Sins of Admissions

You might have heard the adage, “There will be prayer in schools as long as there are tests in schools.” The same goes for cheating on tests.

There will be bribery, deception, extortion, and other crimes as long as old Adam walks the earth. That, at least, was my initial reaction to the college-admissions scandal. Are we, to borrow Stanley Fish’s phrase, surprised by sin?

Clearly, however, my reaction was unusual. Many Americans are fixated on the story. Talk radio, I gather, could not get enough of it. What did I miss? America has an elites problem. Again, that is not news. Reconciling our creed of egalitarianism with the reality of elite leadership has been a tricky business since the Founding. Consider the great debate between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on that topic. In our generation, the problem is focused on our schools, the selective ones in particular. Admission to an elite school seems to be the entrée to the upper echelons of American society.

Were we well-governed, and were it apparent that people who are doing well financially seemed to be decent people who treated their fellow Americans with respect, the problem would be much less acute. If the election of Donald Trump signifies anything, it is that many Americans are unhappy. As several commentators have noted, for many, electing Trump was a way of extending a giant, metaphorical middle finger in the direction of our elites.

Kushner and the Bobos

But the Trump-haters also represent an important constituency. Their reaction to the admissions scandal is instructive. The Clinton voters I know tend to have come out of elite schools. They seem to think this scandal is not about elite colleges in general but is confined to “them.” This “them” is the corrupt folks who might brandish credentials they didn’t earn. Jared Kushner, so the story goes, was admitted to Harvard only after his father wrote the institution a very large check. The President’s son-in-law is one of “them.” He did not deserve to be at Harvard. Similarly, he, like the President, is a builder and entrepreneur. That is not the business model preferred by the chattering classes. Other than in the tech industry, the new class, to use a slightly old term for the group David Brooks calls Bobos, does not include old-fashioned entrepreneurs.  

Writing in the Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan, who taught and then served as a guidance counselor at an elite Los Angeles prep school, reflects that a certain number of the parents at the school were the kind of entitled boors who would be perfectly willing to cheat and bribe to get their kid into an elite university.  

One political scientist I know saw a story indicating that at least one of the parents who falsified his offspring’s college application was a Trump supporter. Typical, he thought. Confirmation bias, I thought, for the scandal seems to be mostly focused in coastal cities in blue states and includes Hollywood people. Flanagan notes that the parents she knew tended to be “limousine liberals.” It would in fact be a surprise, to me at least, if MAGA folks predominated. (The Heritage Foundation’s Cully Stimson found that the cheating parents’ political donations are not confined to, but certainly skew toward, the Democratic Party.)

There has also been some discussion on the Left of affirmative action in the context of the scandal. If this nonsense goes on, and if athletes and children of alumni get special treatment, so the logic goes, why is it bad to give a bump to minority applicants? That this attitude clashes with the resentment of the Kushners merely reminds us that few of us are always consistent. Rather than advocating stricter enforcement of merit (or what is understood to be such), in this case the argument is that if the standards don’t always apply, there is no reason not to apply them to ensure a “diverse” student body. (Interestingly, Heather Mac Donald notes that a study of legacy admissions at Middlebury College found that the SAT scores of those admitted because family members were alumni were higher than the class average.)

On the other side, conservatives believe that the current system is fundamentally wrong. Our elite schools have become training grounds for snobbish and materialistic Lefties, rather than places where genuine learning takes place. Moreover, conservatives have a bias against the kind of concentrated system of elite power that today’s “best schools” represent. By contrast, progressives, true to their technocratic roots, are invested in an American version of the ancient Chinese model (the national administrative test). It would work in the United States too were it not for those meddling rich folks, and the way they leverage their resources and connections to even more wealth and power.  

The Trump-supporting types suspect that the scandal is indicative of a broader corruption in our elite institutions in general. There might not be that many who use actual bribery, but the entire system of elite schools and tracking is itself unfair to those who find themselves on the wrong side of the tracks. Perhaps more important is the perception that what goes on on campus is not education but credentialing. That also explains the fascination with the rise of “snowflakes,” “trigger warnings,” “hate-speech regulations” and the like on campus—all are taken by conservatives as signs that these campuses do not deserve the moral, political, or and economic respect they have long enjoyed.

In the 1996 movie Down Periscope, Kelsey Grammer, playing a roguish U.S. Navy captain, is dressed down by an admiral: “You are addressing a superior officer.” He responds, “No. Merely a higher ranking one.” That’s the attitude.

The Inevitability of an Old Boys Network

Finishing school has been with us nearly forever, of course. John Winthrop went to Cambridge University for a couple of years, taking no degree, as befitted a gentleman. Franklin Roosevelt was content with his “gentleman’s C” at Harvard. In the early 20th century, the old boys’ network was very much part of the system. If memory serves, Hotchkiss sent boys to Yale and Exeter sent them to Harvard. So launched, graduates were very well positioned to move into the upper echelons of American society. But before the Progressive Era, the elite class in the United States was more federal than national. It was diverse across the states, and there were a range of ways to break in. Attending Exeter and Harvard was close to sufficient to launch one’s career. It was by no means a necessary condition.

Nowadays, with the rise of a national administrative state, a national and increasingly international economy, and the political and economic institutions that attach to globalism, such credentials threaten to become both necessary and sufficient, unfortunately. We the People don’t seem to have any real ability to rule, or even influence, our government.

Moreover, the same applies increasingly to our culture. Movies friendly to middle America are rare. Networks try to kill shows like Last Man Standing. More broadly, the effort to say that everyone who disagrees with the latest progressive moral fad is a bigot, the equivalent of Bull Connor, generates resentment. Hence the backlash that Trump represents. And hence the MAGA enjoyment of the sight of corrupt elites’ getting exposed. This scandal (unlike some others we could mention) vindicates their votes.

A funny thing happened on the way to technocracy: Few people actually like it. Moreover, as John Adams pointed out long ago, it is not only inevitable that a society will have an elite class, it also seems to be inevitable that many in that class will gain elite status for no good reason. My favorite reaction to The Bell Curve (1994) was an article in Newsweek (if memory serves) showing that good looks give one a much greater boost in life than does IQ. (That was what Adams meant when he called beauty a “talent.” It gives one a edge in life.) The graduates of elite schools who worked their buns off to get where they are are very reluctant to admit that their entire model of how society ought to work is flawed because it ignores human nature. 

The bien pensant technocrats who fill our government bureaucracies and universities assume that what is learned on campus actually matters. Does it? No one wants to come out and say that his or her degree was more about the laying on of hands than about hitting the books. Yet, more and more, that seems to be what’s going on.

It is not just that Trump got elected, although that is a trigger. It is also that crony capitalism—itself partly an artifact of big government, for the more government regulates, the more connections matter, and America is in danger of imitating Europe in this regard—is making some people a great deal more wealthy and powerful than most of our well-credentialed professionals are. That the technocratic/meritocratic model is, in fact, simply one that does not square with human nature or a functioning society is not allowed to be the problem. Supposedly the problem is that corrupt actions—committed by “them”—got in the way.   

My own view is, what kind of fool expected the progressive model to evolve differently? Given human nature, we are witnessing the most likely outcome.

All Is Not Lost

Before signing off, I should add a final note on our schools, elite and otherwise. What are they teaching? I believe it was at a Thanksgiving dinner in graduate school (I was at the University of Virginia) that we found ourselves discussing our undergraduate experiences. Among the assembled, who included people pursuing professional degrees and doctorates in academic subjects, the consensus was that the most memorable and important part of their undergraduate years was not the classroom experience. It was this trip, or that competition, or some other such side activity. I was puzzled, and noted that if what we learn in the classroom is not the heart of college, then we are doing it wrong.  

Perhaps that is too harsh. True education is rare, and few of us really want to make the sacrifices it entails. And great books are often wasted on the young. Not many 18-year-olds can appreciate Marcus Aurelius.

All is not lost on campus, however. So long as there are good books and intelligent teachers, education will (sometimes) happen. Sometimes students who, on paper, have no business being on a particular campus suddenly catch the fire of learning. Mike Piazza was, I gather, drafted in the last round of the baseball draft as a favor to his father by his friend Tommy Lasorda. He is about to enter the Hall of Fame. Such turns, though similarly rare, can also happen in education.  The belief that liberal education can be scaled up to suit an entire democratic society is a myth. Too few want it. Most of us would rather master the art of getting along and getting ahead.

Now that the myth that justifies our national education system is being exposed, we need to figure out what to do next. Mass higher education is the model for a national technocracy. It is a 20th century idea whose time seems to be passing. The admissions scandal is one important sign of that.

Reader Discussion

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on April 11, 2019 at 13:06:51 pm

I recall hearing once that college opened one up to possibilities that one would not otherwise easily have the opportunity to be exposed to. Get involved with the college life, we were told.
Community colleges have a poor record of moving students 'up' in their lives. The explanation is that students live at home, work locally and go take classes but do not get involved in other activities and therefore are not exposed to alternatives.
In a perfect world we learn and are able to expand our minds. That is the crux of education. In the real world people are more interested in affirmation than education. In the closed world of our higher educational systems the members of this group are increasingly closed ideas that are new and test the status quo.
I firmly believe that as the Universities continue to fail their 'customers' there will be new opportunities in education that compete and MAY change some of the leading institutions over time.

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on April 14, 2019 at 01:06:40 am

They caught a bunch of parents using a “consultant” to bribe various college people, like soccer coaches, to get their little Olivias into “elite” colleges. (USC? are you kidding?).

I won’t wax moralistic. I don’t care. The world has real problems. Whether one one rich white kid goes to Ivy U and another one has to go to Cal State Northridge is of no concern to me.

I will say I told you so. For years I have said that there must be a way to payoff admissions people. It must be happening because there is too much demand, the system is too opaque, and the people who run it are low status (among their peers on college campuses) and not well paid.

Why didn’t those people go through the door of legal bribery via a donation to the colleges endowment? Easy. They are, for the most part, HENRYs (High Earnings Not Rich Yet). It takes a lot of capital to be able to peel off a 7 figure donation, which is what it takes. Five or six figures they can handle.

I think it is all about status anxiety. It is not enough to obtain high status for yourself, you must be able to pass it on to your children. You see, 300 years ago in Europe, status was conferred by inheriting lands and titles. That kind of status is easily given to your children.

In modern America status is conferred by things like having a role in a movie, being an elected official, being a partner in a big law firm. Those are very hard to give to children. And that makes parents very anxious.

The odds are that if you are in the right tail of talent, your kids will be closer to the mean (regression to the mean). Finding out that this is true is quite blow to the aspirations of the blessed.

One status thing that parents can give kids is children is a tuition at an "elite" college. All the kid needs to do is gut it out for 4 years. The evidence is that everyone who is willing to make a minimal effort to play the part, gets a sheepskin in 4 years no matter what.

So, yes the whole thing is upper class parents plagued by status anxiety trying to drag their capable children over the finish line. And the fight is entirely inside the upper class.

Elite Colleges -- What do they do?

Many commenters, not Prof. Samuelson, seem to be under the illusion that the highly rated colleges in this country have very smart students and who learn lots of really important stuff from the world famous professors at those schools. I think that is wrong. In all but a few cases (Cal Tech), the "elite" colleges are where the bright, but not necessarily extraordinary children of the upper classes go to get indoctrinated into mores and crotchets of the ruling class. What is important is not reading any particular text or solving any particular mathematical equation. What is important is learning to be like the others, and not to be a bitter clinger, one of the deplorables, or what is even worse, some kind of a religious fanatic.

Why are the colleges failing to be what they want us to think they are. First, the students are a very mixed bag.

A. The schools, even the Ivy League, recruit a lot of athletes. They need to field a lot of teams, not just football and basketball, but soccer, lacrosse, track, and rowing, I have been told by reliable sources that upwards of 40% of the incoming class at some ivy league schools are recruited athletes. Now, those kids are not dummies, but most of them are ordinarily bright kids with decent grades and board scores. The real secret here is that like the colleges, the high schools have been inflating grades like Macy's inflates balloons for the Thanksgiving Day Parade. It is very common to hear about ordinary suburban high schools where 15% of the kids are "valedictorians". And the College Board has been dumbing down the SAT to fit the crappy educations the high schools are giving the kids for years.

B. Legacies. The schools know that Alumni whose children are rejected don't donate. So they follow the golden rule: "money talks". Again, the legacies are not dummies, but, see above about what their grades and board scores mean.

C. Affirmative action. Ideally the schools would like one eighth of the incoming class to be black and one eighth Mexican. They can't do that even when they count the basketball players and football players. So they need some ringers, like African immigrant kids who work like Asian immigrant kids, and the children of white upper class Mexicans from Mexico.

D. Miscellaneous gets. Children of powerful politicians. Kids who have starred in Hollywood motion pictures. Children of really rich people who are not alums, but who will fork over now.

The bottom line is that about a quarter of the class is left for kids who will raise the average SAT score. Just make sure that less than half of them are Asian. So that is about ten percent of the class for smart white kids -- just make sure they don't need scholarship money. That goes to the A categories.

The teaching is, if anything, even less to write home about, Ivy League professors are hired because of their research production. Teaching is, as far as they are concerned, a distraction. The really famous ones only teach a couple of graduate classes, which are focused on their research interests. The classroom experience for undergraduates is no better at Harvard than it is at Kent State. Which is just fine as far as the students are concerned because class is just a distraction from their real interests which are binge drinking and fornicating.

What the kids graduate with is status. That is what their parents want to give them. The only fix is to pull the 'elite" colleges down to earth.. It shouldn't make any difference if you went to Harvard or 2 years at Plano CC followed by 2 more at UT-Arlington.

Admissions System

What makes the situation even worse is that the admissions system for elite colleges is not objective, not transparent, and not fair.

Admissions committees have neither the expertise nor the ability to conduct the kind of scrutiny that would expose cheating, nor the kinds that they claim to do and claim to want to do. It is all a charade. The problem is acute because of the increasing grip that elite colleges have on entry into the ruling class and media and financial elites.

The only possible way out of this bind is to remove control of the process from the colleges. Many educated people believe that admissions should be controlled by a third party testing authority as it is in many other countries. Their intuition is that such a system would be acceptable to everyone.

There are objective systems in Europe and East Asia, the kids take examinations such as the French Baccalauréat or the German Abitur. The tests are written essay type exams, and some of them are even oral. They are far harder to cheat on than the multiple choice parodies of examinations used in the US such as the SAT.

Testing wont work

A testing system would make many large and powerful political groups very unhappy. It is clear to me that a sufficient portion of the public, no doubt concentrated in certain groups, has rejected the very idea that testing can be fair or efficient. Check out the reaction created by the latest round of admissions to NYC public magnet schools. Stuyvesant High School admitted 895 students for fall 2019. Only 7 of them are black. But only 22% are white. Two thirds are Asian. The Mayor is very unhappy.

American parents are not prepared to find out that their precious snowflakes have skated through their inferior high schools without learning anything. And certain classes have not inculcated a love of learning among their children, nor have they called out the politicians and teachers unions who conspire against them.

None of these people will accept the verdict of a test or system of tests. They will fall for the siren song of demagogues who claim that the system is based on sexism, intolerance, xenophobia, homophobia, islamophobia, racism, and bigotry.

The only admission system I can think of that is objective, transparent, and fair is a random draw.

A lottery would be fair to everyone. No one could claim that they were handicapped by their race or the fact that they were limited by circumstance to poorly run and financed public schools. No one would be advantaged by being able to afford exam tutors, admissions consultants, social justice expeditions to third world countries, alumni donations, or participation in private school only sports like rowing.

People I have proposed this idea to have objected that the quality of those being educated would drop drastically.

Compared to the social justice warriors they are graduating now? The joke is that the so-called elite selective schools provide for most students (especially, the legacies, athletes, and affirmative actions) no better education that most second string State Us (e.g. Kent State, Western Kentucky. Eastern Michigan, etc.).

The engineering schools provide rigorous educations, but so do the engineering schools of the state universities. Besides, those programs are always self selective. Organic Chemistry has ended more medical careers than cocaine.

So what would the impact of an admissions lottery be on this system. The biggest one I can see is on the rowing teams. Do you have any idea how few rowers there are outside of New England prep schools.

As for the general intellectual level of the colleges. Meh. Yes, there would be a few non A category kids who were too stupid to get by. They can be pushed out pretty quickly, if the schools care, and I am not sure they do.

BTW, another thing that we will need to do is impose wage and price controls on colleges, so that they do not use pricing to scare away non-rich children.

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Walter Sobchak

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