The US’ Desperately Unequal Economy is to Blame for the Elite College Admissions Scandal

Published March 13th, 2019 - 02:38 GMT


A recent scandal involving wealthy U.S. families bribing admissions officials and college counselors so their kids could gain admittance to a number of prestigious universities has reinvigorated a debate about elites’ undue access to top schools.

Of course, it’s disturbing that so many wealthy elites in the U.S. would bribe, cheat and lie their way through the U.S. admissions process.

But what is far more disturbing is the fact that what they did may be rational, incentivized by the broken economic system, which rewards those few elites who can pay for entrance into prestigious schools while leaving the rest to work for flat wages and insecure jobs, attending under-resourced public universities or never even getting a higher education at all.

Ironically, it appears the 50 individuals caught by the Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation violated the law not by using cash as a bargaining chip in the admission process, but by giving their cash to the wrong people and perhaps not giving enough.

In a increasingly competitive economy where class mobility is on the wane, real wages are stagnating and overall inequality is rising to crisis levels, access to an premium-brand school, like Yale or Georgetown, is a rare pathway through to the middle and upper-middle class. They are also a coveted means of protecting families’ elite social status.

Places in these schools are themselves getting more selective as the population increases but class sizes remain relatively stable. This incentivizes wealthy parents to wield cash as leverage over the admissions process, using more and more money either as legal donations or illegal bribes, for their children to attain a place in America’s small, gilded class.

These people got caught, but many others will continue engaging in similarly dubious albeit legal methods to get their kids into elite schools, because it is rewarded with a chance at economic prosperity.

It is in their material interest to do this, and therein lies the fundamental failure. As some would say, this scandal isn't a bug, but a feature of the U.S. economy.


Pouring Cash into Already-Wealthy Schools

Georgetown University (Shutterstock)

In the biggest-ever college admissions scandal, the DOJ found 50 individuals to be involved in a nationwide conspiracy to get wealthy families’ children into elite universities. Families allegedly paid William “Rick” Singer, CEO of a college admissions counseling business to manipulate the scores of their children's standardized tests by getting others to do the test in their name.

Other families also paid Singer to create fake athlete profiles for their kids so they could be recruited by top schools as student-athletes.

A recorded phone call between a parent and Singer described his process: “Okay, so, who we are…what we do is we help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school…My families want a guarantee. So, if you said to me ‘here’s our grades, here’s our scores, here’s our ability, and we want to go to X school’ and you give me one or two schools, and then I’ll go after those schools and try to get a guarantee done.”

To do that, he allegedly manufactured their athletic ‘ability’ by faking statistics and photoshopping images of kids playing sports so that applicants’ heads would appear on people playing soccer, rugby or lacrosse. In one particularly absurd example, Hollywood celebrity Lori Loughlin paid nearly half a million dollars to get her kid into the University of Southern California (USC) as a competitive rower. The child in question was not a rower; her profile was completely forged.

The scheme worked, and USC accepted her and her little sister under the same guise.



Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, explained the illegality of the scheme, to much chagrin. "We're not talking about donating a building … we're talking about fraud,”  he said, implying that there is a legal way to cheat the admissions process IE donating enough money to the school directly and an illegal one IE what the wealthy individuals caught by the DOJ did.

Also implicit in Lelling’s explanation was that perhaps those caught up by the DOJ investigation hadn’t paid enough to the right people. If they gave, say, $2.5 million to Harvard as the Kushner family did to ensure Jared Kushner a spot, then their kids would likely be gleefully enjoying the spoils of a Harvard education while their parents pat themselves on the back knowing they’d followed the rules and got the desired result.

Daniel Golden, the author of the book “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates,” was simply confused why the parents did not just copy what the Kushners legally did:

“There are widespread practices that are unfair and benefit the wealthy. One of the puzzles of this case is why did these families bother to go to this extreme? Why did they pay so much money to fake their kids having athletic preference, or have somebody else take their tests? Why didn’t they simply contribute a lot of money to the university?

Maybe their kids were so far underqualified that they couldn’t get in no matter how much was donated. Or, possibly, it was less expensive for them to pay these kinds of bribes. But there are so many advantages anyway, and giving money usually meets such a receptive audience, that it is a little puzzling why they would have to engage in this kind of criminal activity.”

The outrage about the wealthy families’ payment schemes are well-earned, but it misses the far more terrifying reality: the U.S.’ higher education and class systems incentivize such dubious payments.


The Rationale for Cheating the Admissions Process

A homeless woman sleeps on the streets of Los Angeles (AFP/FILE)

Class mobility in screeching to a halt, real wages for most Americans have stagnated for decades, and wealth is being sucked up by an increasingly select club of CEOs, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and financial moguls; 21st century robber barons. Add a financial recession that irreversibly wiped what little wealth millions of families had and an ever-growing population, and you have a class-precarious society clamoring over each other for those scarce, stable jobs.

Prestigious universities have remained one of the few viable means through which a family could gain or ensure their status among the coveted top-tier of elite Americans who have largely escaped the desperate scarcity problem facing most of their compatriots.

If you can afford them, they’re a great investment. If you can guarantee your child’s place in one with even more money, like Singer’s scheme did, then you’ve all-but ensured your child will enjoy the social and economic riches inaccessible to others.

But places to these schools is more competitive than ever: Harvard accepted just 4.6 percent of its 42,479 applicants. Yale accepted just 6.3 percent. The University of Chicago took in 7.2 percent of its applicants. 

College admissions getting more selective only gives parents more reason to seek back-channels like dubious donations to influence admissions’ decisions.



If there were more feasible pathways to achieving economic prosperity and less cultural capital was given to this small number of schools, then there would be less reason to engage in rule-breaking to get into them. There would simply be less of a need to go to them: bigger, public universities would often suffice to ensure prosperity.

They would not have the outsized place in the U.S. economy and public imagination they currently maintain.

Moreover, if there was less wealth inequality overall, these ‘elite’ schools simply would not occupy the same coveted cultural space they currently do, because they would be less useful and thus less desired or dreamt about.

As it stands though, the economic and social clout most universities provide pale in comparison to the lauded Ivy or the historic liberal arts college nestled inside hand-crafted arboretums. The product these prestigious schools sell isn’t merely a top-class education but entrance into an elite club that is getting harder to enter.

No wonder select families are shoveling millions into these schools. It works.

It is an effective way of buying prosperity for their child’s future, and many families would likely do the same if they could afford it. In a totally free market, this would be the norm for those with deep enough pockets.

But prosperity should not be something that can be bought by and for the few. That is a democratic and moral failure.

Illegal schemes to conspire with and bribe college counselors may not happen again in the near-future, but dubious donations will only grow in frequency and size as class sizes remain stable but competition for each place grows more fierce. After all, what makes these so-called ‘elite’ schools so prestigious is precisely the fact that most people cannot go to them, even if millions actually deserve entrance into their halls. Prosecuting a small number of people who engaged in this scheme illegally does not solve the problem.

To decisively eliminate schemes to pay for admission into elite schools, we must dismantle the unique economic podium these schools rest on and give access to.

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