Cheating and Coaching, Part 3

This is a long brain dump. First read Part 1 and then Part 2.

So, all this work to get kids into elite schools. Is it worth it?

Jonah is taking Introduction to American Government this semester. It’s a class that I taught many times, in various capacities at different colleges. I taught the class to 52 students (always a couple overdraft students) at a CUNY school, to graduate students at Teachers College at Columbia, and slightly different class at a suburban liberal arts college.

So those colleges show up on ranking systems on VERY different levels — high, medium, and low. And guess what? I taught the exact same class at every place. I gave the same lectures, same exams, and had the same grading standards.

And my father taught that class for 30 years at his college. The exact same class. How a bill becomes a law, what compromises went into the constitution, how power changed over time, yadda yadda. Same class.

While I am certainly not writing Jonah’s papers for him or writing his study guides, I did insist — okay, demand — that we talk on the phone for an hour before his midterm on Monday to make sure that he knew Marbury v. Madison and the Articles of Confederation. He told me what material he had to study for the exam. It was the exact same class that I taught and my dad taught. He’s getting the same class as any kid at Harvard.

So, if the actual product of education at a public college is identical to the product at a fancy, elite college, why are people going insane about this effort to get their kids into elite schools? And all the evidence shows that elite school graduates earn exactly the same as equally smart kids at less prestigious schools.

Why the bribes? Why the schemes? Why all this sacrifice by the parents to completely devote their lives to getting their kids to those schools.

Well, I see more parents settling on elite public schools over private schools. University of Delaware and University of Maryland are very popular choices around here. But the private colleges can offer the nicer dorm rooms and pampering that the kids have gotten used to at home.

My son’s off-campus house outside of his public college is so horrifically awful that I need to bathe in Purell after stepping into his living room. Overflowing ashtrays and empty beer cans and a stray cat named Freeto that lives on the front porch. Sometimes I feel guilty that he’s living in pestilence, but this mess is of his own making. And he seems quite happy there.

But back to the topic here. Brand names. How much do they matter? Are these families working so hard to get their kids into fanciest of schools. Some are. Some are happy with the big name public schools, even kids who come from families with deep pockets. The kids are more democratic about their school choices than their parents.

Whew. Stopping now. More later.

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30 thoughts on “Cheating and Coaching, Part 3

  1. Two angles for you on this story:

    1) Is this more of a boy-story than a girl-story? Do girls (as a rule) diligently put together their lists and write their essays and get things in on time, while boys (as a rule) procrastinate endlessly and if not guided by a coach – or sometimes even if guided by a coach – fail to make appointments, miss deadlines, etc.? I’ve seen some anecdotal evidence for this.

    2) Once again, we have a story about the educational 1% that everyone wants to weigh in on. When I think about what all that bribe money could do for my regional state university – even just that half million paid for the Loughlin girls – it makes me want to weep. Better yet, take that half million and divide it up among students at CCs and middle-tier state institutions, and it changes their lives, for real. I know this will never be the hot topic, but if you could at least put a line in your story acknowledging this….

    1. Regarding 1, my son was the organized one who didn’t need reminding about school work. My daughter needed much more hand holding.

    2. Your point #2 is part of the story that Anand Ghiridharadas (Winners Take ALl) is pushing — that the inequality breeds the behavior because they have the money to spend (he’s focusing William E. McGlashan Jr. who has an impact investing firm that tries to do good deeds).

      I think that we’re focusing on the 1% (and, they are more than the 1%, maybe .1%) because so many names are coming out among those who travel in these circles. Six out of the 33 parents have Harvard degrees (20%)!

      I don’t think, having glanced at the transcripts, that the admissions scandal is more boy than girl.

  2. “Even though parents tell them all day every day that they are perfect human beings, they discover that their parents really think they are stupid.”

    Yes, this is the part that breaks my heart. There’s a bit in the transcript where the parent is laughing with Singer over the kid (for whom they cheated) saying he wants to take the ACT/SAT again, because he improved so much and he thinks he can do even better. That just breaks my heart, brings tears to my eyes. I can picture that kid. It’s infantilizing, kind of like letting a 2 year old win in arm wrestling and then laughing about it, but with a 17 year old.

    (I’m collecting up comments on one post. Yes, or no?).

  3. “So, all this work to get kids into elite schools. Is it worth it?”
    Worth it for whom? For parents who are able to talk about little Roscoe at Princeton? Or for Roscoe himself at Princeton and being one of those whose fellow students think he doesn’t really belong there?
    I think the affirmative action mismatch discussion is worth having here, we are talking about putting some kids who are relatively dull into an environment where they will not shine and where their self-image will not be burnished. My guess is that kids of whatever color will do best if they go to schools where their inclinations and talents are similar to those of the students around them. So – not great for Roscoe, but his parents get to shine at cocktail parties.

    1. Your wrong about the affirmative action comparison — that’s the one group where there’s evidence that going to an elite helps their chances at success (for example, income). Part of that might just be money: Elites are more likely to be generous with wrap around financial assistance. But, another significant effect is that these are the people who don’t have social connections already.

  4. “So, if the actual product of education at a public college is identical to the product at a fancy, elite college, why are people going insane about this effort to get their kids into elite schools?”

    1) the cohort they think their child will find, including the potential of life-long friends/contacts/networking and spouses.
    2) the cohort they think they might find (this is definitely true in private high schools, but it’s interesting to see people seeing it as a perk at colleges, too). I find this weird, but, some of these elite schools are selling the brand to the family, and, in any case, if your child becomes great friends with the kids whose dad own the yacht, you have a chance to meet them. There’s a sick story of a young woman who became the consort of a founder of Palentir, through meeting him when he taught a class at Stanford — her whole family became invested in the relationship, which turned ugly.
    3) the direct lines to employment — usually people mention the investment banks, which hire from these schools.
    4) also hear about it for tech companies and startup funding. And, the comparison to the most successful kids at the 2nd tier (Georgia Tech, Rochester, . . . .) means that the competition at those “2nd tier” schools can be significant, because you have to be one of the top students there, while at an elite, it might be enough to be an average student.

    OK, and the completely venal reasons
    1) the bumper sticker on the car
    2) the parenting report card meaning that you did it right

    1. “OK, and the completely venal reasons .
      1) the bumper sticker on the car
      2) the parenting report card meaning that you did it right”

      Yah you betcha!

    2. “3) the direct lines to employment — usually people mention the investment banks, which only hire from these schools.”

      Emphasis added.

  5. If you’re thinking of writing an article (I am shocked at how much has been produced in the last couple of days, clearly everyone who writes wants to talk about this). I think it would be interesting to see an article about how the American Government class is similar everywhere, especially if you could talk to people who are teaching the class at different places.

  6. I’m loving all of the discussion and takes on this. Here’s something fascinating: With the kind of wealth these parents had, they could have set their kids up with businesses. Multiple businesses, if the first couple failed. They could have set them up with an ecommerce or day-trading expert. They could have set up/added to trust funds. But they know the cache of a fancy college is still extremely meaningful. Look at our Supreme Court — All Harvard or Yale Law grads. Look at the Trump/Kushner kids, who had plenty of wealth but still wanted the Ivy League degrees. Ivy Pedigree is unmatched. So few slots. And if your money and success can’t get your child into a good school, what good are they, really?

    In the DC suburbs, it’s UVA, VA Tech, U MD. The big state universities are affordable and they open doors because of the huge local alumni base. A handful of kids from the enormous high schools around here will get to go to each of those. Kids are universally tied into knots with anxiety and self-harm. I know multiple teens who have been hospitalized with breakdowns. They’re taking over a dozen AP courses/exams. Extracurriculars galore. They don’t sleep. They don’t do chores or learn life skills. They don’t go to church to worship something larger then themselves. They don’t volunteer without putting it towards the Congressional Service Aware. They don’t continue sports or music into high school unless they are recruitable-good. Many don’t drive. (who has the time to learn?) It’s all about self-achievement and trying to out-compete all of the other Type A kids with two highly educated Type A parents. Tutoring and Test Prep places are in every shopping center. The parents are very, very anxious that their kids are not going to get the degree that will get the income that will get the lifestyle the parents have been able to provide. They need their kids to grow up to afford an interior decorator, landscaping service, a housecleaning service, and grocery and meal delivery because their kids for sure haven’t learned to mow the lawn, scrub down the shower, or cook….

    I’ve heard horror stories. The good student and talented artist with a $200,000 private K-12 education who did not get in anywhere. The girl who ended up at a 5th choice college, hated it, and came home during the first semester. College educated parents who didn’t have help with college planning and assumed their kids would stumble their own way through the process. Now those kids are attending community college or selling tacos. You need a plan even for the B and C-tier state schools.

    I’m on my second read-through of “What High Schools Don’t Tell You (And Other Parents Don’t Want You To Know): Creating a Long-Term Plan for your 7th to 10th Grader to Get Into the Top Colleges” by Elizabeth Wissner-Gross. She charges big bucks for college consulting.

    Here’s what it takes for the Ivies, according to Wissner-Gross: Paying $3,000-$10,000 plus airfare for several different pre-college summer programs at some of the best universities in the country. Entering and winning the Intel Talent Search, Math Olympiad, National Latin exam or other nationwide competitions. Having original lab research under your belt as a younger teenager. Top grades, taking most of the IB or AP classes available to you, excellent SAT/ACT scores with a year or more of formal test prep, strong extracurriculars (choose ones where you can be Captain/President/First Chair by 11th grade or found your own club), esoteric interests like Geology or Ancient Greek. And understanding parents who don’t expect their children to participate in chores, family events, or go to church or marching band camp instead of a competitive pre-college summer program. Kids that weren’t part of the Duke or Johns Hopkins Talent Searches in 7th grade are probably too far behind to catch up.

    A viral FB yesterday by a pro ghostwriter said she wrote college application essays for rich people. Then she wrote undergrad and grad papers including a thesis for rich people so they could graduate from the Ivy. Then she wrote bios and applications for jobs and non-profit and for-profit board positions. She was part of a team of executive coaches and image consultants who helped prop up a would-be Successful Person. It doesn’t stop with getting pro help with the college essay.

    1. And if your money and success can’t get your child into a good school, what good are they, really?

      This sentence–and the paragraph that precedes it–is the thing that fascinates me most about this scandal. These kids aren’t the natural extension of the UMC striving/coaching/parenting that Laura is talking about–they’re pretending to be it. The rich parents aren’t bribing their kids way into top schools in order to get the advantages of career opportunities, social connections, or marriage partners which the UMC parents shoot for — the kids already have those. So what’s going on instead?

      I saw this Ross Douthat thread in my feed and thought it might just be spot on:

      These rich parents are buying their kids legitimacy; the ability to pretend they earned what their birth assures that they’ll end up with. It buys the kind of reaction I’ll admit I’ve had about dimmer-than-usual politicians: “I guess he can’t be that dumb, since he got into Yale.”

      Not to detract from Laura’s very real observations about the problems with college admissions, UMC parenting, and structural advantages that come with wealth, but I think the “buying legitimacy” argument explains the motivation better.

      1. Ben Brumfield wrote:

        “These kids aren’t the natural extension of the UMC striving/coaching/parenting that Laura is talking about–they’re pretending to be it.”

        Exactly–it’s like those butterfly species that have learned to mimic monarch butterflies.

        “The rich parents aren’t bribing their kids way into top schools in order to get the advantages of career opportunities, social connections, or marriage partners which the UMC parents shoot for — the kids already have those.”

        I actually wonder about marriage and career.

        Unless the kids go into and stay in showbiz, not having a degree could keep them out of certain jobs and prevent them from marrying into a more maritally stable layer of society.

        How many of us would be thrilled to have our adult child engaged to a degree-less product of a Hollywood family? You can’t do anything about having two actor parents, but the degree does signal (or at least it did until this week): I can show up regularly for several years, do at least a minimum amount of work, and I’m not a total flake.

        “It buys the kind of reaction I’ll admit I’ve had about dimmer-than-usual politicians: “I guess he can’t be that dumb, since he got into Yale.””

        True!

      2. “I actually wonder about marriage and career.” Well, I did marry a woman who went to the same Harvard graduate program I did, and we’re coming on towards thirty years together. It’s not nothing, what the parents are seeking for their children, it worked for our happiness. But their methods of seeking it are not fair, very sketchy.

  7. I went to a small religious liberal arts college, where admissions weren’t competitive. Professor salaries were so low that if you taught there, you were deeply committed to the work of religious higher ed and to teaching. Tiny class sizes and professor availability gave me a great education. I also took 20 credits worth of classes at an elite public research university and spent a semester at the University of Oxford. I had zero trouble earning A’s at Oxford or the public university. The quality of classes was lowest at the public university, where undergrad classes were taught by bored grad students who held “office hours” in a local bar, or by professors who spoke English as a second language and clearly preferred their research to the classroom.

  8. It’s so difficult for me to post about this. I feel so enmeshed in it somehow, even though the only “coaching” we had was a cheap SAT class at the HS. But I am also sitting here watching the Big Red Marching Band do a live concert on YouTube for Cornell Giving Day. There is something about having your kid go to the same school you went to. Yet I still feel guilty somehow. 😦

    But I have also taught at a high-level university, a SLAC, a private urban university, a state university, and a community college. I have taught my classes at the high-level university and the SLAC differently and more rigorously. (However, this could be generational; I have taught where I am now for 15+ years, and this year I feel like my students are palpably different and need tons more hand-holding.)

    Heh, they’re playing the Gary Glitter song now. 😀

    1. I’m going to chime in here because I’ve been having this discussion about “guilt” and it is also what Laura brings up in the idea of “shaming” left wing/progressive parents to agree to withdraw resources for their own child.

      Guilt is not a useful emotion. But, what we do need to do is acknowledge the unearned benefit. Acknowledging it means knowing what it is and how it affects admissions. In the Harvard admissions case, the data reveals that legacies are 5X as likely to be admitted as non-legacies and about a 1/3 of the class are legacies. This is a big difference. It’s also one that is being used — councillors tell kids they are more likely to be admitted at the elite school their parents attended than another one, so the kids are more likely to apply. So the process amplifies the phenomenon, compared to a world in which admissions was, over all, less competitive, especially for well qualified applicants.

      1. Replying to bj,

        I would suggest that this stuff means that people need to recalibrate their ideas of what these elite schools are, and be clearer about the fact that the students are a mixed bag, and just because somebody went to Harvard, Princeton or Yale doesn’t mean that they’re automatically the creme de la creme.

        Students who aren’t bright go to elite schools, and students who are bright go to non-elite schools–and in fact, given the population sizes involved, there are way more bright students at non-elite schools. People who are hiring and appointing need to be willing to go beyond HYP/etc., rather than depending on a handful of institutions with opaque selection processes to do their vetting work for them.

        Aside from the fairness issues, using those schools for vetting for high government office is also likely to amplify problems with geographic and socioeconomic representation, making the government less responsive and threatening legitimacy in the eyes of the populace (and in fact, that has probably already happened). Also, within academia, there are some potential issues if future faculty are disproportionately trained at a handful of departments at elite colleges. When those students land at their first teaching job at Cow U., there’s the possibility of some pretty serious culture shock and difficulty calibrating teaching style to a more average college student with a very different background.

      2. “People who are hiring and appointing need to be willing to go beyond HYP/etc., rather than depending on a handful of institutions with opaque selection processes to do their vetting work for them.”

        Yes, indeed. But, how will that happen? If enough of the students at the HYP/etc are good enough to fill all the slots at the Wall Street investment banks and they do a good enough job (or at least a good enough job measured by the ideals of the hirers and in the short term) there is no incentive to change the practice.

        And I would never personally cite the law school of a federal appointee (or presidential candidate) as the reason they were unqualified and stand up for that position when anyone cites it.

        I once read an analysis saying that the perception (and maybe even real) equal access to the whatever form of the meritocracy we think colleges are increases the perceived value of that credential. That’s a phenomenon I see, I think, these days in the form of expecting degrees in our politicians and being further impressed by “fancy” degrees. The NYT had a graphic on the paths to congress:

        It’s interesting to see how many went to private colleges and how very few went to no college.

        I would like to see the same graph for other eras of congress.

      3. “People who are hiring and appointing need to be willing to go beyond HYP/etc., rather than depending on a handful of institutions with opaque selection processes to do their vetting work for them.”

        This is a very good point.

      4. bj said,

        “And I would never personally cite the law school of a federal appointee (or presidential candidate) as the reason they were unqualified and stand up for that position when anyone cites it.”

        And yet, here we are with a 100% Harvard-Yale lock on the Supreme Court, depending how you count…(RBG started at Harvard Law and graduated at Columbia.) It’s really unfortunate that as the Supreme Court has gotten more powerful, it’s simultaneously narrowed its educational gene pool. (Of course, if we could just learn to wean ourselves off the idea of the Supreme Court as a hyper-legislature, it wouldn’t matter so much who was sitting there…)

        At the moment, hiring HYP is like the old line about how nobody ever got fired for buying IBM products–and yet, knowing how the sausage gets made for admissions, people really should not have quite so much faith in the product.

        I’ve lately been reading the interesting but irritating Bryan Caplan (The Case Against Education), and if so much of the benefit of a degree from a good college is based on trust in the good college’s admissions vetting process rather than value-added–then they’d better actually be vetting!

  9. I think a lot of classes (especially in literature) are going to be treated differently depending on institution: reading level, amount of pages assigned, content, etc.

    You have to recalibrate according to who you are dealing with. And that’s not a bad thing.

    1. As AmyP mentions, “When those students land at their first teaching job at Cow U., there’s the possibility of some pretty serious culture shock and difficulty calibrating teaching style to a more average college student with a very different background.” This is absolutely true, though it happened not only to me (HYP grad school) but to faculty from lower-tier grad schools, people who did undergrad at good SLACs, and others. I might teach some of the same materials I would elsewhere, but less of them, or with more lectures leading into them, more simplified explanations, etc. I’m surprised that Laura would expect to teach the same Am Govt class everywhere, though maybe in that case you’re working with the same standard set of primary sources and can modify the background readings as needed.

      I don’t think the scandal reflects corruption across the board – based on my TA experience, there were a lot of super-smart, super hardworking kids, upwards of 80 or even 90 percent. I’m confident that the vast majority were writing their own papers and were at least capable of writing their own applications essays. Some of them just blew me out of the water. But the only real C-student I had was the daughter of two very famous people.

      1. When I was a TA at Harvard (ec 10) there was a wide variation in ability among my students. I was kind of surprised that some of the less able students were there. The more able students were very impressive.

  10. So those colleges show up on ranking systems on VERY different levels — high, medium, and low. And guess what? I taught the exact same class at every place. I gave the same lectures, same exams, and had the same grading standards.

    Wow, so many different things to respond to. Let me start here.

    I think it’s totally not the case that people have the same experience at different schools. For instance, at the SLAC I went to, where every class was consciously taught as if every student in that class was majoring in that subject, that into to American Government class just didn’t exist. When I wanted to take an American History class as an elective, I was in the 300 level class with the grad-school bound history majors. (It was a great class, but 400-600 pages of reading each week.)

    At top-3 Ivies, there are intro math classes for the masses, because you have to have math classes for the legacies, but there are also by-invitation classes for the best first year students that set them on the track that will get them into the best grad programs. At my SLAC I had a similar experience at a slightly lower level. I took a placement paper and was invited to take the accelerated math course with the better students. And the best students just skipped these courses altogether and started at the 200 or 300 level.

    You can totally have the same experience at a state school but you have to work for it. At my big ten grad school we had a junior in our first year grad classes. He started in the honors program, blazed through all the undergrad classes his first two years, and started in on the graduate courses. He then went on to a top grad school and a great academic career. The difference for him between a state school and a top Ivy or a SLAC is that he could totally have fallen through the cracks at the state school and had to know for himself what he wanted and how to get it, whereas at the Ivy or SLAC he would have been noticed and directed onto this track if he wasn’t already there.

  11. “You can totally have the same experience at a state school but you have to work for it.” but part of Laura’s premise was the “best students” at the flagship public. And even more so, the ones with the expertise to navigate the system. Her article on J’s experience describes the expert knowledge that helps.

    Your junior is another example, a student who might have the talent but not the background. He is one of the r’aison detre of education, from the progressive, egalitarian fantasy point of view. And, from the point of view of Harvard, if he is a first gen who they want (ie diversity enhancing) someone they could help not fall through the tracks.

  12. Would it wreck the game if admission letters, transcripts and diplomas were stamped ACADEMIC ADMIT, ATHLETIC ADMIT, LEGACY ADMIT, MAJOR DONOR KID ADMIT, CELEBRITY KID ADMIT and AFFIRMATIVE ACTION ADMIT?

    1. The schools are legally not permitted to use quotas in the consideration of race. It can only be used as one factor among many with the purpose of increasing the diversity in the population to enhance the educational benefit to everyone.

      So, no.

      And, the athletic admits, the official recruited ones, are marked in some way (and, in the case of those who receive scholarships, not at the Ivy’s, but at other schools, required to play). I knew of a cheerleader (a “flyer”) at a small, not very selective D3 school who had received a merit scholarship that depended on her cheering (complicated accounting). She was starting to feel unsafe (didn’t trust the people lifting/throwing her), but couldn’t stop because her scholarship depended on her participation.

      In some cases, the kids clearly fit in more than one category. For example, students who row for MIT are known to be equivalent to the other academic admits. Holistic review doesn’t allow anyone to designate the particular issue that pulled them over the finish line.

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