Musings on the US College Admissions Scandal

5 Apr

I have actually been planning to write about the recent scandal – in which a number of wealthy (and quasi-famous, although I hadn’t heard of most of them) parents used various illegitimate methods to ensure their children went to college – for some time, but a combination of health issues and a desire to say something that hadn’t been said about the affair stayed my keyboard. Obviously, not everyone is going to agree with me here, but I think these are valid points. Feel free to comment below if you disagree.

I wasn’t particularly surprised by the affair, but I was angered. Any complex system – and college admissions is both insanely complex and largely opaque – can be gamed by people with money and connections. It isn’t that hard to get special treatment for your children, by having them declared dyslexic or autistic or something … a maddening fact to those of us who do have learning disabilities. In a sense, the admissions scandal is maddening to just about everyone in the civilised world. One could not have asked for a better demonstration of just how the system is rigged … and just how badly the system is rigged. If one has to have an elite composed of cheating bastards, it is too much to ask that they are competent cheating bastards?

There are, I feel, two aspects of the situation that have gone largely unmentioned. One of them is an issue that most people would regard as completely illegitimate, not without reason; the other has more to do with how the American educational establishment managed to get itself into this mess in the first place. It may be accurate, and I suspect that most people would agree with me, but it is not politically correct. Unfortunately, any system largely isolated from the outside world – and academia is often isolated from the rest of the US, let alone the rest of the world – is prone to allowing political correctness to override common sense. One cannot tackle a problem without a careful examination of the causes and a workable plan to deal with them. Allowing oneself to become deluded about the true cause ensures nothing, but failure and (eventual) humiliation.

First, the weakness of the elites.

There are two basic truths throughout human history. First, all societies larger than a mid-sized village will inevitably develop an elite. The combination of concentrated wealth, social complexity and the desire to pass an established position down to one’s children makes sure of it. Second, elites find it difficult to combine the need to keep the power within the family – so to speak – while bringing new blood into the system. As the elites grow stronger, they draw lines between themselves and the lower classes. It therefore becomes harder for talented commoners to marry into the elites, bringing with them new ideas and a solid grasp of the real world.

The first generation of aristocrats, therefore, might be very capable indeed – the first kings were pretty much lucky warlords – but later generations, not having experienced the struggle to establish themselves, are often less capable. A cursory study of monarchy within Britain, for example, reveals a series of competent and very capable kings being followed by incompetent and incapable successors. This happens, at least in part, because the later generations have a tendency to assume that their inheritance – their privilege, as modern-day academia would probably put it – is theirs by right. They didn’t have to earn it and, therefore, they rarely grasp that they have to maintain it. They are therefore unprepared for trouble, rarely capable of dealing with it … and, because they are disconnected from the real world, they have a nasty tendency to listen to people who tell them what they want to hear. This is at least partly why Hilary Clinton lost in 2016.

The ideal of America – the American Dream – is that a man can start poor and work his way up to the very top. In the past, it happened. Most of America’s best leaders and industrialists came from hardy, but poor stock. Democracy served as a way to ensure that the leaders did not lose contact with the commoners, as the leaders who did tended to lose power. This wasn’t a problem as long as the system worked, as long as newcomers could keep rising to the top. However, the concentration of wealth and power ensured that the elites became more isolated from the commoners. They lost touch.

What is truly maddening about the whole admissions affair is that the elites are not even following their own self-interests any longer. It is clearly in their interest for elite colleges (Yale, Harvard, etc) to work properly, ensuring that talented newcomers are inducted into the elites while also preparing the children of the elites to take their place amongst the powerful when their parents pass on. There has to be at least a pretence of fairness for the system to work. Everyone who gets into Harvard while clearly being unqualified, be they legacy or affirmative action admissions, clearly weakens the system. If a Harvard degree is worth less than a piece of toilet paper, what does that say about the students who go to Harvard?

The scandal has deeper repercussions than one might expect. One of the purposes of elite colleges, as I noted above, is to allow the well-born to mingle with talented commoners. (A good fictional example of such a system is the Slug Club from Harry Potter.) There is little pretence that a wealthy man’s son genuinely earned his place, although he might have done. Rubbing shoulders with the established aristocracy, however defined, is the point! But if talented commoners are being pushed out by elitist parents rigging the system, what does that say about them? Those parents are not even capable of preparing their children for the modern world. Indeed, they are actively harming the best interests of their social class.

In one sense, this is a reflection of a greater disease sweeping the West. There is a pronounced tendency to mistake a symbol for the thing itself. Thus, we are told that a treaty with Iran is a good idea even though it is a profoundly bad treaty … and Iran didn’t bother to keep it anyway. In academia (and writing, I admit) one can draw up all sorts of theories and imaginary worlds, without ever actually testing them. It’s easy for people to believe nonsense when they are never asked to actually prove their theories. Therefore, the ‘acceptable’ opinion is not the objectively right opinion, but the politically acceptable opinion. There is no room for questioning orthodoxy. This ensures that universities are increasingly held in contempt by outsiders, who comprise the vast majority of the American population. This is a recipe for trouble.

One can understand a ‘damn you, I’ve got mine’ attitude from the elites. It isn’t pleasant, but it has been a battlecry of the elites throughout history. But what is one to make of an elitist system that is literally eating itself?

The second aspect is more controversial, politically speaking. And, if you don’t mind, I’m going to start with an anecdote.

My primary schooling was a failure, even after I was (eventually) diagnosed with dyslexia. I spent four years at a hellish boarding school, where I was probably the most academically successful student during the school’s final years. And then I spent my last two years of secondary education at a mundane school, where I discovered – to my horror – that I was probably a C-student at best. There were so many gaps in my education, so many things I that hadn’t mastered, that I was dangerously behind my peers. I had hoped to take so many classes the hellhole hadn’t offered, only to be told I hadn’t made the grade. My career ambitions had been dashed long before I’d even formed them. I considered becoming a lawyer, for example, but by the time I discovered what the requirements actually were it was far too late to try to meet them. My hopes and dreams had been squashed before I had ever come to realise that I might have a future.

(There is another problem that is rarely acknowledged. If you remove a legal – i.e. arbitrary – barrier between any given group and a profession, it still takes some time for a newcomer to qualify to practice. There will be a lag between the members of the group being allowed to train and actually graduating. This inevitably irks those who want immediate results.)

In some ways, I was lucky. My parents were determined to help me. They never sneered at the idea of learning. And my near-complete social isolation probably kept me from embracing my peers and forgoing my education, although – as it was a bad school – it probably wouldn’t have made any difference to the final outcome. But it didn’t matter. I had so many gaps in my education, so many things I hadn’t been allowed to master before being rushed on to the next thing, that I looked doomed. I suppose I should be grateful they weren’t trying to teach me how to write <grin>.

Education – particularly STEM education – requires a solid grasp of the basics before moving on to advanced studied. Students must be able to read and write, to comprehend, contextualise and compose … it simply isn’t easy, as I found out, to catch up when you’ve been left behind. A gap in your knowledge from when you’re a child may ensure that you never catch up, particularly if your teacher is unaware of your lack and/or unwilling to help you. If you start your education in a poor school, you will be hampered for life.

Schools aren’t the only problem. If you grow up in a deprived inner city, for example, you will face social exclusion yourself if you try to study hard. Your peers will condemn you for trying to better yourself. (This is true even in racially-homogenous districts.) Your teachers will be poor, either because decent teachers shun such assignments or because they’re hampered by absurd rules handed down by political elitists who don’t know the reality on the ground or simply don’t care. It is hard to study, it is hard to better yourself, when you have no father (or mother), crime is rife, drugs are freely available … indeed, it is far easier to blame outside forces for your problems than look to yourselves. A student who grows up in such an environment is unlikely to match, academically speaking, someone who has both the drive and the resources to make use of it.

This creates a nasty little problem. A student from a deprived area is unlikely – by any objective measure – to make the grade to enter college. They simply haven’t had the advantages enjoyed by students from better areas, everything from better teachers to parents and peers who are actively encouraging. However, as many deprived students in the US are either black (or minority-majority), this looks like racism to subjective outsiders, to whom the absence of non-whites is prima facie evidence of racism. To ward off challenges, colleges therefore use affirmative action and lower the entry requirements for selected minority groups. This is, as I noted above, a belief that problems can be solved by making things look better. The fact that the real issue is still allowed to fester is neither here nor there.

Unsurprisingly, this causes resentment. Parents and students who think other students have an unfair advantage start muttering darkly – “if she only had to meet two-thirds of the requirements to get in, is she only two-thirds as good?” – and they get angry. Why should they not? The recent lawsuits challenging Harvard’s admissions of Asian-Americans are only the tip of the iceberg. Why should Asians have to jump through more hoops – most of which are painfully subjective – when they did nothing to deserve it? It gets more poisonous if the AA students genuinely are unprepared for college. They look bad, which – because they’re often the only lower-class students the elitist kids will meet – tends to taint elitist attitudes to their peers.

The admissions scandal intersects with this in several different ways. The more complex a system becomes, the easier it is for corrupt staff and students to ‘game’ it. It is relatively simple to boost a student’s prospective standing, particularly when one understands how the game is really played. Everything from learning disabilities to racial origin and sporting skills can be used … the student, as we have learned, doesn’t even have to play sports to qualify. In short, the complexity provides an unfair advantage to wealthier parents … one that, unlike making massive donations to the college, doesn’t even offer advantages to the entire institution. Why should people not be angry about this?

It is, in many ways, worse than I suggest above. People do not get angry, by and large, about a third (or whatever) of college slots going to legacy admissions. They go to college to meet legacy admissions. But the admissions scandal actually limits the number of places open to everyone else, whatever their colour or creed. Of course it does. If an AA slot can be claimed by someone who cannot, in any real sense of the word, be described as ‘deprived,’ what does this mean for someone who genuinely is deprived?

The core of the problem is two-fold. First, many students (and not just those from deprived areas) do not meet the objective academic requirements to enter higher education. In a just world, there would be no debate; if a student cannot pass the entrance exam, they shouldn’t be allowed to go to college. However, this contrasts with both the practical need to keep legacy admissions (and the donations they bring) and kowtow to the social justice zealots. There is no easy way to deal with the problem, thus enforcing a complex admissions system … and therefore encouraging both racial and class resentment.

But the deeper problem is that primary education (in both Britain and America) is largely unsuited to purpose. Kids who fall behind – and many of them do – rarely have a chance to catch up. Instead, they find themselves hopelessly unprepared, either for college/university or the real world. Fixing education would, I think, fix many of the problems facing us today. It would not, however, be an easy task. It would require a degree of long-term thinking that is alien to our modern-day elites. It would also require a cold, unemotional examination of the facts, one that discarded political correctness for objective correctness.

And that might be the hardest thing of all.

14 Responses to “Musings on the US College Admissions Scandal”

  1. G April 5, 2019 at 4:26 pm #

    The effects are even broader…In U.S. K-12, outcomes are so different for various racial groups that we’re obsessively focusing on closing achievement gaps–but not only have these programs proven ineffective, but the more we focus on basic standards, the more average and above average students (who have learned the material) are left bored and disengaged in school…watering down public education. Parents then pull their children out of public schools for charter or private schools…creating more inequalities…

  2. kd7fds April 5, 2019 at 4:35 pm #

    The problem for Asian American students is that they perform so well Academically, compared to other racial groups, that the colleges decided they were over represented in their institutions and raised the requirements just for Asian American students to attend their institutions.

  3. Billy April 5, 2019 at 4:52 pm #

    If you dig deeper:

    Liberals have pushed the idea of * Quotas * or Affirmative Action . Where collages and companies and government favor some groups of people over others.

    Like my experience when I got out of high school and went to apply at the post office.
    Everyone took a test and you were hired depending on how well you did on the test.

    The top test grade was 100

    Except: If you were a woman you got 10 extra points(Before you took the test.
    If you were a member of a minority the same, If you were ever in the military the same.
    And maybe one or two other things.

    So, being a white male just out of high school , even if I made 100 , I was out of luck.

    And they let me know if somehow despite all that by a fluke all those other people made 100 on the test (Because of all those extra points) and did not get to 160 or more.

    They would pick those categories instead of me.

    So, back to the school thing. Those ultra rich * white * liberals supported those laws for
    * Quotas * and Affirmative Action But those things locked the rich ultra white liberals out of college. Because they are white.
    Well except that one that said she was a Indian so she could get in. Google Pocahontas .
    (I am sure that lots of other people do the same)

    Those rich ultra white liberals are smarter than me as they came up with a way to support Quotas and Affirmative Action which locks them out of college , yet they can still get in.

    Just give the colleges millions in bribes.

    That is why they gave millions and bribes so they could go to college yet support Quotas and Affirmative Action.

    It is not logical, it is Liberal

    I just had a thought , since Liberals are supporting 10,000 genders and identities could not
    the straight white men on the college forms and job forms put down that we were Indian women and thus get to the front of the line on getting into college ?

    And if they say that is not correct we can point to Pocahontas (Excuse me I forgot her real name) and I think a lot of other liberals that did stuff like that.

    The old saying good for the goose good for the gander now can be good for the gander good for the goose.

  4. Kevin MooreKevin Moore April 5, 2019 at 4:52 pm #

    Meh. It became politically desirable for the politicians to destroy the effectiveness of US public schools in the 1970s. They started by eliminating the civics classes which taught American children their rights and how government works. This was a response to the civil disobedience of that era. They have continued a program of intentionally destroying public education while moving public tax money to fund private schools and “charter schools” which are privately run and genearally are even less effective than grossly underfunded public schools.
    This is an attempt to create a class-based society in the US.

  5. Timothy A Schmidt April 5, 2019 at 5:21 pm #

    You say these things like they are a horrible failure. Despite the fact that women and minorities are increasingly succeeding at American universities and at the careers that those universities enable them to pursue. In prior years, before these decisions you decry, the elite universities were almost entirely a white male preserve.
    Also, the people being caught up in this scandal are not really part of what I think of as the elite. Yes, they are wealthy, most of them actors and such but they don’t control industries and aren’t politically powerful. The children of those families don’t have to cheat to get into prestige universities.
    As for Kevin’s comments, they are for the most part true, except that they are the causes most supported by conservatives, not liberals.

  6. Dani April 5, 2019 at 10:17 pm #

    > the elites are not even following their own self-interests any longer.
    > It is clearly in their interest

    ‘Elites’ may be a vacant abstraction here. There isn’t obviously a cohesive group with cohesive interests. The case of admissions is closer to being a problem of the commons: The benefit I realize by helping my nephew nepotistically far exceeds my share of the long-term cost. Especially if I don’t feel any particular kinship to other people who can afford similar shenanigans.

  7. Bob April 5, 2019 at 11:35 pm #

    I would love to read your ideas/thoughts about the last paragraph and how to or what to fix in the current educational system..As hard as it may be, somebody somewhere needs to step up and just do it..I. Chicago, in Detroit, in south LA, and on and on…
    Terrific essay..
    Thank you for your honesty.

  8. Ann April 6, 2019 at 1:29 am #

    Stop drinking the university’s coolaide.

    University isn’t meant for everyone and has never included the most intelligent and diligent people.The ‘benefits’ of a university degree were based on a fraction of the population attending and completing a degree or several degrees and moving into the small number of job vacancies.

    Unless people are attending a STEM or near equivalent program few will get a job worth the debt and so many people are getting degrees that they’ve become devalued..

    So wealthy families do have a benefit as their kids have no debt even if no job benefit degree. As previously mentioned by another Elites aren’t a coherent group and are only a group when looked from below.

    An unmentioned issue is wealthy kids paying others to complete tests and sometimes classwork for them but the kids know they are incompetent so probably will never try to take up the profession..

    What isn’t limited is startup businesses with innovative products and making existing products cheaper, faster, simpler, more recyclable, using less power, etc.

    Smart diligent sociable people will always be valued with or without university degrees and will be more employable and better retained but AI and robotic developments are going to totally change many jobs.

    University past performance of moving students into wealth and success does not indicate it can still do that. Was it ever the university doing or was it mostly the students.

  9. PhilippeO April 6, 2019 at 4:16 am #

    Seconded Timothy A Schmidt

    1) These parents are “new money”, they are not “true” elites who could get their children through legacy admission, sports scholarship, or massive donations.

    2) Affirmative Action student is QUALIFIED, Harvard (and other Ivy) is so small and America is so large that for every student there are 10000 other student who also qualify. You didn’t need that high SAT score to become mediocre student.

    3) The Value of Elite University is CONNECTION, not education itself. Mediocre student who spend his day drinking and smoking weed would have better future than brilliant STEM student from mediocre universities.

    4) You have very gold-colored glasses view on past. Ever heard of Boston Brahmin, WASP, or Social Register ? Most Elites in America come from wealthy families.

    yes, there are exception, but a) they are very small number of elites b) concentrated in “new” industries like railroad. Horatio Alger story is not reality

  10. Jack Hudler April 6, 2019 at 7:20 am #

    In all honesty we always knew this was going on in one form or another. I’m surprised at they got got caught.

  11. Big Ben April 6, 2019 at 4:48 pm #

    I am shocked! SHOCKED, I say!

    Look at all those buildings on every university campus the world over with some guys name on it (and it’s almost always a male name) and understand that they were built with obscene donations that insured their descendants would get into that institution no matter how inbred they became.
    Why is everyone so outraged? This has only been going on for centuries.

    I read in the news last week that some of Jared Kushner’s high school teachers came forward and said that he wasn’t intelligent enough to get into an Ivy League school on his own merits. But around a year before he graduated high school his daddy made a 2.5 million dollar donation to Harvard and whaddya know, he’s accepted! This was well known as it was told about in a 2006 book and brought up repeatedly since 2016.
    Now he’s got a cushy job sucking up taxpayers money while doing nothing effective in Daddy-In-Law’s lastest money making scheme and it’s another brick in the insurmountable wall of nepotism.

    The irrefutable fact of the matter is that money trumps all, even political power, religious beliefs, morals, basic fairness and decency.
    And if any of you won a half billion dollar lottery you’d end up doing exactly the same things … I’m honest enough to know that I would.

    • G April 6, 2019 at 7:52 pm #

      The flip side is private universities wouldn’t exist if wealthy families hadn’t given money—the scholarship student wouldn’t HAVE a scholarship if wealthy families hadn’t given $$-so yeah, if you donate $30 million to build a building, or endow scholarships for 20 poor students, your family also gets privileged access. The key is the societal benefit vastly outweighs the cost…

    • JDow April 19, 2019 at 7:28 am #

      Big Ben, as it happens I attended a serious college prep school. You do not graduate from such a school with honors and low grades or gimme grades. He attended a Yeshiva school, a Jewish equivalent of the Episcopalian based school I attended. I would dearly love to find some solid documentation for your assertion about his high school career. It violates my experience. I am aware of the allegations. They seem to lack documentary proof.

      If “He was an honors student and a member of the debate, hockey, and basketball teams,” then he was fully qualified to enter Harvard even if his school was half as good as mine. My school had 7 Merit Scholarship semi-finalists out of a class of 80. I was pretty much one of the “dummies”, at 65th, and popped College Board scores well into the top couple percent in the nation in the early 60s. Minor dyslexia and a near total lack of socialization held me back from the usual course of my classmates. I went into engineering instead where I did not have to interact as much with people.

      Mitt Romney was a couple years behind me. And the columnist Michael Barone was one of the scholarship students we had. The school was noted for opening a hole in the students’ heads and applying a fire hose of knowledge for us to absorb as best as we could. At least in MY school we did not have any class screw ups such as depicted in Mr. Nuttall’s latest story. Of course, I am fully aware that some such schools as Pinnacle existed. They are where the students academically inept went for “college prep.” I don’t think a Yeshiva school would come in that low academically.

      Your bitterness betrays you as somebody who emotes rather than engages analysis. Some of the prep schools you might have managed to survive. One like mine, no way. And mine was not academically the best that I am aware of, either.

      I was lucky to get the education I received. So were the scholarship students we had. The other schools in the general area were merely “adequate”, with some of the regional public schools placing significant percentages in college while others seemed to place more in prisons than higher education. The Detroit area was starting to get pretty grim about then as it turned into a Democratic Party run “paradise” of corruption.


      • JDow April 19, 2019 at 2:07 pm #

        I hate it when I screw up this way. The story I referenced was Michael Anderle’s latest story. I’ve read too many stories lately.

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