Let’s not throw out all “merit” because of the “Admissions-Bribery Scandal”

My goodness, people have gotten very excited about the “Admissions-Bribery Scandal” that’s involved eight universities and 45 or so kids of very very rich (and frankly not very smart) parents. Frank Bruni finds it both galling and not surprising. John Warner says its a reason to eliminate all “competition” within higher education. Many many folks on Twitter and Social Media are using this story an example of how all college admissions is a crock and based entirely on how much money you have, it’s all corrupt, burn it all down, etc., etc.

As a thought experiment, I thought I’d contemplate some ways in which merit and admission to college in this country isn’t completely broken.

  • Access to education at any level has never been universally fair, and people who are wealthy have always had better access to education. I’m not just talking in the U.S. and I’m not just talking about the last 20 or 50 years. I mean it has never been fair anywhere, it has been that way for thousands of years, and it has been that way everywhere. Sure, there is better access to higher education in some other places in the world, notably European countries with a Democratic-Socialist tradition of funding education as a societal good. Though it is also worth pointing out that in most of these countries, students are “tracked” into a path that leads to either trade school or university in the American equivalent of high school. There isn’t much of a tradition in these places of community colleges or open admission universities.
  • I’m not saying this inequity is justified (it’s not) and I’m not saying we should do what we can to eliminate it (we should). I’m just saying it’s not at all new. The rich have always gotten richer. And as long as we’re talking about access and inequity issues relative to history: don’t forget that 100 years ago in this country, lots and lots of public universities in this country did not admit women or people of color.
  • The details of this particular scandal are pretty gross. The details about the daughter of Lori “Aunt Becky” Laughlin are particularly icky. Olivia Jade doesn’t seem particularly interested in being in college,  though she does seem to like to hang out on a yacht in the Bahamas with one of her friends who happens to be the child of a billionaire who happens to be chair of USC’s Board of Trustees.
  • But paradoxically, the fact that this small group of super rich people (about 50) felt compelled to break the law to get to get their kids (about 45 total) into some selective universities is evidence that the admissions systems mostly works. This is the exception that proves the rule.
  • Let’s also not forget that there are few “selective” institutions in this country. That’s what makes them “selective,” and thus not the way that most of higher education works. In his excellent book A Perfect Mess, David Labaree says of the 4700 or so institutions that count as “higher education” in this country, there are only 191 that are “selective” to the point where they accept less than half of the students that apply. So again, the eight universities involved in this scandal (and more specifically the rogue-operating people at these places and especially the University of Southern California) are outliers.
  • I cannot imagine any scenario where anyone would pay a bribe of any amount to get into EMU, but let’s think for a moment about the idea of rich people giving huge donations to get rich kids into the right college. Let’s take the example of Jared Kushner’s father paying Harvard $2.5 million to let him in. On the one hand, that’s unethical, slimy, and maybe not illegal but still wrong. Especially when we’re talking about a place like Harvard, this is just the rich getting richer. But at least that donation to the university does end up benefiting other students, at least indirectly. And I have to say: if someone offered to donate $1 million to EMU on the condition that all of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were automatically admitted to the university, I sure hope we’d take that deal.
  • But yes, people who have resources have a significant advantage in accessing higher education, and that problem is made all the more acute in this country with the dumb way we fund K-12 schooling, mostly with local property taxes. I do not think this is fair either, and it is also why real estate in communities that are known for its good schools costs more– and vice versa. It’s also probably the easiest and most common way for families with modest means to improve the chances for their children to get into a good college: move to a town with good public schools.
  • I live in Ypsilanti, a town with so-so public schools. For reasons too complicated to go into here, my wife and I sent our only child to an expensive private school in Ann Arbor. We did this because education (not surprisingly) is a high priority for us, and we were fortunate/lucky enough to be able to afford it (barely) because of our jobs, because of some help from our families, and because we only have one child. I do feel a tinge of guilt once in a while regarding this decision, but besides the fact that it has turned out well, I don’t think it is at all unreasonable for any parent to try to do the best they can for their children’s education– as long as it’s legal.
  • This kind of access to private schooling was new to me (I went to some Catholic grade schools but mostly public schools), and it revealed a lot about how even a modest amount of wealth can dramatically change the game. The private school we sent our child to had shockingly small classes, highly professional faculty, a progressive curriculum not bogged down by an overemphasis on testing, and extra-curricular experiences for all students regardless of abilities. This school carefully groomed students for elite higher education from sixth grade on, and by the time actually applying to college rolls around, the level of support in terms of writing entrance essays, taking exams, contemplating different schools, meeting with recruiters– it’s all a completely different world.
  • I also saw the extreme anxiety these affluent parents had about making sure their kids got into an elite college. I’ll never forget this event my wife and I went to for parents of kids who would be applying to college the following year. It was a “Q&A” session put on by the college admissions advisors. Among other things, they talked about the need for test prep, for working carefully through those essays, about strategies for taking the SAT multiple times, and about how it was important to apply to eight to twelve schools to get admitted to the right one. All of these rich and super-earnest parents were just so tense, and I just sat there thinking of my own experience of taking the ACT once and applying to exactly one state university which didn’t require anything beyond a simple application. Like I said, a different world.
  • Which, to circle back to this specific cheating scandal, makes this situation all the more bizarre and what I still do not understand. With all of the advantages these rich people have, why did they have to so brazenly break the law to get their kids into modestly elite colleges? I’ve heard the argument before that folks like Lori Laughlin didn’t know any better because she didn’t go to college herself. I don’t believe that at all, but besides that, most of the parents involved with this were business executives, and I presume most of those people had college degrees. Or maybe they cheated their way into college in a similar fashion?
  • Last but not least: if universities eliminated measures of merit as a way of deciding who to admit– that is get rid of all test scores, grades, application essays, whatever else– how would universities decide? We should continue to strive to make the process more fair of course, but shouldn’t the process be based at least in part on merit in the form of grades, test scores, extracurriculars, etc.?

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