognize the amount of pressure they are experiencing. Then encourage them to do research to better understand college admissions processes; support them in asking tough questions.
- Collaborate and reflect. Pay attention to rhetoric about college-readiness that is shared through curriculum and testing, and discuss this rhetoric with colleagues. Is there any bias in this language? Is it inclusive of all students’ identities? Also, reach out to the school counselor and families for support when discussing higher education or post-graduation opportunities.
- Eliminate the stigma of certain schools. Avoid basing the value of education on a school’s ranking. Actively introduce to students a broad range of schools, including community colleges, technical colleges, liberal arts colleges and smaller schools. You might make these introductions part of a weekly activity.
- Promote healthy choices. It’s OK to encourage all students to go to college and help them understand the possible outcomes of doing so, but don’t disparage the choice a student makes—including the choice to not go to college. The goal is to help students make healthy and informed choices.
Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards—rooted in the concepts of identity, diversity, justice and action—can serve as a guide to discuss the college-admissions scheme.
Are we helping students develop positive views of all the identities that make them who they are, including all the social groups they belong to? This is especially important for students from marginalized groups who are watching this scandal unfold.
Engage all students, including those from more privileged identity groups, in conversations about power and privilege. Have them talk about how they’ve been affected by each. And challenge them to think about their own power—what they can do now and in the future to confront the uneven distribution of power and wealth.
Dillard is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.