The Quieter Injustice of the College Admissions Scandal

“So we’ll do that, and I also need to tell [your daughter] when she gets tested, to be as, to be stupid, not to be as smart as she is. The goal is to be slow, to be not as bright, all that, so we show discrepancies.“

The above quote is from the charging document associated with the “Operation Varsity Blues” case. In case you missed it, the story detailed an FBI investigation revealing that several wealthy families allegedly bribed, cheated, and lied in order to get their kids into prestigious universities.

When the story broke, I wasn’t surprised to learn these wealthy parents allegedly used their power and privilege in this way.

This behavior is nothing new. It speaks to the overarching entitlement felt by many wealthy and/or powerful individuals, that their wealth allows them exclusive access to certain places and resources. However, when low-income students or students of color try to access these same resources, it sometimes results in the ironic slander that disadvantaged populations don’t earn their spots fairly.

Beyond the gross entitlement on display, there’s something else about this story that disturbs me. The charging document states that some of the parents allegedly lied and claimed their children had learning disabilities that required special accommodations on college entrance exams.

This part of the scheme is especially ugly, because the parents involved in the case are accused of paying for their kids to be falsely labeled with a disability in order to receive special accommodations on entrance exams.

This is extremely offensive when you take into account the fights that people with disabilities have had to engage in to receive equal access to education.

Before the earliest version of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act was passed in 1975, public schools in the U.S. accommodated only one of every five children with disabilities. And prior to the law’s passage, several states had laws that excluded children with certain types of disabilities from attending public school. In fact, when the first version of the IDEA was enacted, more than one million children in the U.S. did not have access to the public school system.

The law’s passage has opened doors of opportunity for millions of kids in the U.S. Today more than 62% of children with disabilities are in general education classrooms 80% or more of their school day. In addition, infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with disabilities are receiving early intervention services to set them on a path to success before they enter the public school system.

To think that these parents allegedly used much needed disability accommodations as a way of cutting to the front of the line is beyond offensive, especially when they have the financial resources to pay for academic help in the form of tutors, coaching, and special programming.

This strikes close to home for me, because two of my kids have learning issues. One has a 504 and another has an IEP. Testing accommodations are part of their plans. I can speak from experience when I say that these accommodations are not a “bonus” or a “perk.” For students like my kids, testing accommodations are a crucial step in ensuring that their disabilities don’t hold them back from being successful. With these accommodations my kids’ true potential can be seen (as much as can be seen on a standardized test, which is admittedly a limited snapshot of one’s ability). These accommodations are part of their rights to have a “Free and Appropriate Public Education” in the “least restrictive environment.”

As any special ed parent can tell you, getting these resources for your child is NOT easy. It can involve years of watching, waiting, testing, and proving. In many cases, receiving a diagnosis isn’t even enough to ensure consistent access to services. You have to constantly advocate and plead to get your kids the services they need. And many times after you qualify for additional resources you have to fight to keep them.

The Quieter Injustice of the College Admissions Scandal

In addition to the struggle to receive services, there’s the frustration and worry that goes along with watching your child struggle in school. Disabilities and academic challenges often come with massive social stigma (especially in the Iowa City Community School District, but that’s another blog post). To top all this off, you also have parental guilt, making you wonder if you’re doing enough for them.

Furthermore, gaining access to testing accommodations on college entrance exams isn’t easy even when it’s written into your IEP or 504. My son recently took the ACT, and arranging his testing was challenging to say the least.

I also worry about the impact this case will have on students advocating for themselves. As an instructor at the University of Iowa, I work with several students who have IEPs and other accommodations. While many students do a great job of communicating with me, there are others who are reluctant to advocate for themselves due to the stigma surrounding learning disabilities. Or, sometimes they are afraid to advocate because other professors haven’t been as understanding. My concern is that this high profile case will only worsen the stigma, or make it harder for students who actually need services to receive them.

I suppose there are some silver linings to come out of this mess.

Maybe this glimpse of glaring entitlement will force people to think more critically about the free pass that the wealthy and powerful get in our society.

Perhaps we can start dismantling the myth that wealth and prestige equal merit. Maybe now we will finally understand that elite doesn’t always mean better.

And, most importantly, perhaps we can use this scandal as a reminder that we should accept our kids for who they are and not who we want them to be.


Meghann is the mom of 5 kids. She is a Lecturer at the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication and an Owner/Partner at Brand Driven Digital. Meghann was elected to the Coralville City Council in 2017 and is currently serving her first term. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Coralville Community Food Pantry (Vice-Chair) and on the DVIP Board of Directors. She is also a member of Johnson County's Juvenile Justice and Youth Development Policy Board. Meghann is passionate about her family, her community, and is a proud pop culture nerd.


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