Privilege and Education Advantage


Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

Unethical, Immoral, Illegal Abuses of “Privilege”

“A people that value their privileges above their principles soon lose both.”
— Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969)

The Nature of “Advantage”

In Physics 101, high-school students are taught the principle of “mechanical advantage.”  This principle defines the process by which a particular mechanical act (e.g., lifting a load) can be facilitated by using an “advantage mechanism.” Thus, lifting a load by adding a pulley augments your efforts. It achieves the same goal, but with less effort! The pulley offers an “advantage.”  Using a number of “advantage tactics and strategies” minimizes efforts, increases efficiency, and improves effectiveness.

And so, it is in human life!  Advantages” enable goals to be pursued and achieved without normal effort demands and impositions. If the goals may be unattainable by normal effort, “Advantage,” in the form of money, position, power, personal relationships, they will be used. This becomes an acceptable norm or practice among privileged groups. As the “advantage” of group connections and shared interests evolves, an “advantage” network for pursing goals becomes a powerful resource for life.

Shared or common ties develop and are sustained across various status commonalities.  Common ties can be shared ethnicity, race, religion, gender, age, history, or financial ties.  The idea is mutuality! “We help one another! Both sides benefit! Or the famous aphorism I learned as a college administrator: “You scratch their back; they scratch your back.” With this ethic operating, it is accepted all problems can be resolved. The power of the individual is multiplied; there is advantage! “Advantage is a privilege! Privilege is an advantage!”

Equality under the Law . . . 

In a democratic society, theoretically based upon equality of opportunity and resources, the “advantage” ethic represents a serious problem. While individual variations among citizens’ abilities and capacities must be acknowledged and valued, variations based on wealth, power, and position provide “advantages” which ultimately destroy the fabric of the “democratic” society. The playing field of life is not level!

“Privilege-less” individuals and groups struggle to achieve goals so accessible to the privileged, and the “advantages” are multiplied. Cronyism, nepotism, injustice, and corruption-under-the-law become visible sources of anger, frustration, and discontent.

The aspiration or ethos of “equality” is destroyed as certain individuals or groups, by virtue of their wealth, power, and position, acquire “advantage” across many different life arenas. A privileged class is formed; this undermines societal effort to foster “equality.”

Educational “Advantage” . . .

As the current group of forty or more individuals who used the “advantage” of their privileged position to gain college admission and support services (e.g., test taking proxies, lies and misrepresentations about applicant student skills and abilities) are charged and prosecuted for a number of offenses and violations of varying severity, it is essential larger issues regarding basis of privilege be acknowledged, discussed, and resolved.

The issue, of course, is racial and ethnic marginalized populations have little or no access to advantage; these populations are externally assigned and internally resigned to lives which limit mobility and opportunity, while the privilege of “advantage,” is conferred on the wealthy, powerful, and positioned. At some point, consciousness of this situation arises leading to protests, and perhaps violence.  For the privileged, their “advantages” may seem natural; something expected and something to be used.

While special talents in entertainment (singing, acting, movies) and athletics (professional sports) have enabled sizeable numbers of marginalized groups (e.g., African-Americans, Latino’s) to acquire wealth and position as celebrities, the number is still proportionately small, and the pathways for success are arduous, requiring special talents and abilities to enter the arena. In some cases, marginalized groups respond by creating privilege resources among themselves.  A good example of this is the creation of African-American universities with medical, law, and business schools.

Education, when all is said and done, is an “advantage,” even if the acquisition is distant from prestigious colleges, and is confined to community colleges, and unranked schools. But when education is associated with a prestigious and name college, a public image of an individual is enhanced.

If you are a political aspirant, “I graduated from Harvard or Yale” is a benefit. If you are an entertainment aspirant, “I graduated from USC or UCLA,” helps the image. If you are a football athlete, you may seek entry at Clemson University or University of Alabama. Athletic talents are skill specific, and skills may be sought by a college to enhance athletic programs. Political and entertainment status also are skill specific bringing colleges access to wealth, power, and position.  They offer an “advantage.”

Education Advantages: Structure and Process

The prosecution of individuals who used money, power, and position to purchase or facilitate college admission for students can be termed the “Education Privilege Advantage Complex!”  This “Complex” involves two critical dimensions: (1) Number and status role of players (e.g., students, family, parents, peers, counselors, admission officers, test takers); (2) Number and status of society structural components (e.g., institutions, organizations, connections).

Complex relationships and interdependencies among and across the “players” and “society structures” enhance the role and function of each component, ultimately creating, empowering, and sustaining an abusive privileged system. Privilege emerges as a benevolent force, often without any awareness of its power.

I term the members of this abusive system an EDUCATIONAL PRIVILEGE ADVANTAGE COMPLEX.

The “Complex” is graphically displayed in Chart 1:

As Chart 1 displays, there are many “players” involved in the Education Privilege Advantage Complex.  Interrelationships among these “players” is unique for each student.  While admission privileges for some students may span the spectrum of players and motives, admission privileges for other students may be limited to a small group of players to assure admission under questionable criteria.  Each is unique!  Each, however, constitutes legal, ethical, and moral abuses undermining democratic values.  “The system is rigged!” is an oft heard term regarding mobility and opportunity for under-privileged individuals and groups. The harsh reality of this claim is accurate.

The size, scope, and complexity of the “players” involved in ensuring biases and privileges in college/university “Education Privilege Advantage” admissions is overwhelming. It is, in fact, “Brobdingnagian” in proportion, demoralizing in consequence, and immoral in its presence and abuse.  Reform requires awareness of the “players” and a willingness to restrain and to cease the advantages.

Pressures on “players” to ensure admission under any and/or all circumstances becomes the challenge. While we may be inclined to think of college/university admissions as only an effort among players, it is essential we recognize “advantage” extends to a broad arena of activities involving economic and political sectors; this is the society tragedy associated with status, roles, connections, and the social formation. With advantage comes widespread privileging, and vice versa.

A society’s “social formation” is often apparent, but it can also involve hidden dimensions with regard to racial, gender, age, ethnicity, culture, and sexual preference. Recent mass shooting reveal different agenda for shooters, but all seem to reflect a discontent and anger with changes in the power and presence of the society’s social formation. Lack of access to privileges in the social formation brings alienation and anomie.  Many are kept out!

Even celebrities in the current admissions scandal, pleads “Not Guilty,” to giving $500,000.00 to USC as part of athletic recruiting scam, and now awaits a trial for conspiracy to commit fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering, their actions reveal a web of institutionalized biases in admission practices by prestigious colleges and others.

Few deny the admission practices have exposed pervasive illegal, immoral, and unethical practices. Tragically, they are neither new, nor confined to a single school. Chart 1 displayed the spectrum of admission policy players; Table 2 lists some of the institutional and organizational sources of admission policies and practices offering colleges opportunities to adjust and adapt to needs and demands.

Table 1- Selective Admission:

Institution Accommodation

  • Academic Excellence Program Priorities
  • Affiliations with Conference Biases
  • Alumni Legacies
  • Athletic Accommodations (National Rank Status)
  • Civil Rights Issues
  • Donations
  • High School Quality Recognition (Public vs Private)
  • International Student Recommendations
    • National Foreign Policy
    • Special Talent Programs (e.g., Chinese Geneticists)
    • Exchange Programs
    • Treaty Agreements
    • National Security Recruitments
  • Joint College and University Program Agreements
  • Legal Requirements and Regulations of Accrediting Bodies
  • Minority Accommodation Examples
    • Gender
    • Age
    • Race
    • Ethnicity
    • Military Veterans
  • Philanthropy Needs and Philanthropy Applications
  • Test Score Accommodations

What is apparent from the array of Table 1 “Selective Admission” policies and practices is that there is considerable admission latitude for admitting and funding students based on college/university needs and preferences.  The field is not level; rather, it is adjusted by each college/university in accord with its perceived needs and preferences.

Obviously, there is considerable room for abuse by admissions officers and others among administration and faculty. Carefully honed college admission- policies and practices offer a wide array of financial and personal strategies, tactics, and processes to leverage educational advantage for selected students. Many of these policies and practices were started and sustained in different eras and time periods when their implementation was considered a “natural” process.

Advantages extend beyond admissions. Once admitted, students and parents may seek preferential support for academic coursework demands, access to majors, and employment and graduate school placement.  It is favoritism in the service of a continuation of the entrenched “privileging” of “superiority” by wealth, power, position, connections.

Historic and Cultural Traditions of “Privilege”

Although revelations of bias may be recent, the “Education Advantage Complex has been a “privilege” for the wealthy, powerful, and positioned, for centuries. The ethic of helping a friend, a friend of a friend, or a wealthy and influential person is an acceptable ethic. The wealthy have always exerted their power for additional privileges; this is their advantage!

In the example of United States of America (USA), privileged “wealth” classes (e.g. Gilded Age; Jekyll Island) assumed positions of influence demanding and requiring partiality and preference. As a consequence, “privilege” easily evolved into views of biological superiority. Members of lower socio-economic classes (i.e., workers), including immigrants flocking to USA shores, were considered inferior (see Alan Axelrod (2017). The Gilded Age: 1876-1912 Overture to the American Century.  NY: Sterling)

This tragic belief in superiority of genetic and family stock, blatantly evidenced in Nazi genocide efforts, evolved into an “Age” of self-affirming Darwinian principles!

“Look at them! The way they live and dress; their appearance proves our point. We have got to stop them before they form Unions. Imagine, we give them jobs and work, and they complain of their wages and that working conditions are dangerous. Well, if you don’t like it, leave!”

It is notable many wealthy and powerful individuals in USA industry supported Nazi Germany, including Henry Ford, Prescott Bush, and scores of companies with ties to IG Farben and other German industries, were partial to Nazi causes.

Included among the privileged turn-of the century scions are John D. Rockefeller (1839 – 1937), Andrew Carnegie (1835 – 1919), Collis Potter Huntington (1821 – 1900), Cornelius Vanderbilt (May 27, 1794 – 1877), John Pierpont “J. P.” Morgan (1837–1913), George Westinghouse, Jr. (1846 – 1914).  Their beliefs in inferiority and superiority of people as a result of genetic race, ethnicity, and national origin founds its way into IQ Testing, military evaluation of soldiers, institutionalization, family planning and genetic breeding and prevention (Margaret Sanger), theories of behavior (e.g., William McDougall), and wars rooted in the assumed superiority of the European blood lines and achievements, validating invasive brutal wars (e.g., Mexican, Philippines, African Colonization [Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness]).

There was a pervasive implicit and explicit belief in superiority which became a “Zeitgeist,” for the times evolving into justification for policies and practices creating a class, racial, and gender distinctions that has continued to present days.  There are widespread beliefs today among certain government, commercial, and citizens that America’s national and global decline can be attributed to increases in number and influence of non-white populations. The President Trumps iconic MAGA hat’s slogan has now become “Make America White Again!”

Certain colleges and universities (e.g. Ivy League, military academies) were early on identified as prestigious and privileged. Note the number of individuals from these social status ranks holding positions of power in the CIA, State Department, and corporate worlds. Amid their biased and ignorant ways, government, military, and corporate policies and practices were advanced regarding wars, violence, and neoliberal economics.

Tragically, with this came a sense of righteousness for denying Constitutional rights, privileges, and expectations, in favor of their personal biases.  Recent exposes of abuses by former Presidents, Senators, Justice Department members and among Presidents, Congressmembers, and various National Security Agency offices, especially the FBI and CIA, reveal patterns of criminal collusion.

Privilege becomes a moral compass justifying treason and betrayal of Constitutional Rights. Money, power, and position bought friendships and interpersonal ties into a web of privileges. “The ends justify the means,” became the arbiter.

Areas of Privilege Influence and Abuse

  1. College Admission Legacies:

College admission of “Legacies” refers to the process by which children of parents and/or family members who attended the college or school may be given special admission privileges. Sizeable financial donations to college made it difficult to refuse admission to children of alumni, especially when special notes were written extolling the “abilities” of their children, accompanied by reminders of the financial contribution’s alumni have made. Indeed, alumni they may sit on the college’s board of directors, enabling them to secure biased admissions.

“Legacies” are considered a “just” and “legal” practice in admissions under established and acknowledged policies and practices, often written as essential guidelines for admission. Given two “equal” applicants, “Legacy” criteria will be used. Of course, for first-time students whose parents never attended college, and who are relying on their academic and personal records, “Legacy” constitutes disadvantage.

Today, as liberal arts colleges face serious financial challenges, recruitment official go out and seek admissions, offering a tempting partial scholarship ultimately requiring students to seek expensive loans.  At least quotas are filled, and this keep administrators happy, and mora pangs are comforted.

Talented “non-legacies” are often denied entry as the quota number of admissions is reached.  The bottom line is to gain admission by any means possible. If applicants come from a recognized high school, have a high GPA, high test scores and application “virtues” (volunteerism, special skills and talents; racial, gender, ethnic, and international considerations), admission decisions are clear. Numbers are massage, however, to provide admission to those who graduate from prestigious “Ivey” high schools.  After all, a “C” at that school is considered equal to an “A” at the public inner-city school.

Ultimately, the spectrum of possibilities guaranteed by “privilege” extends beyond admission!  You can’t play the game, if you’re not in the arena!” The game involves far more than admission; it extends to the following:

  1. Tuition:

Will scholarships or aid be offered? To be eligible, parents often try to hide and deceive their income and access to wealth. When asked to list available finances, parents will engage in many tactics to present the student as being in “urgent” financial need.

This can mean deception about varied financial resources which are available including grandparents, distant relatives, hidden accounts, secret trusts, expected windfalls. The deception is, of course, a crime, and represents fraud, but sky-rocketing costs of college and school tuition, lead many students and parents to misrepresent their actual financial status. Parents often will reject offers of gifts from grandparents so the parental income level remains below a certain standard for scholarship eligibility.  Many tactics are used to reduce income to enhance funding.

Lying, deceit, misrepresentation, exaggeration, fraud, dishonesty, have become commonplace in applications for scholarship assistance.  Costs are enormous, and families incur debt to help student school and college admissions and costs.  Many are now asking students to attend low tuition community colleges or junior colleges to reduce expenses, relying on a good junior college record for subsequent admission and scholarships.

Student tuition loan burdens now amount to trillions of dollars. This burden can never be repaid under current financial situations. Loan procedures favor banks, and high tuition costs favor colleges and schools seeking to expand services to attract student.  Monthly re-payments become onerous demands for low-income students and families.

The single example of a billionaire alumni and graduation speaker’s decision to pay for the tuition loans and debt for graduates at Morehouse College in Atlanta raises the hope other billionaires can follow example.  After all, the cost of $40 million dollars in the context of $5 billion dollars will not force the donor into poverty.

Scores of college-degree mills prey upon students, promising high paying jobs and social status with minimal time and travel efforts. Online courses offer convenience. The ploy: enormous tuition expenses. Government has done little or nothing to address this problem; a US Senator has raised questions about degree mills. It is not about the paper! Too many graduates hold degrees, but lack skill sets and abilities to fulfill job-placement requirements.

  1. Living Costs (Room, Board, Transportation, Social Life):

Admission alone does not consider college or school survival. Living costs must be included.  For the wealthy movie stars and powerful families revealed in the recent scandalous expose at USC, Ivy League Universities, and other prestigious universities, living costs may not be a problem given exorbitant wealth. Cars, clothes, dining can assume outrageous proportion for college. Consider the number of wealthy students driving expensive cars and living extravagantly on a given prestige campus: status, identity, party, favors!

For the “advantaged,” this is simply part of college life. For the poor, often minority students, this is a resentful assault on their identity. Once again, advantage is sourced and hidden in many ways and with many tactics. Scholarships are deemed by those who can afford costs to be a way to preserve wealth, often by denying and avoiding wealth’s existence.  Big lies and little white lies abound.

  1. Course Grades and GPA (Grade-Point Accumulation):

Grades help determine a student’s academic standing and rank. When seeking school admission or employment, the student’s GPA is a visible index of ability and skill potential.  Thus, advantages are to be found in paid tutors, testing-takers, term-paper writers, special relationships with professors, including supporting scholarly and research costs with gifts.

  1. Major Field or Specialization:

Access and acceptance into a college field or major specialization may be competitive because of limited faculty, scholarly, and research facilities). Here “advantage” may be had by gifts, donations, and special privileges.

  1. Prestigious Fraternity and Sorority Memberships

Fraternities and sororities vary in prestige across different campuses. There are advantages to belonging to certain groups in terms of subsequent ties and contacts. Parents will often engage in contact with friends or acquaintances to gain acceptance into a particular group. Sometimes the process is hidden, but clearly based on family ties and wealth (e.g., Skull & Bones at Yale).  Among sororities, although this is denied, certain sisterhoods are considered more prestigious. To wear their pin elicits pride and arrogance.

After all of these advantages are pursued, many capable students are denied admission to the arena, and resources for succeeding. Too often, they are compelled to work to survive, limiting their time for studies.

Consequences of “The Education Advantage Complex”

While the disadvantaged cry “foul,” the advantaged often disregard the consequences of their privileged position. Consider the issue of freedom. Freedom is a function of the number of choices a person may have available, and this is a function of societal formation status: rich have more choices than poor; men have more choices than women; whites have more choices than Blacks or Latinos; educated have more choices than unschooled. Status markers shape opportunity.

In these examples, unprivileged and under-privileged groups are faced with major barriers to upward mobility and changes in their status. The absence of “mobility” seals fate! Hope fades! Chances for changing life are diminished.

At the core of the “privilege” issue is individual and societal differences! Diversity! Diversity has become a socio-political issue of considerable debate and controversy. But diversity is also much more. Diversity relates to biological variation, a necessity for life’s survival by offering choices.  This is also true for cultural diversity. As cultures change and evolve, variations in values, beliefs, and behavior become socialized and institutionalized. This is true for “underprivileged” struggling to penetrate

Closing Thoughts . . .

Privilege! Advantage! Benefit! Help! Assist! Support! This is the lexicon of privilege!  A timeless process in which opportunities are sized for pursuing and achieving certain goals. Privilege has been used across the ages by those in with wealth, power, and position, and the skills and abilities to maximize their desires for obtaining and perpetuating their status and role.

It is difficult to deny the impulse in a timeless world in which competition assumed survival, adaptation, adjustment, and a chance or opportunity to ensure position and to become more, to enhance status, and comforts and conveniences will continue.

This has been the historic story of the “wealthy” and the “poor!”  Should society now pretend it is angry with this ancient story, and make examples of those “40” who have been caught and identified.  When should examples of unethical, illegal, and criminal prosecution of education privilege advnatge cease?  This a is a provocative question!

In a society which privileges some members because of wealth, power, position, and/or birth, privileging is accepted as a right! The forty indicted individuals violated laws and committed crimes, although they contend have not. They must be prosecuted free of the biases of privilege they violated, especially in this time when privilege offered Jeffrey Epstein latitude to elude prosecution for what appears to be connections with wealth, power, and position.

The outcome of the cases current being prosecuted remains to be seen. There is, however, irony in the fact society approves and values privilege, far beyond education, for its privileged members.

“What about me?” asks the poor Latina unnoticed by anyone, picking vegetables in the California fields, her intellectual, artistic, and leadership talents are surging; she says to her mother: I want to be President of the USA! “Yes,” the mother, says, “Maybe someday – You, or your children or grandchildren.”


Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D., a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, Emeritus Professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii’s Manoa Campus in Honolulu, Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu.  He is known internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 21 books and more than 300 articles, tech reports, and popular commentaries. His TMS articles may be accessed HERE and he can be reached at

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 2 Sep 2019.

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One Response to “Privilege and Education Advantage”

  1. Diane Perlman, PhD says:

    Thanks Tony, This is such an important issue – thank you for raising awareness of this. Many of us privileged are oblivious to it until it comes to our attention. I have noticed significant differences at an early age between students at my children’s school doing an activity with children less privileges. Everything should be done to level the playing field, and to compensate with educational advantages.