The College Admissions Scandal Presses Our ‘Unfairness’ Button

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- There’s a much-viewed video on the internet showing how a capuchin monkey reacts when it gets rewarded for a task with a bit of boring cucumber while the capuchin in the next cage gets a grape for the same task. The wronged primate throws the cucumber back at the experimenter in rage and disgust, then reaches through a hole and pounds the counter before slamming the cage’s clear plastic wall with both fists. Unspoken: “Gimme a damn grape, lady.”

Parents of college-bound students are reacting with equally righteous indignation to a new admissions cheating scandal, in which Hollywood celebrities and CEOs are accused of paying bribes to help their kids cut in line to get into top universities. In a March 12 court filing, the federal government said clients paid a combined $25 million in bribes to sports coaches and college administrators from 2011 to 2018 to get their kids into such schools as Yale, Stanford, the University of California at Los Angeles, and Georgetown.

Unfairness triggers a part of the brain called the anterior insula that causes feelings of contempt or disgust. It’s the part of the brain that saved our ancestors’ lives by telling them not to eat rotten meat. Judging from the firestorm on social media, Americans seem far more disturbed by this scandal than by the preferential access given to, say, children of alumni or wealthy donors. That might be because people see those breaks as just part of the way the world works. Even if you don’t like it, you can sort of understand why a university would look favorably on an application from a young woman whose parents just gave $25 million for a new student union. Schools need money. In contrast, there’s no rough justice in this scandal. Those enriched were corrupt officials, not the schools.

Among the parents charged were Gordon Caplan, the co-chairman of the Willkie Farr & Gallagher law firm in New York; Manuel Henriquez, chief executive officer of Hercules Capital; and Douglas Hodge, the former CEO of Pacific Investment Management Co. All three declined to comment. William Singer, the founder of a California-based test prep business said to be at the heart of the scandal, has pleaded guilty.

The manipulations were carried out in the strictest secrecy. One alleged trick was to arrange for a student to take the SAT or the ACT with a corrupt proctor who would fix wrong answers. Another was to get a coach to ask the admissions office to admit a student under an athletic preference—including in cases where the student didn’t even play the coach’s sport. Outrageously, some of the conspirators are accused of photoshopping pictures of kids into sports scenes to make them look like legitimate athletes.

What makes this scandal possible is that college admissions criteria are opaque and sometimes arbitrary. Some applicants get in because of good grades and high test scores. Others are admitted because the university needs a fullback or a cellist. Others because Mom or Dad is a loyal and generous alum. Still others get in for racial or geographic diversity. There are legitimate arguments for all of these, but the upshot is that it’s much easier to cheat when the system is a black box than when admissions are based solely on, say, an (honestly proctored) ACT or SAT.

It’s hard not to compare this scandal to the lawsuit accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian-American applicants, in part by giving them lower personal ratings than students of other races. Students for Fair Admissions, led by activist Edward Blum, wants the university to abandon race as a factor in admissions. In August the Justice Department backed the plaintiffs, saying the use of a “vague personal rating,” including “likability” and “human qualities,” illegally disadvantages Asian-American applicants by invoking stereotypes. Whether or not you think race should be considered in admissions, it’s hard not to sympathize with Asian-Americans who feel they’re being told by Harvard that they, as an ethnic group, are less likable.

Those most outraged by the admissions cheating scandal are the ones who applied to, say, Yale and didn’t get in and will now forever be convinced that it’s because of someone else’s bribery or photoshopping. This is the segment of society that Brookings Institution senior fellow Richard Reeves calls “dream hoarders” in a 2017 book by the same name. Not getting into the Ivy League is a First World problem. Those middle-class and blue-collar Americans who never even applied to an elite school are understandably less wrought up—especially because they, unlike the dream hoarders, have had less reason to believe in the first place that life is fair.

The oddity of all this is that while admission to an Ivy League university or other top school is prized beyond gold itself in one stratum of society, the main reason that grads of the Stanfords and Harvards are successful in later life isn’t the arches or the ivy but the fact that they were smarter and harder-working than other students to start with. Stacy Dale of Mathematica Policy Research and Alan Krueger, an economist at Princeton, controlled for hard-to-observe differences in ability in a 2011 paper and found that the difference in earnings of students who went to the most selective schools and those who went to other schools was “indistinguishable from zero.”

Then again, the connections made in elite colleges can be extremely valuable, particularly so for students who aren’t especially smart or motivated and wouldn’t have been admitted on their own merits. For them, cheating may have paid. That’s as infuriating to us as it would be to those capuchin monkeys. —With Erik Larson, Janelle Lawrence, and Patricia Hurtado

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Eric Gelman at egelman3@bloomberg.net

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.