The Source of the College Cheating Scandal is Extreme Income and Wealth Inequality

50 parents of students, who have been wrongfully admitted because of college exam cheating or fake athletic scholarships (i.e. students classified as athletes even though they were not), have been charged by the federal government for fraud. This fraud was organized by William Rick Singer, founder of an education consultancy. Singer had collected $25 million for the scheme. The parents are Hollywood stars and corporate executives, who did not spare a dime to get their children accommodated in the elite universities of the country (CNN 2019). The fraud implies that more talented low-income students are denied a spot at the elite institution.

There are principally two responses. Firstly, the sociologist Shamus Khan (2019) rightly points out that the elite can use other legal ways to secure their children a spot at an elite institution, while bypassing any meritocratic pretensions: donate millions of dollars to a university, which will then guarantee a spot for a child. This is hard for wealthy universities to do without, because their entire operation is subsidized by wealthy donors and students from rich families, who are the only ones paying the full sticker tuition costs (while middle class parents pay a smaller part, and low income parents pay nothing). In other words, there is no need for test or athletic scholarship cheating to secure a spot for the child, but donations are certainly more expensive, so the illegal means may be the preferred choice of the upper middle class.

A second more disturbing element is that the upper middle class parents are trying their best to reproduce class advantage over generations in a context where social inequality is elevated. Extreme social inequality goes hand in hand with a shrinking middle class, which has splintered as some of that middle class joined relatively high-paid professions in education, health care, finance or technology, and some descended into the lower middle and precarious working class, e.g. when production worker jobs become automated and the only openings are Uber or Walmart. The gains for the people at the top have gotten larger as marginal income taxes have declined, and rising stock markets and real estate prices meant more and more money for the very rich. For the upper middle class, this creates a precarious feeling of “having made it”, and their concern about keeping their social class position means they have to hand their children every little advantage possible, including cheating on college entrance exams, so their mediocre kids get into an elite institution.

The importance of this second point can be understood when comparing the US to more egalitarian countries like in Scandinavia. These countries firstly do not have the elite institutions of the US, so the cheating scandal of this kind is unlikely to occur there. Secondly, an expansive welfare state funded by high taxes is pro-middle class, as it reduces people’s reliance on the market for survival. In Denmark, child poverty rate is about 2%, while it is closer to 20% in the US (OECD 2018). It certainly has nothing to do with single parenthood, which is actually higher in Denmark (30%) than in the US (25%). A Danish child born to a single parent is unlikely to be poor, but a US child born to a single parent is very prone to be poor, because, again, the redistributive welfare state holds down poverty for children of single mothers in Denmark. As a result of the economic stability, the parents in egalitarian countries are more likely to tell their children to pursue their dreams and interests rather than go to cram school, do hard work and, yes, cheat on standardized exams.

I am certainly not condoning the cheating scandal, but the bigger social problem is that the more extreme the level of inequality the more anxious parents become and they will try to race faster in this rat race of neoliberal capitalism, which produces ever greater returns to a small sliver of the population. This is especially the case for the upper middle class, who know that their economic status is still quite precarious. I have encountered a computer engineer, who developed the technology to automate his own work. The employer became more profitable, the worker was laid off and stands without a paycheck, having to look for work elsewhere. Even for those who have supposedly “made it”, the rug can still be pulled underneath them. In that context, we must not be surprised about more cheating scandals in the years to come.

A decrease in the competitive spirit is likely feasible only when there is a guaranteed minimum standard of living for everyone via a universal basic income rather than just for the poorest, who are stigmatized for the little welfare (Medicaid, Food stamps) they do get. I am attending a graduate program in one of the wealthiest institutions in the country, where all the graduate students receive a full and equal value stipend. The end result is a sense of egalitarianism and not a zero-sum mentality where others’ gain must come at my loss. In contrast, poorer graduate departments that only fund half of their students tend to create envy and resentment, which actually hinders the research enterprise. The most productive researchers are found in the wealthy institutions that also minimize the distractions for their graduate students, e.g. light teaching and course loads. The Austrian cartoonist and UBI supporter Gerhard Haderer, who could always pursue his passion and make a living from it said, “Never in my life have I worked, but I have had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. I can recommend this personal freedom to everyone.” (Widmann 2018)

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