The College Admissions Scandal Is About More Than Just Bribery
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- America’s latest academic scandal has something for anyone who resents or is offended by elitist universities and wealthy celebrities, which is almost everyone. And though their wrongdoing seems obvious, the deeper lessons are mostly about our own hypocrisy — and the rather unflattering view too many Americans hold of higher education.
On Tuesday prosecutors charged dozens of parents for bribing college and test administrators for helping to get their kids into better colleges. The parents paid for their children to receive preferential and indeed illegal privileges, such as inflated test scores and phony athletic credentials. To make the story more salacious, some of those arrested were celebrities, such as Felicity Huffman of “Desperate Housewives,” and the institutions involved were highly prestigious, such as Stanford and Yale.
First, these bribes only mattered because college itself has become too easy, with a few exceptions. If the bribes allowed for the admission of unqualified students, then those students would find it difficult to finish their degrees. Yet most top schools tolerate rampant grade inflation and gently shepherd their students toward graduation. That’s because they realize that today’s students (and their parents) are future donors (and potential complainers on social media). It is easier for professors and administrators not to rock the boat. What does that say about standards at these august institutions of higher learning?
Alternatively, you might think it is rather arbitrary who is admitted to any given university, and that many of those denied admission could get through the program competently, even if classes and grading were made harder. I agree with you. But what does that say about our understanding of these institutions as meritocracies? Parents pay illegal bribes, in part, because many of these institutions just don’t give enough students a fair chance to get in. It is even worse for the many poorer students whose parents are not in a position to offer either bribes or significant donations.
My second worry is that the number of bribery cases suggests that many wealthy Americans perceive higher education to be an ethics-free, law-free zone where the only restraint on your behavior is whatever you can get away with.
I suspect that most of those charged in this case never expected they might have to answer in court for their actions. To consider a parallel situation: I wouldn’t dream of shoplifting. Yet I sometimes drive 32 mph in a 25 mph speed zone. Like most of us, I draw a distinction between laws we are expected to follow, and laws we aren’t.
To me, the number of people caught up in this scandal indicates that too many Americans do not take seriously the idea that our system of higher education is a set of institutions bound by morality and laws. They take its governing rules as optional and conditional, depending on convenience, much as we do many speed-limit signs.
In this case, those charged are mostly wealthy Americans of high social status, not gangsters. They probably thought of themselves as law-abiding Americans, with exceptions so minor as to be negligible. In other words, this case illustrates what a low opinion America has of its system of higher education. As a university professor, I would feel much better if it had been mobsters charged with these alleged crimes.
Another hypocrisy has to do with using legal donations to get into a prestigious college. Universities are loath to admit the details, but if you give a few million dollars to a top school, your children will be given very favorable admissions consideration. More generally, the advantages of coming from a wealthy, well-educated, “upstanding” family are extreme. Some colleges have more students from the top 1 percent than from the bottom 60, in terms of income.
That kind of unbalanced enrollment isn’t mainly because of donations, but still it seems unfair, a sign that a particular kind of early head start is being valued too highly. Which brings me to one final hypocrisy: These inegalitarian results are tolerated, even engineered, by the very same American institutions that pride themselves on their supposedly egalitarian values.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."
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