The College Admissions Scandal Is About More Than Just Bribery

Tyler Cowen:

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.