Race, Class, and College Admissions with guest Rick Banks

Faculty 2017 Winter Reading List 20

Are the wealthy buying their way into college? At least thirty-five parents have recently been indicted on federal charges for conspiracy and bribery to secure the admission of their students into elite college across the country.

The 210-page affidavit offered detailed and some insight into the scandal, which involved parents paying large sums of money to securing spots on athletic teams for sports their children have never or hardly played. One line from a cooperating witness, who has been indicted and pled guilty, read, “all of the coaches have…guaranteed spots, and you’ve done a good job, you got athletic girls who got great size, they’re in the right sports, so, you know, potentially there’s a sailing option, and potentially there’s a crew option. I mean, I don’t know how good of athletes they are.”

But why are wealthy families so desperate to get their kids into top-tier schools?

“I think what leads parents to try to game the system as they have is that, college admissions have become more competitive than ever, and that’s not because potential college students have increased so dramatically, though they have. It’s really because students and their families now increasingly aspire toward so-called top colleges,” says Rick Banks, Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law and Co-Associate Dean for Curriculum. Banks’ forthcoming book, Meritocracy in an Age of Inequality, explores the role of race in college admissions, and more broadly, how elite universities have become an object of desire for high achieving students.

“We forget that when I even applied to college in the 1980’s, there was no US News or World Report. There was no ranking. People had a sense of different qualities of different schools, but there wasn’t a sense of a rigid hierarchy. Now there is; there is an actual numbered list, and ambitious students and parents know the list and consult that list.”

Banks looks at several factors that fueled that change.

“The development of this educational hierarchy has been spurred in part by two different factors. One is the spread of the market for education, which is driven by big issues and mundane issues,” he says. “Mundane issues would be the falling cost of communication. Once long-distance calls become cheap and air travel becomes cheap, people can travel. So we had, since the 1980s, a national market in education develop where the best students could think about going across the country more than going to their regional school.”

But who benefits from an elite education the most? “It is clearly the case that the benefits of elite education are greatest for those who are from low socioeconomic backgrounds or are otherwise disadvantaged,” he says.

To learn more, join Stanford Legal co-hosts Pam Karlan and Joe Bankman  for a discussion on race, class, and admissions with Rick Banks. You can listen to Stanford Legal on SiriusXM Insight Channel 121, iTunes, SoundCloud, and YouTube.

This episode originally aired on SiriusXM on April 13, 2019.