How the college admissions process became so corrupt

Why are those who already have money and power willing to steal a degree to prove that they deserve money and power?

A classroom.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

The world now knows: It is very possible to buy your way into the Ivy League. As The New York Times reports, prosecutors this week revealed that dozens of film stars, business executives, and other wealthy individuals had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to gain college admission for their children — often without their knowledge — using fraudulent test scores and false claims to athletic ability. It's a perfect scandal for our era of helicopter parenting and ruthless competition for a coveted brass ring.

That the college admissions process is not strictly meritocratic should probably come as no shock. But there are important lessons in this scandal that we shouldn't ignore in the initial rush of schadenfreude.

The most obvious takeaway is that the parents of these college-bound children thought admission to these elite universities was very, very important for helping them get ahead in life. Why else would they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, and engage in astounding skullduggery, to get their kids into Harvard or USC? But this truth cannot explain the entire scandal. There is much more driving these parents to cheat.

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For starters, there's very little evidence that the actual education you get at an elite university is better than the education you might get at a less-prestigious school. In fact, there are some persuasive arguments to the contrary. The real value of a Harvard degree arguably lies less in what happens in the classroom than in the elite connections you make outside of class. But these connections are already available to the children of the elite; they only make a substantial difference to those who come from more humble origins. Why spend vast amounts of money for access to something you already have?

One answer is, of course, is status. This mysterious quality, more often than not, is the reason people seek wealth in the first place. As Ross Douthat put it in a series of tweets on the scandal: "... legitimacy attaches to (a particular form of) intelligence and (a particular kind of) resume, with Ivy admittances as the social register of Talent. So the rich parent who buys their child admittance is buying a form of legitimation whose worth isn't calculable in $."

This feels closer to the truth of the matter than simply saying these parents wanted to help their kids get ahead. But if it's true, consider what that implies about what has happened to meritocracy as it has morphed from a means aimed to further a democratic ideal into an ideal in its own right.

When the United States started using standardized tests for college admissions, the point was explicitly to open up our elite institutions to talent that lacked pedigree. If those institutions failed to make room, it was feared, the gap between the status they conferred and the actual capabilities of their graduates in the modern scientific and bureaucratic age would grow too wide. Indeed, Harvard and Yale needed bright upstarts from Brooklyn and Biloxi to retain their status as makers of the elite.

Meritocracy as a process, then, expanded the elite in order to make it more capable, and therefore more durable. Incidentally, it also made that elite more representative of the nation it was groomed to serve. Once in place, however, the system morphed from a means to an end. The idealistic meritocrat claims that what justifies elite rule is precisely that they have been pre-selected as "the best." Implicitly, other means of choosing an elite — including those we traditionally understood to be more democratic — come to be seen as corruptions of this ideal. By now, we've internalized this notion to such a degree that even those who already have money and power are willing to steal a Harvard degree to prove that they deserve money and power.

As a means of selection, merit still has a lot to say for itself. Students really do learn better when they are surrounded and challenged by their intellectual peers; organizations really do perform better when their upper echelons are selected based on ability rather than personal connections or outright bribery.

But as an ideal, meritocracy needs to be tossed on the junk heap of historically awful ideas. No elite should be taught to be so arrogant as to believe it has been proven that they are superior to those they govern and manage. In a democracy in particular, it is vital that the elite see itself as of the people, not separate from it, and that the rewards of progress should be shared broadly, not concentrated in the hands of those who clawed their way to the top, whether by fair means or foul.

How can we rein in meritocracy? Well, to start, consider what would happen if ultra-selective schools had to reduce their selectivity. They could still set high minimum standards, academic and otherwise — there is real value in having institutions where instruction takes place at a uniformly high level, and many of the other criteria that admissions officers apply are also meaningful. But among the students who applied and met those criteria, Harvard and Yale, Duke and Rice, Stanford and MIT, would have to choose their next class by lottery.

The immediate consequence would be to eliminate the pretense that any of these schools had selected "the best" from all the applicants, as opposed to merely choosing students who were capable. If the eligibility criteria were sufficiently transparent, applicants could even know in advance whether they met them, and apply only to schools that were appropriate. Instead of a furious struggle to get into the "best" school, there would be a more reasonable struggle to achieve eligibility for top-tier schools in general. And cheating to move up one tier, with no certainty that one would actually get into a particular institution, would have far less value.

Instead of desperately trying to make oneself into the sort of person likely to be selected by a secretive committee, the focus would be self-selection by applicants for a school with a curriculum or instructional style that seems best suited to them. And those schools would have an incentive to distinguish themselves institutionally, to provide students with a diversity of options from which to choose. If Harvard wanted to maintain its reputation for training the national elite, it would have to demonstrate the ability to train such an elite, rather than simply selecting it.

The goal would be to build an elite that is broader, less insular, and less convinced that its gifts are extraordinary long before they are matched by anything resembling achievement.

The children of privilege will always have a leg up, and they'll always chase empty status symbols. For the health of democracy, it would be better for those symbols to be as empty as possible, and for our system of higher education to focus on nourishing minds rather than feeding egos.

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