A recent scandal in the US has revealed that parents with money and clout, including Hollywood stars and prominent CEOs, have been able to bribe universities into accepting their children.

As an alum of Stanford University, I was pleased to see an article featured in this month’s alumni magazine describing the university’s efforts to recruit and support first-generation college students. The value behind these efforts aligns with ongoing discussions in higher education that what makes universities “the best” is filling seats with the “best people”.

The unfolding scandal involving wealthy and famous parents buying seats for their children in highly-selective colleges in the US flies in opposition to this argument.

The wealthy perpetrators of these crimes used their money and influence to leapfrog the requirement that their children demonstrate a minimum level of competence or talent to earn a seat at a highly selective institution.

Although none of the accused has spoken in defence of their actions, as a parent, my guess is they did so because they wanted the best for their children. These parents understand the value of attending a highly selective institution for the education and connections that attendance offers.

However, the value of that education is compromised if universities only enrol students whose families can afford to buy a seat.

On the world stage, the US has long been a leader in promoting the idea that access to education can level the playing field between the rich and the poor. Unlike many countries where families have to pay for even the most basic education, we offer at least 12 years of education to everyone.

Unfortunately, competition in today’s workplace requires more than 12 years of education. 

The admissions scandal highlights how uneven the playing field remains.

Most often the families who cannot compete in the “pay to play” world of higher education are socioeconomically under-resourced—poor in less politically sensitive-terms, and predominately minority. 

As a black woman and senior faculty member at Northwestern University, I have a seat at the table during discussions about diversity and inclusion. One of the most compelling arguments presented in favour of diversity is that the entire university community benefits from hearing multiple perspectives. 

For example, consider this question posed to students about why obesity rates are rising in the US and around the world. The student from an upper- or middle-income family may cite personal choice or motivation since her reality may be one where she can determine her own outcome.

By contrast, the student who is the first in his or her family to attend college may cite structural barriers at the community level including community violence as a barrier to outdoor physical activity.

On an even larger scale, the student from a developing world country may describe even more substantial macro-level challenges including US imports of processed foods and governmental priorities focused on reducing malnutrition and curbing violence.

Each of these perspectives is true. To hear the voices of each of these students can stimulate the type of problem-solving that addresses an issue across all levels. Without diversity in the academy, we land in an echo chamber of limited ideas and limited solutions that apply to a small segment of society.

The reason that the scandal was successful is that universities do designate seats for certain types of students—children of alumni (legacies), athletes and others with unique talents. 

Another reality is that universities do benefit when wealthy children fill some seats; wealthy parents can make donations to the university to keep operations afloat and enhance facilities.   

However, as an academic “insider” who has attended and now works at a highly selective institution, I argue that these preferences are not the problem, but are another strategy for ensuring a breadth of perspectives.

If a first-generation college student never interacts with a wealthy and well-connected student, her perspective on the world remains constrained. Similarly, scholar athletes demonstrate perseverance and sacrifice to excel on both academics and sports—a lesson that is relevant to all students who strive for excellence.

These examples do not justify filling entire schools and classes with these “preferred students.” If we do so, we risk universities becoming finishing schools for the well-connected, rather than places where we can teach and learn from the best people.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to opinion.editorial@trtworld.com