The FBI is great at naming things. Earlier this week, they wrapped up “Operation Varsity Blues” with an indictment of scheming parents, corrupt admissions consultants, and shady coaches who helped rich students bamboozle their way into top colleges across the country.
It’s easy to disdain the entitled families who lied and cheated and spent huge sums to get their kids into name-brand schools. They absolutely deserve disgust — and criminal charges they’re facing.
But somewhere along the spectrum between fraud and thoughtful parenting, there’s a moral line where advancing your own kids’ interests goes from admirable to ugly. We all agree that bribing college officials to shortcut the admissions process is wrong; we also agree that parents should do what they can to create a better future for their children.
So how far, exactly, do you take it? Would you ask a colleague to help your son or daughter land a good summer job? Ask a writer friend to edit their college essay? Oppose a school reassignment that’s good for your overall community, but a minor hardship for your family?
If so, you’re guilty of what the Brookings economist Richard Reeves calls “opportunity hoarding.” Instead of devoting time and energy to strengthening institutions that benefit everyone, we focus on preserving our own advantages.
“Opportunity hoarding does not result from the workings of a large machine but from the cumulative effect of individual choices and preferences,” Reeves writes. “Taken in isolation, they may feel trivial: nudging your daughter into a better college with a legacy preference; helping the son of a professional contact to an internship; a single vote on a municipal council to retain low-density zoning restrictions. But, like many ‘micro preferences’... they can have strong effects on overall culture and collective outcomes.”
While it’s satisfying to bash the corrupt rich for their mendacity, it’s the routine practices of upper middle-class parents that are slowing social mobility and creating a rigid class system.
Earned success is the core of the American Dream, and moving up the ladder from one generation to the next is a straightforwardly good thing. But it gets ethically trickier for those who have a smoother pathway from birth. I had barely set foot on a college campus when I came to UNC as a freshman, while my daughter — not yet two — is already a regular at the campus coffee shop (they know she takes a half-cup of milk, lightly warmed). Am I giving her a leg up, readying her to out-compete all of the other toddlers on her road to glory?
The cure for this insanity has to come from more reasonable expectations of our own kids and a deeper sense of obligation to everyone else’s. My highest hope for my daughter is that she’ll be curious, funny, and happy — a bar she’s already clearing just fine. If she grows up to be a renowned astrophysicist, great. If she goes to community college, gets a decent job, and is kind to her friends and neighbors, also great.
Calming our own dynastic ambitions means we can spend less time trying to game the system and more time trying to fix it. The mechanisms that build shared prosperity and class mobility — things like integrated neighborhoods, strong public schools, and fair hiring practices — are not especially controversial. But to make them work, we all have to recognize that our obligation to our own children has limits. We’re both parents and citizens.
So volunteer at a struggling school. Donate money to scholarships. Make sure your company is recruiting talented people from all backgrounds. And, you know, don’t bribe anyone as part of an elaborate scheme to get your kids into an elite college. Small sacrifices.
Eric Johnson of Chapel Hill is a News & Observer contributing columnist.
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