The scandal of the rich and famous cheating their children’s way into college caused a far greater stir than was justified by the number of people involved.  Why?

Maybe because the story is a vivid example of the widening gap between “elites” and the rest of us.  Or perhaps the scandal resonates because our culture evermore stresses college.  And as college looms larger and larger in the lives of young folks, the rising cost of college puts a degree farther and farther from more and more families.

Add a couple of other factors.  We are increasingly divided geographically.  A great many elites call themselves “bi-coastal.” They live on the right coast (Atlantic) or left coast (Pacific) and when they travel from one to the other, they don’t drive.  They say anywhere that isn’t an hour’s drive from an ocean is “flyover country.”

Turn on the TV, especially after the 11 o’clock news, and see talk-show hosts in New York or Los Angeles get great guffaws by mocking people above whom they often fly.  I first noticed this attitude with David Letterman, who hosted The Late Show on CBS for 22 years.  Letterman grew up in Indianapolis but he picked up bi-coastal ways easily.

We may sometimes confuse two types of “elite.”  The first is people born to wealth and status.  Bushes, Rockefellers, Carnegies. The second is people who made a bundle and want to buy status.  Perot, Bezos, Zuckerberg.

The college-admission scandal led to 50 arrests — more may be coming — of people such as actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and William Rick Singer, the scam’s mastermind.  He presented some kids of the rich and famous as athletes in minor sports, for others he arranged for a “body double” with a brain to take entrance exams for them.

Parents buying their kids’ way into college seem to be among the new rich who made a bundle and want to buy social status. Huffman, a banker’s daughter, has made a killing as an actor.  She and other elites paid Singer to get their kids into elite schools such as Yale, Stanford, UCLA, Wake Forest, Georgetown, the University of Texas and USC.

When I was coming up, many folks lived a middle-class life or moved into the middle class without college.  No one needed a degree to own a grocery or work in a bank. My brother-in-law, a successful banker in Oklahoma, has no degree.  His college was six years in the Air Force.

The culture’s attitude toward college is changing.  You don’t have to read many stories about education or listen to many radio stories about education to learn that all Americans are expected to continue school after high school.  With elite college costs topping  $70,000 per year, that sounds scary. A working stiff in Indiana whose daughter shows academic promise might look at that and say, “Sheesh.  Not gonna happen.”

Many elite schools, including Bates, Bowdoin and Colby, work hard to draw students of various racial, regional and economic backgrounds.  Bowdoin and Colby promise that their students can graduate without loan debt.  Still, their student bodies remain heavily elite.  An aside, when my fiancee and I ate in the Bates dining hall last winter, we sat at a table with three female students.  We knew nothing of their backgrounds, but they didn’t look like they came from Scarsdale.  And, man, were they smart. Great conversation.

So when we hear again and again that college holds the key — I emphasize “the” — to success, anyone whose pedigree hasn’t been stamped by dear old alma mater might come to resent those with stamped pedigrees.  If the only road to middle class life is college and you didn’t graduate college, wouldn’t you feel a bit left out?


Even so, not everyone feels a tug of ivy.  I remember reading in the paper a quote from Mexico (the one in Oxford County) at graduation time.  The choices, a grad said, were “the mill or move.”  You went to work across the river at the paper mill or you left town.

The college scandal may be just magnifying the elites’ historic ability to get their kids into choice schools.  The Atlantic wrote in March that at Harvard’s first commencement, nearly 400 years ago, the nine young men received their degrees “not according to age or scholarship” . . . “but according to the rank their families held in society.”

Maybe starting with the sons of those nine, the “legacy” student arrived.  If Daddy went to Harvard, l’il Johnny is a “legacy.”  The Atlantic reported  that legacy applicants, mostly white and wealthy, are admitted to Harvard at five times the rate of non-legacies.

Several candidates for president have put forth plans to pay for ever larger shares of college costs.  Some even say college should be free at all state universities.  The plans sound terrific.  But an analysis by David Leonhardt in The New York Times found that the tuition-paying plans would mostly help families that can afford much or all of their college costs.  Assistance for college should be directed at kids in community colleges, he concluded.  So, let’s not use tax money to help the elites.  Again.

The elites will always be with us.  And F. Scott Fitzgerald pretty well nailed it when he wrote, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard. . . They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. . . They are different. ”

With the signs of these differences evermore obvious, no wonder so many people resent the elites.  Often to the point of anger.

Bluto Blutarsky told his frat mates at Animal House that his college time was “seven years down the drain.”  Bob Neal did him one better, taking 10 years to  graduate.

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