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Pay to Play: The Real Education Crisis

Like many of you, I have been breathlessly following the pay for admission scandal implicating some of America’s best universities: Georgetown, Stanford, Yale (among other hallowed institutions).

A short summary: A number of affluent, well connected parents enlisted the support of an unscrupulous intermediary to fabricate their child’s athletic credentials (or cheat on admission exams). The scandal has ensnared well-known actresses–among other powerbrokers. The public’s reaction, not surprisingly, has been swift and critical–lambasting these parents for, essentially, gaming a purported meritocracy: university admission.

While I share your collective outrage at these powerbrokers’ flagrant abuse of power, this university scandal is a direct reflection of an unequal playing field–one that tilts ever so slightly to society’s most affluent, well connected, and powerful.

Let me further explain: We purport to live in a meritocracy–one that dutifully rewards hard work. We mythologize the American Dream–the sacrosanct notion that everyone has a chance to succeed.

The real world, unfortunately, contradicts our idealized world–and it starts with our education system. School districts’ financial health is, in part, based on property tax distribution. This article neatly summarizes the financial disparity between affluent and less affluent school districts. In more affluent areas, school districts have the financial resources to offer individualized instruction, catered meals, and the latest technology. For some very affluent families, selective private schools–and their astronomical tuition bill–provide an opportunity to co-opt public schools entirely.

We have a disparate education system–one for the affluent, well connected, and powerful and another for the rest of society. Yet during the incredibly competitive admission process to America’s most preeminent academic institutions, we–somewhat ironically–expect everyone to follow the rules. The university admission process, we decree, should be a true meritocracy–even if we called in every favor to enroll Junior at that private high school (or selective Montessori program).

Do you see the hypocrisy? We–meaning society–want to preserve the veneer of an egalitarian education system–one that affords every student the right to higher education (notwithstanding its cost). In the same breath, we extol the virtues of a private education and/or uphold the disparate funding model for primary and secondary education.

The latest university admission scandal is a microcosm of our education divide–one that undermines our meritocratic ideal.

Look–I am not absolving the parents of responsibility. Their attempt to circumvent admission protocol warrants punishment–potentially even criminal charges. I am dismayed that parents (which, admittedly, I am not) would engage in such morally questionable behavior.

That said, we have an education system where you can buy enrollment (and prestige) at a very young age. In our flawed system–where you can purchase enrollment at America’s most prestigious schools for, give or take, 18 years, why wouldn’t any high-flying parent try to purchase enrollment for another four or five years?

Even if–insert eye roll–that means staging your daughter’s rowing accomplishments–cue head shake–at the local gym.

Pay to Play: The Real Education Crisis

Matthew Loeb

Matthew Loeb is a recovering attorney, part-time graduate student, and full-time mental health advocate. He shares stories and strategies about living--and thriving (at least some days)--with OCD.

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APA Reference
Loeb, M. (2019). Pay to Play: The Real Education Crisis. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 5 Apr 2019
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