U.S. college bribery scandal shines light on serious problem in Canada

Looking at the bigger picture of marginalization in universities

While certain practices and policies make the U.S. bribery scandal unlikely to occur in Canada, some scholars say the issue is highlighting a bigger problem of academic social class privilege. (Black Press Media file photo)

While certain practices and policies make the U.S. bribery scandal unlikely to occur in Canada, some scholars say the issue is highlighting a bigger problem of academic social class privilege. (Black Press Media file photo)

News of what has been called the ‘largest’ college admission scam in the United States dominated headlines and news feeds last week, but has since been pushed out of the spotlight with other breaking news such as the Ethiopia Airlines crash or the latest development in the SNC-Lavalin controversy.

Famous Hollywood parents, college coaches, test proctors and a prominent Canadian businessman are just a few of the 50 people who have all been indicted in relation to the scandal. Parents arranged fakes tests, fake credentials and fake athletic accomplishments while allegedly paying counselors and others hundreds of thousands of dollars to secure a spot at a prestigious U.S. college.

While no lives were at stake in the U.S.’s college entrance scandal, according to some academics it’s highlighting a broader issue within American and Canadian society.

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Elaine Laberge with the Shoestring Initiative, a program aimed at leveling the academic playing field for those who come from poverty or working class backgrounds, says she’s not surprised, calling this a dramatic example of an ever-present issue.

“This has always been a problem — we know it’s not a level playing field — let’s be honest about it. This isn’t the first time that buildings are bought or names are put on things that benefit certain families and generations — this is an ongoing problem.”

According to Laberge, it’s a bigger problem in university here than anyone is willing to recognize. She explains how students coming from social class privilege have a massive advantage over students who come from working class or poverty.

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Starting at an early age poor students are unable to use money to advance their learning through tutors or extracurricular studies, unable to pay for experiences that add value to their resume like overseas volunteer opportunities and semesters abroad.

While Canada’s universities are taxpayer funded — unlike Harvard and Stanford, which are privately funded — Laberge says there’s still a big difference in the way certain Canadian schools are perceived.

Peter Dueck, director of admissions and registrar at Royal Roads University, agrees in saying the news didn’t surprise him but left him disappointed, adding the university doesn’t admit students solely based on sporting ability or parental legacy which helps protect from this type of scandal.

While Dueck admits the playing field for students might not be level in some circumstances, he says there are resources that help tackle the issue such as student aid and government bursaries.

“That’s probably the most important piece of rectifying socioeconomic situations for students, that for people who would otherwise not be able to go to school.”

While aid is out there, it leaves a hefty burden on future grads who are early in their career.

According to Statistic Canada the average tuition for an undergrad degree is $6,500 a year, before the cost of books, school supplies, accommodation and living costs. Despite the high cost of schooling, it’s estimated 70 per cent of jobs in the new economy will require a post-secondary education.

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“I used to be a financial aid and awards officer at another institution and I saw many people who there’s no way they would have been able to go to school without the aid and it made a world of difference,” says Dueck.

Laberge says these factors help perpetuate cycles of marginalization and poverty, keeping people stuck in certain situations.

“I’ve had five years of literature review to say universities were never meant to truly serve society and really have lost their way,” says Laberge. “But what this situation in the U.S. has showed that it is again, just working towards a very select group to hold the power in society.”

Adding fuel to the fire, there are no laws protecting those being discriminated against due to poverty — in Canada it’s actually legal to discriminate based on someone’s economic status. There are no laws in the B.C. Human Rights Code that offer protection against discrimination on the basis of social condition such as housing status, level of income, education level or employment status.

In a 2018 survey conducted by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, respondents — 39 per cent — were least positive towards people receiving social assistance.

“This is so much more where certain social classes are privileged and deemed worthy and look to people who should be there, because universities were built for people from certain social classes … this just really demonstrates perpetuating privilege but also society’s perpetuating privilege,” says Laberge.


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