What the Felicity Huffman admissions scandal reveals about privilege in the education system

Reflecting on how power, wealth, and race impact university careers

Just like privilege is passed down, so is lack of privilege. 
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I grew up in Oakville, Ontario, a city ranked the best place to live in Canada in 2018. My high school had Smartboards, laptops, tablets, and all the rest. But most importantly, my teachers and counselors gave me the confidence and the tools to make it to Queen’s, launching me on a path toward a successful life and career.

Unfortunately, many students don’t have access to the same opportunities that benefit myself and others. That’s been made especially clear since news of the US college admissions scandal broke earlier this year.   

I could look at my life so far and conclude my own hard work and ingenuity are what got me where I am today. However, that perspective would ignore the much larger realm of opportunities that were handed to me by virtue of my birth. It didn’t require any talent on my part to be born where I was and to parents who pay my way through university. I inherited those privileges.

That’s the nature of privilege: it’s special advantages that are passed down, reproduced and hoarded by those in power.

Whether in Canada or the US, that privilege has an immense impact on education and young people’s abilities to succeed.

The recent rise of college admissions scandals in the US has shone a light on the extent of the strings wealthy people will pull to ensure their children enjoy the same status and subsequent lifestyle benefits they’ve enjoyed.

But unfortunately, lack of privilege is also passed down. Despite the best efforts of low-income families, their children are unlikely to climb to a higher socioeconomic status. For many, the American dream is just that: a dream.

The recent conviction of TV star Felicity Huffman in this scandal not only exposes the vast degree of inequality existing in American society, but also how pervasive this inequality can be across multiple spheres of people’s lives.

Last Friday, Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in prison, a $30,000 fine and 250 hours of community service for bribing an admissions consultant to correct her daughter’s SAT answers before submitting the test.

While this standardized test is meant to make higher education a meritocracy, proving anyone from any background can make it if they work hard enough. Results show those from affluent backgrounds are more likely to score higher.

This is caused by a number of factors, but primarily, wealthier students grow up in wealthier neighbourhoods and go to better-funded schools. They can also pay for expensive private tutors at home. As a result of that wealth and opportunity, socioeconomically privileged students are more likely to score higher on their SATs. The outcome is usually that they go to better, more expensive colleges and land higher-paying jobs. Voila: privilege reproduced.

Huffman’s crime, and others like it, feel particularly egregious when you recognize it’s already a rigged game. It’s like cheating in a sport where the rules are already designed so you’ll never lose. To better understand this, it’s important to compare Huffman’s crime and sentencing to that of another mother, Tanya McDowell.

McDowell, a Black woman, received a five-year prison sentence in 2011 for enrolling her then-five-year old son in a school outside their district, where she believed he’d receive a better education. The injustice is not hard to spot. A rich white parent receives 14 days in prison, whereas a Black mother living in a homeless shelter is sentenced to five years.

This doesn’t cover the whole story: Tanya’s sentencing included charges of selling narcotics to an undercover police officer, which factored into the decision. However, these cases paint a grim portrait of the socioeconomic disparities in North America today. The wealthy don’t need to resort to selling drugs, nor do they have to worry about their children’s futures being undermined through a lack of access to quality education.

Tanya’s son wasn’t born into privilege, and as a result, his ability to escape poverty is limited. As long as equality of opportunity continues to be a myth, the social systems that reproduce wealth and power will remain unjust.

That’s why Huffman’s 14-day sentence and $30,000 fine feel like a farce.

However, I don’t believe Huffman should serve a longer sentence, as that wouldn’t change the issue of inequality. Instead, the $30,000 fine she paid, the $15,000 bribe taken by the admissions consultant, and any future fines imposed on similar cases should be funnelled elsewhere. This money should go toward funding public education and preparing youth for college or meaningful employment, as well as making college more affordable.

McDowell was charged with “stealing an education” from the Norwalk school district she enrolled her son in—but the only stolen educations in this narrative are those taken from children who can’t afford them.

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