The College Admissions Scam and the State of American Higher Education

The admissions scandal reveals a lot about the characters of the parents, college officials, and others that were involved; more importantly, it points up some unpleasant truths about the state of American higher education today.

Heather MacDonald:

None of this could have happened if higher education had not itself become a corrupt institution, featuring low classroom demands, no core knowledge acquisition, low grading standards, fashionable (but society-destroying) left-wing activism, luxury-hotel amenities, endless partying, and huge expense. Students often learn virtually nothing during their college years…

Peggy Noonan, writing in the WSJ about the pressure on kids to become Success Robots:

I go to schools a lot, have taught at universities and seen a ton of great kids and professors who’ve really sacrificed themselves to teach. A few years ago I worked for a few months at an Ivy League school. I expected a lot of questions about politics, history and literature. But that is not what the students were really interested in. What they were interested in—it was almost my first question, and it never abated—was networking. They wanted to know how you network. At first I was surprised: “I don’t know, that wasn’t on my mind, I think it all comes down to the work.” Then I’d ask: “Why don’t you just make friends instead?” By the end I was saying, “It’s a mistake to see people as commodities, as things you can use! Concentrate on the work!” They’d get impatient. They knew there was a secret to getting ahead, that it was networking, and that I was cruelly withholding successful strategies.

In time I concluded they’d been trained to be shallow, encouraged to see others as commodities. They didn’t think great work would be rewarded, they thought great connections were. And it was what they’d implicitly been promised by the school: Get in here and you can network with the cream of the crop, you’ll rise to the top with them.’

Indeed, much of the promotion of Higher Ed in the US has been based not on the idea that you will acquire knowledge, which is in itself a worthwhile thing, nor on the idea that you will acquire specific conceptual skills needed for your career, but rather, on the point that you will acquire a Degree, a Credential, a piece of paper.  And where ‘elite’ colleges are concerned, a big part of the perceived value of that credential is its scarcity value, quite similar to the scarcity value of a limited-edition print, the plates of which are destroyed after the initial run in order to keep the prices up.

Fifty years ago, Peter Drucker asserted that one of the major advantages America has over Europe is the absence of a narrow educational funnel, in the form of a few ‘elite’ institutions, through which future high-level leaders must pass:

One thing it (modern society) cannot afford in education is the “elite institution” which has a monopoly on social standing, on prestige, and on the command positions in society and economy. Oxford and Cambridge are important reasons for the English brain drain. A main reason for the technology gap is the Grande Ecole such as the Ecole Polytechnique or the Ecole Normale. These elite institutions may do a magnificent job of education, but only their graduates normally get into the command positions. Only their faculties “matter.” This restricts and impoverishes the whole society…The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim…

We as a country are a lot closer to accepting Grande Ecole status for Harvard Law School and similar institutions than we were when Drucker wrote the above.

He continues:

It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the strength of American higher education lies in this absence of schools for leaders and schools for followers. It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the engineer with a degree from North Idaho A. and M. is an engineer and not a draftsman.

Parents who participated in the admissions scam seem to have had a view of American society similar to that which Drucker attributed to European society of 50 years ago.  And indeed, as I noted above, for some fields, this has even become somewhat true.

To a considerable extent, the real social function of the ‘elite’ college degree in America today is the erection and perpetuation of class barriers:  the limitation of social mobility.  See this piece by Glenn Reynolds.

If the colleges in question had truly rigorous programs, and one had to do well in these programs in order to get the coveted degree, then scams like the current one wouldn’t work very well. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that bribing your way into MIT would do you much good if you couldn’t do the work.  And bribing your way into a flight training program wouldn’t do you any good unless you developed the knowledge to pass the relevant written exam and the skills to convince an FAA Designated Examiner that you knew what you were doing.  Unfortunately, too many of America’s colleges seem to be more interested in establishing their admission processes as gateways to success than in demonstrating enough respect for what they profess to be teaching to ensure that their graduates have actually learned something about it when they get that magical certificate.

Drucker also wrote:

The central moral problem of the knowledge society will be the responsibility of the learned, the men of knowledge. Historically, the men of knowledge have not held power, at least not in the West. They were ornaments…But now knowledge has power. It controls access to opportunity and advancement. Scientists and scholars are no longer merely “on tap,” they are “on top.”…

But power and wealth impose responsibility. The learned may have more knowledge than the rest of us, but learning rarely confers wisdom. It is, therefore, not surprising that the men of knowledge do not realize that they have to acquire responsibility fast. They are no different from any other group that ever before entered into power..They too believe that anyone who questions their motives must be either fool or villain, either “anti-intellectual” or “McCarthyite.” But the men of knowledge, too, will find out that power can be justified only through responsibility…

It is highly probable that the next great wave of popular criticism, indignation, and revolt in the United States will be provoked by the arrogance of the learned.

I’m not sure university administrators, for the most part, should really count as “the learned”, although they do play that role on TV.

22 thoughts on “The College Admissions Scam and the State of American Higher Education”

  1. Well said. It is amusing to me to see USC, my alma mater twice, in the midst of the bribery scandal.

    I went there in the 50s and 60s and two of my kids went there when tuition was a fraction of what it is now.

    Why does USC figure in this ? I think we get a hint from the daughter of the actress who was arrested. She posted on some social media account that she is uninterested in studying but wanted the football games and the parties.

    SC (as those of us who attended call it) was always well known for networking in California. The law school was the first law school in southern California. The business school, whose dean was just fired by the idiots on the Board of Trustees, was another big attraction and for networking as well as learning.

    For people who want to stay in California and get to know others like themselves, SC is probably a good choice. Most of them seem uninterested in learning, and I think that may also be a factor in Ivy League schools. Somebody has published a study showing seniors at Harvard and other such colleges know less than incoming freshmen. That does not apply to STEM programs, I’m sure, but it is a factor.

    Charles Murray wrote about this in “Coming Apart.”

  2. So much could be said about this, it’s basically a Tom Wolfe novel as written from the beyond…
    – This guy William Singer had a pretty good thing going, charging stupid rich people tons of money for getting their idiot kids into colleges they probably could have gotten into on their own with a few phone calls to the right people. It’s not clear why he thought he needed to start breaking the law, lots of what I’ve seen reported seems sketchy but not illegal, and then some seems clearly fraudulent, in illegal ways.
    – These people’s kids didn’t need to go to college. They’re rich and connected already.
    – Sorry, Mike, but USC is nicknamed University of Second Choice, so I find it hilarious that someone would go to such efforts to get their kid in there. Besides, like I already said, these actresses could have pulled strings and done this any number of ways. It’s inexplicably dumb on their part, but then no one ever claimed Hollywood success implies you have any brains.
    – The “elite” colleges are and were selling admission to the ruling class of America. The problem is that until a couple of generations ago, the vast majority of Americans didn’t really care about these people, and didn’t view getting the credentials of this class as necessary for being viewed successful at life.
    – The influence of the “elite” schools has reached a seriously dangerous point. I honestly think a huge amount of the fury that has been directed at Donald Trump has been due to the fact that the Democrat party is dominated now by people who went through this system and view it as the one and only means for getting ahead in society, and they see the fact that Trump rose completely out side of the system as being an absolute outrage, and a threat to the way things are supposed to be. What’s scary is that they don’t see that Trump is a guy who always wanted to be accepted into their club. He’s nowhere near as radical as what is going to come next.

  3. It’s actually rather horrifying to me how much it costs to go to a public CA university now …
    $5,742 per year for in-state residents? (according to this website – ) What the hell?…
    Apparently, I got a bargain-basement price in the early 1970s for my higher education – about $100 per semester and another couple of hundred for required books, IIRC. I had a regular job making dolls for a miniature shop in La Canada, plus specialty sewing and baby-sitting. I lived at home, commuted, and bought gas and occasionally green groceries from truck stands and bread from an old bakery that I drove past on the days that I had classes, in order to recompense my parents for the use of the car that I drove.
    My brother, who was majoring in biology at the same school had lab fees of a couple of hundred a whack for his classes – so he had to pay a bit more. But really? $5,000+? (Neither of us had any particular trouble being admitted, either. High school GPA. SAT, filling out an application …)
    Cal State Northridge was a commuter school, when I went to it. It appears that the Cal State system now is a means of employing (at lavish salaries) a large group of otherwise useless administrators, and pointless content-free classes.

  4. While I have no sympathy for those who faked grades and test scores, I have some sympathy- even glee- for those who faked activities. Elite colleges have been quite explicit for years that the deciding factor for admission is a student’s activities. Stellar grades and test scores are taken for granted. For example, Princeton admits 8% of applicants with 1500+ SAT scores.

    As a result, many bright high school students assiduously curate their activities with the goal of making the best impression possible on admissions offices. Why should we be surprised that once in college, these same students bombard Peggy Noonan with questions about how best to network? These junior Sammy Glicks mastered the game before they got the vote, and want Noonan’s advice on taking the next step. Pestering Noonan with networking questions further indicates that students view attendance at an elite college as their ticket to the ruling class- which is the message they have been fed for years.

    If activities are pursued because a student wants to do so, that is fine. For years, the Wikipedia page of the high school I attended stated that students had to engage in some community service project in order to graduate. If service is coerced, it is not service.

    While elite colleges consider activities- and especially leadership in activities – as very important for admission, it turns out that the admissions offices consider some activities as being more equal than others. How Diversity Punishes Asians, Poor Whites and Lots of Others.

    The admissions advantage was usually greatest for those who held leadership positions or who received awards or honors associated with their activities. No surprise here — every student applying to competitive colleges knows about the importance of extracurriculars.

    But what Espenshade and Radford found in regard to what they call “career-oriented activities” was truly shocking even to this hardened veteran of the campus ideological and cultural wars. Participation in such Red State activities as high school ROTC, 4-H clubs, or the Future Farmers of America was found to reduce very substantially a student’s chances of gaining admission to the competitive private colleges in the NSCE database on an all-other-things-considered basis. The admissions disadvantage was greatest for those in leadership positions in these activities or those winning honors and awards. “Being an officer or winning awards” for such career-oriented activities as junior ROTC, 4-H, or Future Farmers of America, say Espenshade and Radford, “has a significantly negative association with admission outcomes at highly selective institutions.” Excelling in these activities “is associated with 60 or 65 percent lower odds of admission.”

    Those who scammed their chidren’s admissions into college knew they were dealing with scammers.

  5. The CA state schools were originally intended to be free for residents. When my daughter was at UCLA about 2000 the tuition spiked.

    Brian, a lot of people, especially from UCLA,. made fun of SC but then two points I listed were serious. If you were a lawyer in LA, almost all judges were SC grads.

    The Engineering School, where I was, was weak. Petroleum Engineering was strong and heavily funded by the Saudis,

    It was not that hard to get into but I have heard that SAT cores went way up in recent years. The medical school, where I was on the faculty, had very high applicant numbers in recent years,

  6. Here’s something sad:

    Many parents spend their kids’ lives planning their university career.

    “In the United States, families are obsessed with the entrance into university,” said Sylvie Bigar, a New Yorker whose daughter just entered the respected Smith College in Massachusetts.

    “It seems like these things are decided almost in kindergarten, that admission to a prestigious university leads to a prestigious career and happiness.”

  7. – The Cal State system was originally supposed to be for teaching, and the UCs as research universities. In academia teaching is considered worthless, research is all that matters (even in the humanities, insanely enough), so over time the faculty at the Cal States have basically been able to upend the original mission.
    – I went to college in the mid-1990s, and the prices that colleges “charge” now are shocking to me. The TX state schools especially, since they were at the time absolutely dirt cheap, so I don’t understand how or why they have risen so much. Also, their reported tuitions compared to the UC schools makes me think something strange is going on, since I’ve always thought that the UC flagship schools–Berkeley and UCLA–have prices almost comparable to the Ivies, almost, although maybe that’s for out-of-state kids.
    – However, if you look at what people actually pay, it’s often nowhere near the reported price. See:
    The annual tuition and living expense budget to go to Caltech was $68,901 for the 2017/2018 academic year.
    The net out-of-pocket total cost you end up paying or financing though student loans is known as the net price. The reported Caltech net price for in-state students is $26,910* for the 2014/2015 academic year.
    – I recall reading a story almost 20 years ago about a college somewhere that was in dire financial straits and they hired a consultant to figure out how to turn things around, and they said to raise tuition, since it would make them seem to be more prestigious. It worked. They raised tuition, and got more applicants. The system is completely and totally broken. The only way to save it is to tell people that they don’t actually have to go.

  8. CalTech and USC are private, not State schools.

    When I started USC in 1956, the price for a unit of class was $17. A full load of 16 units was $272 per semester. It is now about $57,000

    When I sent my kids there, it was about $7500 per semester for room and board. That was 1983 to 1988. I had two there at the same time.

  9. That post articulated what I kept wondering – even if you can “bribe” your way in, in a normal setting you’d still have to do the work and understand. It shows both a weakness and corruption at our “elite” universities.

    And what exactly have these Harvard grads really done for the country? So much value is placed on them (at least by the Eastern establishment) – as President.

    They ridiculed Sarah Palin for going to….gasp…Idaho State (and supporting herself through).

    If I could pay $40K a year I would sure want to get a lot more out of it than “networking”.

    I went to school at the University of Virginia – and even for an out-of-state student tuition at the time was IIRC $800/semester….in 1970.

    If the colleges in question had truly rigorous programs, and one had to do well in these programs in order to get the coveted degree, then scams like the current one wouldn’t work very well. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that bribing your way into MIT would do you much good if you couldn’t do the work.

    Well said.

  10. If the colleges in question had truly rigorous programs, and one had to do well in these programs in order to get the coveted degree, then scams like the current one wouldn’t work very well. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that bribing your way into MIT would do you much good if you couldn’t do the work.

    I’ve heard for years that it’s a lot harder to get admitted to an Ivy League school than it is to flunk out of one.

  11. Part of the “Diversity Racket” is to make sure all promotion in our society goes through institution’s the Left Controls like University.

    Small & Medium sized businesses don’t hire based on credentials, but on real merit.

    See this Instapundit post and think through the implications of the Leftist Education Mandarinate :


    There’s a weird assumption throughout all these articles, that meritocracy is founded on the belief that smart people deserve good jobs as a reward for being smart. . . .

    I think this is both entirely true and entirely missing the point. The intuition behind meritocracy is this: if your life depends on a difficult surgery, would you prefer the hospital hire a surgeon who aced medical school, or a surgeon who had to complete remedial training to barely scrape by with a C-? If you prefer the former, you’re a meritocrat with respect to surgeons. Generalize a little, and you have the argument for being a meritocrat everywhere else.

    The Federal Reserve making good versus bad decisions can be the difference between an economic boom or a recession, and ten million workers getting raises or getting laid off. When you’ve got that much riding on a decision, you want the best decision-maker possible – that is, you want to choose the head of the Federal Reserve based on merit.

    This has nothing to do with fairness, deserts, or anything else. If some rich parents pay for their unborn kid to have experimental gene therapy that makes him a superhumanly-brilliant economist, and it works, and through no credit of his own he becomes a superhumanly-brilliant economist – then I want that kid in charge of the Federal Reserve. And if you care about saving ten million people’s jobs, you do too.

    Does this mean we just have to suck it up and let the truffle-eating Harvard-graduating elites at Chase-Bear-Goldman-Sallie-Manhattan-Stearns-Sachs-Mae-FEDGOV lord it over the rest of us?

    No. The real solution to this problem is the one none of the anti-meritocracy articles dare suggest: accept that education and merit are two different things!

    I work with a lot of lower- and working-class patients, and one complaint I hear again and again is that their organization won’t promote them without a college degree. Some of them have been specifically told “You do great work, and we think you’d be a great candidate for a management position, but it’s our policy that we can’t promote someone to a manager unless they’ve gone to college”. Some of these people are too poor to afford to go to college. Others aren’t sure they could pass; maybe they have great people skills and great mechanical skills but subpar writing-term-paper skills. Though I’ve met the occasional one who goes to college and rises to great heights, usually they sit at the highest non-degree-requiring tier of their organization, doomed to perpetually clean up after the mistakes of their incompetent-but-degree-having managers. These people have loads of merit. In a meritocracy, they’d be up at the top, competing for CEO positions. In our society, they’re stuck.

    We have too many people who are credentialed rather than educated, and too many people who think their education creates an automatic entitlement. The problem isn’t with “merit” rising to the top, the problem is that we have a false and destructive idea of what constitutes merit.

    Posted at by Glenn Reynolds on Jul 31, 2017 at 7:00 am Link

  12. I should correct my comment above. When my kids were attending USC, the cost was about $7500 per semester for tuition plus Room and Board.

    I can’t remember the details as it was 1985 but the two were about evenly split and they lived in university housing,

    When my daughter went to UCLA it was about 2000 and she lived in an apartment with three girls.

    By the time my youngest went to U of Arizona as a non-resident, tuition was about $19,000 a year and she lived in an apartment.

    SC is now above $50,000 tuition a year.

  13. Trent, nurses have to have BSNs to get any position of management,. Consequently, there are all sorts of BSN programs that are run by small colleges and many are online. It has nothing to do with nursing but that is that.

    I have also met people in IT who are in similar situations.

  14. >>Trent, nurses have to have BSNs to get any position of management,. Consequently, there are all sorts of BSN programs that are run by small colleges and many are online. It has nothing to do with nursing but that is that.

    The over credentialing of everything proceeds apace.

    >>I have also met people in IT who are in similar situations.

    My brother got bit by this via a “Microsoft Certified Administrator” certificate.

    It did’t save him when both he and his co-worker got replaced by a single guy with a a new guy with a computer science master degree who made all both their salaries for himself and contracted the IT real work out to a outside contractor.

  15. I entered engineering school in 1974 when the great aerospace bust depresses interest in engineering. We had the smallest entering class in years. The students really wanted to do engineering and science so they were not there because someone told them to “do stem”. I have hired from my old alma mater recently. The grads are technically qualified but the true interest is not there. My other hires from immigrants are much more interested in the field. The total college industry needs to shrink

  16. I think it tells something not very surprising about the inmates here that we all think $500K is a lot of money. That sort of direct gift would probably qualify for a T-shirt and your name in tiny type on on a plaque on some out of the way utility building.

    The people I’ve seen as payers in this all work for a living, albeit, not digging coal. What it looks like to me is; they found a way to leverage paying what they could afford for what they wanted. I’ll only be a little surprised if some of the students turn up in some sort of STEM major. That sort of degree from MIT still carries a lot more prestige than one from State U.

    Most of these are far harder to flunk out of than to get into. This is how you end up with 6-7 year marketing/communications/studies degrees. A transcript would show a long succession of dropped classes with no grade adhering and a list of different majors. This if they have the money to stick it out, otherwise 4 years of “college experience”.

    In the end, the market finds someone to sell what people want to buy. I won’t believe that this is the only scam like this going, even if it’s the only one the FBI can find.

  17. My oldest daughter is back from a trip to Egypt and we talked today, I joked that I did not have to come up with $500,000 to get her into SC. She was one of my two kids who graduated from there. She then went to law school at Gonzaga, as her Hispanic suite mate at SC got into UCLA law school with a lower GPA and LSAT. She is also an FBI agent and I teased her that she had missed out on “Varsity Blue.” She has been in the LA office of the FBI for ten years.

  18. When I entered UCSD in 1969, tuition was $56/qtr, room & board was $149/month. Textbooks ran about $150/qtr.
    At the end of 5 years, tuition had climbed to $216/qtr. I was living off campus by then on about $225/month.
    Gas at the local Terrible Herbst was $0.249/gal. Once a month I filled up the 2 tanks (40 gal.) in my International Harvester
    Travelall for $10 and got change. Tuition was subsidized by the state and was an incredible bargain. My high school class
    from Saratoga had ~330 seniors. About 15 of us went to UCSD.

  19. over time the faculty at the Cal States have basically been able to upend the original mission./io

    The Cal States were colleges and had no mission of graduate school. They morphed into “Universities” and have all sorts of grad programs that were never intended.

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