Gaming the system comes at a cost. Low-income students are paying the price.

-Camille Boxhill

Editor’s Note: This month at BYP, we will be exploring Education & Schooling, and we are interested in publishing works that address these topics. What are the implications of charter and private schools in communities of color? How do we counteract anti-Black textbooks and teachers in our children’s education? How did you heal from bullying or other school-based trauma? What tactics are most effective in deconstructing the school to prison pipeline? What role do alternative schooling methods play in Black liberation?

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By Camille Boxhill

It’s been a tough year for college admissions. In March, one of America’s beloved television moms, Lori Loughlin—affectionately known as “Aunt Becky” after her character in Full House—was charged with conspiracy to commit fraud and money laundering in what officials say is the “largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice.” But the perilous odds of college matriculation have long been making furtive felons of America’s poshest parents.

The F.B.I. is currently investigating an independent school in Louisiana, T.M. Landry, for falsifying transcripts and applications to snag coveted seats at the nation’s most selective universities. And in just the latest in a string of scandals in higher education, ProPublica recently unveiled a scam where wealthy Chicago parents are taking advantage of a financial-aid loophole by transferring guardianship of their teenage children in order to receive need-based aid.

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This recent financial aid scam is disturbing on multiple fronts. Not only is it an egregious example of ethical misconduct, but, at its root, it appropriates the hardships of a “lifestyle” in order to benefit from a resource reserved for the economically disadvantaged. It is worsened by the fact that the appropriator seldom acknowledges the significance that accompanies the desired benefits—in this case, structural racism.

Furthermore, the appropriator often demonizes or judges marginalized groups for their perceived advantages, like by assuming that policies such as affirmative action are examples of “black privilege” or unfair handouts. This reflects a larger narrative that discredits and denounces the Black experience.

The issue with poverty appropriation—and all appropriation, for that matter—is that it is a choice by the privileged of society to reap benefits that were endowed to society’s most underprivileged by falsely identifying with parts of the underprivileged experience.

The most cunning wealthy parents even go as far as to make legal changes to substantiate these fraudulent claims on their college applications. The result is that the well-to-do are effectively compounding their advantage. They are reaping the combined benefits of those they acquired at birth plus the ones that the government has reluctantly reserved for the marginalized. On top of better school systems and private schools, legacy admissions and far reaching networks, it leaves wealthy, typically white students light years ahead of their Black counterparts.

In their 2014 book Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships, philosophers Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift explain that “whatever parents do to confer competitive advantage is not neutral in its effects on other children – it does not leave untouched, but rather is detrimental to, those other children’s prospects in the competition for jobs and associated rewards.”

Gaming the system comes at a cost. Low-income students are paying the price.

“Our financial-aid resources are limited and the practice of wealthy parents transferring the guardianship of their children to qualify for need-based financial aid—or so-called opportunity hoarding—takes away resources from middle- and low-income students,” said Andrew Borst, director of undergraduate enrollment at the University of Illinois, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “This is legal, but we question the ethics.” And he’s not the only one. This year has put a spotlight on the extraordinary efforts—some illegal, others legal but morally bankrupt—by parents to secure an elite education for their children.

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What if appropriators had to take on the totality of the Black experience and not simply don the bits and pieces that serve their desired purpose? What if they were frequent victims of racial profiling, adding a level of risk to normal everyday activities like driving a car or taking a stroll in a hooded sweatshirt? What if they were inherently deemed untrustworthy or dangerous simply because of the color of their skin? And if they had to sacrifice their childhood because they live in a country that sees Black boys as men to be feared or Black girls as sexual objects, well, what then? Would they be willing to take on being Black just to receive need-based aid for college? I can confidently say, “no.” 

More often than not, the discourse surrounding these stories seems to get mired in the scandal of it all rather than resting on and examining the crux of the matter: what makes higher education such a high stakes game that adults are willfully suspending morality, and how can we ensure educational equity and access for all?

Meritocracy will continue to be a myth so long as we don’t acknowledge and dismantle the systems that continue to perpetuate inequality.

As the recent scandals illuminate, those with the means have the power to tip the scales even further in their favor while underserved students face an uphill battle. As long as that stays the reality, there will always come a time when it’s easier to play into negative racial stereotypes than to leave their fate in the hands of a system that tells them their best isn’t quite good enough.

Of Jamaican descent, Camille Boxhill is a Brooklyn based storyteller focusing on issues of the black experience and education.