The College Admissions Scandal and the Culture of Wealth

Gustavo Grodnitzky Culture Trumps Everything, Socioeconomics

On March 12, 2019, a story broke in the news that continues to reverberate. Uber-wealthy parents paid between $200,000 and $6.5 million to ensure their children got into the colleges of their choice. Of course, the uber-wealthy have been leveraging their resources to get their children into elite colleges for generations, through large donations, legacy admissions, campus visits, tutors and college prep courses. But this scandal is different. In this case, parents paid William “Rick” Singer, a “college admissions consultant” to create false records and scores on standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT.

I wasn’t the only person shocked by this. Peggy Noonan, a conservative columnist for the Wall Street Journal, recently wrote about why parents might go to the extremes they do to get their child admitted into an elite school. Of course, I’m a culture guy, so I’m most interested in the culture that makes this behavior acceptable.

In her column, a particular section jumps out at me. Noonan describes working at an Ivy League school for a few months. She found her students were obsessed not with history or politics but with networking and with making important connections. She goes on to say that people are not commodities and that “it all comes down to the work.”

She’s wrong — particularly for students who come from uber-wealthy backgrounds. They are a product of their culture, and to understand their behavior, you must first understand that culture.

Early in my career, I was consulting with a large company whose CEO took a personal interest in me and my professional development. He afforded me consulting opportunities I would not have otherwise had, and, more importantly, exposure to professional and social situations with high-powered, high-wealth executives. I felt like I had stepped into another world.

One of the first things I noticed was that, particularly in social situations, the uber-wealthy ask different questions. Working class and professional people typically ask questions like these:

  • What do you do?
  • Whom do you work for?
  • What do you do for them?
  • What do you do in your free time?

These are all questions about activity.

The wealthy ask questions like these:

  • How did you come to be invited to this event?
  • Whom are you here with?

If they are asking about someone else, they will ask things like:

  • Whom does s/he know?
  • Whom are they connected to?

These are all questions about social connections and networks. This is an important difference.

Rightly or wrongly, working class culture (beliefs, behavioral rules, traditions and rituals) makes judgments and interpretations based on what others do. Wealthy class culture makes determinations based on your connections and to whose network you belong. It is this cultural belief underlying the questions that so disturbed Peggy Noonan. It makes perfect sense for the children of wealth to ask networking questions given the culture in which they were raised.

What Peggy Noonan gets correct, particularly for wealthy families, is that children are often seen as a narcissistic extension of the self.  The more successful the child, the more successful the parents and family – or so it is believed.  Wealthy parents are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for the illusion of success.  So, after society tells children, “if work hard in grade school you can go to a great school – no matter who you are,” when students applying to elite institutions might actually be selected on the level playing field of academic performance, the wealthy in this cheating scandal tipped the field to benefit their children, perpetuating the wealth effect for another generation at the cost of working class students who have achieved actual academic success.

More broadly, there is a “culture writ large” or societal issue here. Wealth offers families a broader range of resources and experiences (travel, extracurricular experiences, tutorial support, private schools, etc.), and most people have no problem with the accumulation of wealth. I am one. As a society, should we allow children with the good fortune to be raised in wealthy families to displace children of working class families when the wealthy children have not performed academically as well as the children of the working class families? If not, what should be done about it?

I’d love to hear your questions and/or comments.  If you would like to discuss this further, just drop me a note.

Keep cultivating your culture!