The Meritocracy Lie

What two different college admissions scandals tell us about race and opportunity in America.

Exterior of a Collegiate Gothic building at Yale Law School.
Yana Paskova/Getty Images

Michael Landry was a salesman before he and his wife founded T.M. Landry College Preparatory School, a 100-student private high school in a rural, working-class town in Louisiana. This must have been good preparation for his life as a school administrator. At T.M. Landry, he sold predominantly black, working-class parents on the idea that, with enough hard work, their children could get into elite universities like Yale and Stanford.

Landry required kids to attend school year-round and stay in class late into the night. He made them kneel for hours to learn humility. But “the fact that he was black, I was like, ‘Man, he’s going to uplift these kids,’ ” Doresa Barton, the mother of three former T.M. Landry students, told the New York Times, which, late last year, published a big and damning investigation into the school. Parents like Barton thought that if their children toiled relentlessly, they would have the same opportunities as wealthy white kids. What they didn’t know was that, according to the Times report, Landry was doctoring students’ transcripts, adding classes that they never took, loading up their life stories with phony, heart-rending details, and allegedly physically and verbally abusing the students as a form of discipline. All under the promise of access to an elite higher education and better future.

The parents at the center of the Varsity Blues investigation also wanted to get their kids into elite universities. “I have some concerns and want to fully understand the game plan and make sure we have a roadmap for success as it relates to [our daughter] and getting her into a school other than ASU!” Mossimo Giannulli, a fashion designer, said, according to the affidavit. Giannulli and others went on to pay, in the form of “donations,” up to $6.5 million to the Key Worldwide Foundation, a bogus charity founded by William Singer, who then distributed bribes to a network of confederates in a scheme that would eventually get these kids into several schools “other than ASU,” including Stanford, Yale, and Georgetown. “To be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here,” Gordon Caplan, a lawyer in New York, told Singer. “I’m worried about the, if she’s [my daughter] caught doing that, you know, she’s finished.”

The contrast is striking. At Landry, parents paid $7,200 a year just to get their kids the opportunity to work hard, and they were told that would land them a spot at an elite university. The parents at the center of Varsity Blues paid for the opposite: to get their kids the opportunity to go to an elite university without working hard at all.

Most parents didn’t know the demanding environment at Landry Prep failed to include proper instruction and that the hard work supposedly propelling the students forward was actually leaving them behind. Students told the Times that the high school curriculum was primarily aimed at preparing for the ACT and SAT, and that the coursework consisted of completing worksheets that were recycled every few weeks. An independent assessment service found that one junior in high school had the math and reading abilities of a fourth-grader. According to the Times, students and teachers rehearsed lessons they would perform when visitors came to the school, and the school’s attendees had to “have pristine shoes, fresh hairdos and their scripts ready—name, grade, college aspiration and major.”

Even if some parents suspected that Landry’s teaching practices were unusual, they still believed that they were paying tuition to put their children on more equal footing with others in the college applicant pool. Perhaps they also knew that attending an elite college would make a real difference in their kids’ lives. Studies have found that having a prestigious degree greatly increases the likelihood of lower-income and minority students entering the top 1 percent of earners. Underprivileged students enter a world of high-paying jobs and exclusive networks by attending a selective school, and benefit from them in a way that rich white students with parental connections don’t.

Landry preyed on this truth, and sold parents on a lie: that hard work is all it takes to get ahead in America. He sold the public on it too. A string of videos showing the raucous reactions of students learning of their acceptances to prestigious universities racked up millions of views, attracting donations for the school and landing the students on shows like Ellen and CBS This Morning. The admissions stories coming out of T.M. Landry were meant to go viral, designed to perpetuate the myth that grit and perseverance are all it takes to get black kids the same opportunities as wealthier white and Asian kids. Who doesn’t want to believe that?

The parents indicted in the Varsity Blues investigation, however, felt their kids were entitled to a spot at a prestigious university regardless of hard work. (Giannulli’s daughter, Olivia Jade, told her social media followers, “I don’t really care about school” and “I’m literally never at school.”) Singer allegedly paid proctors to allow his associates to take standardized tests in place of the students, or to change answers after the tests were submitted. He also paid college coaches to give slots designated for athletic recruits to students who didn’t even play the sports in question. There were few inspiring tales to tell here. The goal was to hide the mechanisms through which these privileged students gained access to the nation’s most selective schools—even from the kids themselves. “[The student] won’t even know that it happened,” Singer told a client. “She will think that she’s really super smart, and she got lucky on a test.” No one raised questions when these kids ultimately got in, because affluent, white students like them are supposed to get in.

And unlike the Landry kids, who really would have benefited from an elite education had they been properly prepared for it, Olivia Jade Giannulli was right: She didn’t really need to care about school. Attending a prestigious school does not necessarily have a huge impact on the futures of wealthy, white students like her. Studies have shown that an elite education does not significantly increase earnings for wealthy white people (especially men) in the long run. It’s hard to imagine that the students involved in this scandal would have been hurt by attending a less selective school. Their position in elite society was fairly secure regardless of their educational backgrounds.

It’s not a coincidence that both of these scams happened here. Many Americans want to believe that the predominantly white students at elite universities deserve to be there (while questioning the worthiness of black ones), and that hard work is enough for anyone to succeed, regardless of race or class. Despite all evidence to the contrary, many people have clung to the idea that the admissions process is meritocratic. Perhaps these two scandals will finally kill that notion. I’m not holding my breath.