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Confessions of a Parent on a College Tour

Keywords: Darrin Bell, College Admissions, Privilege, Biblical Mothers

 Darrin Bell is the first African American artist to be honored with a Pulitzer Prize for his political cartoons.  His syndicated strips in the “funny pages” have offered searing critiques of racism and the political landscape in all their absurdity and grotesqueness. A March 13, 2019 piece featured the tip of an iceberg called “College Admissions”: lurking just below the surface is a mass inscribed, “have always been rigged;” and in the murky depths, an enormous “We are an oligarchy.”  Bell and other commentators have noted that wealthy parents have been indicted for rigging the system illegally, instead of rigging it in the usual way. Official charges have included mail fraud and money laundering. Parents used a “consultant” to procure falsified test scores and fictional athletic records in place of the usual …. Bribes were given to admissions officers and coaches.

The response has been a bizarre mix of the usual star-seeking paparazzi, feigned shock among the well heeled, and feelings of betrayal among those who work hard and play by the rules. The tip of the iceberg prompts questions about the many ways the system is rigged in favor of wealthy families and legacy students who can trace connections to colleges and universities back generations. Privilege replicates itself and, unsurprisingly in today’s zero-sum game climate, the number of entirely “need blind” schools is shrinking. Admissions and advancement professionals have been quick to explain institutional interests in maintaining a loyal alumni community and donor base to fund initiatives that benefit all students. And because privilege replicates itself, they reassure us that it is relatively rare that legacy students, many of whom have benefited from elite primary and high schooling, are unable to do well in college. The attention is focused entirely on the most selective (or exclusive) schools in the country and not on those schools struggling to survive, those that educate primarily students who require substantial financial aid to attend, support services to stay, and a transformative environment in order to thrive. And the deepest desires of young people themselves never enter the conversation.

The whole affair has left me with a knot in my stomach. Or rather, one more knot to add to the existing knots about the history of slavery, sexual abuse and assault, and other institutional failures in higher education. The crisis of conscience is particularly acute in a personal way to me and my spouse as we bring our younger child on an admissions tour of the campus where I teach, which also happens to be my alma mater (our older child is completing her second year of college at another school). While our name will never be carved on a building, our children have several advantages: college educated parents, legacy status at two institutions, and child-of-faculty status at one.  I haven’t the courage or even the explicit desire to relinquish my workplace or deny my own student experience, nor am I entirely sure how I would even if with the courage and desire.

The tale of parents seeking advantage for their children is as old as time. The biblical stories I recall always seem to feature the mother (as with the high-profile actresses in the current U.S. scandal): Sarah manipulating things for Isaac, Rebekah using deception to advance the favored Jacob, and the mother of James and John requesting that her sons will sit at the right hand of Jesus in his kingdom. Things are good for these characters: a miracle child, twins each their own person, and brothers who enjoy the friendship and company of a remarkable man who calls them to worthwhile work. But good is not good enough, more is better, so, advantage and privilege must be exploited. 

When I look in the mirror I see Sarah, Rebekah, and the mother of James and John, and I wonder if their seeking benefits for their children caused or resulted in systemic disadvantaging of others’ children. What can we learn by immersing ourselves in these biblical scenes? Do we uncover the desire for success for children that will increase our own status and bragging rights? Are we really open to what is best, to the uncertainty and ambiguity about what the future holds? What does solidarity really look like in our families of origin, the human family, and the new family in Christ? What does prudence require of parents, professors, institutional leaders, and what of parents who are professors and institutional leaders? What does justice require? And what might be the distinctive contribution of Catholic institutions acting in collaboration rather than in competition with each other in matters of college admissions desiderata and recruitment philosophies?

When I look again, I see other parents: Rachel weeping for her lost children, the Syrophoenician mother sparring with Jesus for the life of her child, Jairus, a model of faith but also one who has confidence that the system works, and Mary at the foot of the cross, the exemplar of faith and trust who perhaps more than most also knows that the system is rigged. What might time spent in contemplation with these biblical parents yield for moral theologians who are both professors and parents of would-be college students?