Are Elite Colleges The Victim in this Admissions Scandal?

We all know that bribes are illegal, but what exactly are the charges in this case? According to the law, the victims were the colleges.

The WSJ explains that “prosecutors are alleging that the parents conspired to deprive colleges out of the honest services of athletics coaches and administrators accused of taking bribes. ”

But the elite colleges didn’t care enough about this problem to police their own people. They didn’t care enough to initiate their own FBI sting. The college presidents from these schools haven’t been holding triumphant press conferences or even giving interviews with reporters.

So, you know what that makes me think? They really didn’t care about this problem.

Maybe these college thought that an occasional student who gets into their side door was just the cost of doing business. It wasn’t worth an expensive and disruptive crackdown for the one or two students that sneak in every year.

Or maybe schools didn’t care because the whole system is a joke and they know it. In a school where 30 percent of the incoming class have parents who attended the school, it’s hard to claim that merit is the sole admissions standard.

It’s also hard to maintain a high moral high ground, when another 30 percent of your incoming class are the children of wealthy factory owners in China. Those students always pay full freight, which is nice for the school.

And you think applications here are fraudulent? Do you know what those wealthy Chinese factory owners are doing for their kids? Puts us to shame. Rumors are that the wealthy parents in China buy apartments for their kids around Columbia and NYU years before their kids admitted, because they know it’s a sure thing. Wealthy Chinese students are such a huge part of the Gen Z college experience that they all have jokes about the Maseratis outside the student center.

There’s way, way more about the shallowness of the admissions process and the meritocratic myth in this story, but let’s go back to talking about the crime.

So, you have to imagine the cops coming to your door saying that arrested a criminal who was breaking into your shed. Yay. Aren’t you happy? And, oh by the way, the cops say, what are all those unopened boxes of televisions doing in your shed?

That’s what happened. It’s actually pretty funny.

And by pointing out all the problems and rot in elite universities, it totally trashes their brand, which is about they only thing that they have going for them.

Not only are faculty teaching the exact same classes as other universities (see my discussion of Intro to American Government here), but many times, they aren’t even teaching.

Last year, a friend of mine sent me her daughter’s syllabus of economics class at an ivy school. The class was taught by a huge name in the field. Having a big name at the podium is a big part of the justification for $70K tuition. But my friend was ticked off, because the guy only showed up to give about half of the lectures. The rest were taught by his TAs.

The only difference between an elite private college and an elite public college is the handholding by administrators and the fancier buildings. That’s why a lot of parents are starting to send their kids the public schools and why the lower ranked private schools are having problems.

But most parents and kids don’t really care about the classes, I suppose. It’s all about the brand. The windshield sticker. The branded sweatshirt. The bragging rights. That’s all these elite colleges offer. So, when a scandal like this tarnishes the brand, it’s a MAJOR disaster. When people start questioning their decisions about legacies and international students and athletes, when people shed light on what they like to keep very private, it’s a MAJOR disaster. When people question whether or not this is a school for the world’s absolute best and brightest, it’s a MAJOR disaster.

The colleges are the victim of a crime, but from their point of view, the villains aren’t the botoxed Hollywood mommas. For them, it’s the FBI and the public attention that threaten their brands and their empires.

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59 thoughts on “Are Elite Colleges The Victim in this Admissions Scandal?

  1. Were there university employees outside of the athletic department taking bribes? The athletic departments have long been way too influential and corrupt at the big states school (hello Penn State).

    Of course, locally there were a bunch of convictions for Chinese students paying test takers. They got caught before Aunt Becky did.

  2. Not only are faculty teaching the exact same classes as other universities (see my discussion of Intro to American Government here), but many times, they aren’t even teaching.

    Last year, a friend of mine sent me her daughter’s syllabus of economics class at an ivy school. The class was taught by a huge name in the field. Having a big name at the podium is a big part of the justification for $70K tuition. But my friend was ticked off, because the guy only showed up to give about half of the lectures. The rest were taught by his TAs.

    The only difference between an elite private college and an elite public college is the handholding by administrators and the fancier buildings.

    This is not true. This is so far from being not true that it is completely ludicrous. And I’ll demonstrate with an explicit example.

    Here are this year’s undergraduate mathematics offerings at Harvard University. Now, let me interpret.

    If you didn’t have much math as a high school student and particularly, say, if you are a bubble-headed legacy, then you would take Math 1a or Ma. These are your survey classes that, indeed, you can take at any university. They probably even use the same texts and almost certainly are taught by TAs or postdocs. Most serious Harvard students and, certainly, very few of those who are interested in math or science, will take 1a. For someone wanting to study math or science, it would be remedial.

    If you are merely a competent math student you will take Math 18/19a (if you are a biology or social science student) or Math 21/22 (if you are interested in math, computer science, or one of the harder sciences). This course is probably equivalent to a calculus class in an elite state school honors college or the entry level math course at an elite SLAC. On the other hand, if you want to study math or science at Harvard then by taking this course you are already starting out behind.

    If you are a serious STEM student then there is Math 23a. This is a by invitation course for those who finished Calculus BC in high school. It is probably equivalent to the accelerated entry level course at an elite SLAC and would not necessarily have an equivalent at a state school, except possibly in some honors programs.

    But that’s not where the better students go. For them, there is Math 25a and b. Again, this is by permission of the instructor and the people coming out of this would essentially be done with their sophomore year mathematics at a strong SLAC/elite state honors program or their junior year at a mid-tier SLAC or normal flagship state math program.

    *However,* that’s not where the best of the math students go. For them, there is a by-invitation Math 55 course. That course covers Math 25 and Math 122, which is a junior level course at most other schools (or a course for advanced sophomores at a top SLAC/state honors program) and sets you up for 123 as a freshman, which in many math degree programs is a junior/senior level elective or isn’t even offered at the weakest SLACS/directional state programs. The person teaching it is a world-class mathematician.

    And *that* is why Harvard is elite and will continue to be regarded as such. The fact that there exist fluff surveys for the legacies doesn’t mean that there aren’t opportunities that just don’t exist elsewhere. If you wanted this and were good enough to take advantage of it, then there just aren’t that many alternatives. Another top Ivy (but not Penn). Chicago, maybe. MIT or CalTech. A top tier SLAC (Williams, Harvey Mudd, Swarthmore, Reed, etc), although you there isn’t a designed program there that would approximate Math 55. You would be an exceptional student there. The courses exist at a state school, but you would need to know how to meet the right faculty and get them to champion you individually, which isn’t always possible.

    It’s just not the case that Harvard and the Rutgers are the same places with the same courses and the same educational opportunities.

      1. That’s interesting about the math. Meanwhile, at the Directional Universities, the hot topic in math is whether to allow the 40-percent plus of our incoming students who cannot test into our introductory college-level math course to get credit for taking remedial math (so they can go on to fulfill the math requirement by taking the intro course). The remedial math course is about what I took in 8th grade. (Of course we are not allowed it call it remedial math.) I was on a committee last year that spent three long meetings with the math department faculty who were split 50-50 on the question.

        I’m convinced that some people at the elites will see this as a MAJOR DISASTER, but what will be the result in the end? That these schools will only admit 12% of their applicants instead of 9%? That SLAC #14 will fall to being SLAC #19 and have to claw its way back up? That their lovely new science lab will only have space for 25 graduate student worker bees instead of 35? I know these things are big deals for the people there, as you say – everyone wants to be the place the world sends its best and brightest. But ultimately, how much will it really affect them?

      2. I just looked at my daughter’s current courses on Blackboard and chose Developmental Psych (which is, weirdly, part of her “science” requirement). I then looked at the syllabus for DevPsych at the place I teach. Um, there is a *vast* difference. My daughter is definitely getting a better course. (She’s also reading some Simon Baron-Cohen!)
        I just checked Rutgers as well. Here is the course from this term: https://psych.rutgers.edu/academics/undergraduate/syllabus-archive/2019-spring-1/2551-271-01-developmental-psycholgy-mayhew-s19/file Note that she uses a textbook: Robert S. Feldman Discovering the Life Span, 4th edition. Pearson. I’m sure it’s an excellent textbook, BUT

        Here are the course readings from my daughter’s DevPsych course, first page, up to the Bs:
        Readings
        Adolph, K. E., Cole, W. G., Komati, M., Garciaguirre, J. S., Badaly, D., Lingeman, J. M., Chan, G. L. Y., Sotsky, R. B. (2012). How do you learn to walk? Thousands of steps and dozens of falls per day. Psychological Science, 23 (11), 1387 – 1394.
        Alberts, J. R. (1978). Huddling by rat pups: Group behavioral mechanisms of temperature regulation and energy conservation. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 92, 231-240.
        Baldwin, D. A., Baird, J. A., Saylor, M. M., Clark, M. A. (2001). Infants parse dynamic action. Child Development, 72 (3), 708 – 717.
        Baillargeon, R. (2004). Infants’ physical world. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13 (3), 89 – 94.
        Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”? Cognition, 21, 37 – 46.
        Blumberg, M. S. (2015). Developing sensorimotor systems in our sleep. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24, 32-37.
        Bremner, J.G., Slater, A. M., Johnson, S. P. (2014). Perception of object persistence: The origins of object permanence in infancy. Child Development Perspectives.
        doi: 10.1111/cdep.1209

        (Btw, my daughter is loving DevPsych and regularly texts or FTs me to ask me questions about her development as an infant/toddler.)

      3. So, I don’t get it. Are you saying that students learn more articles than a textbook? Seems unlikely.

        I just checked out Intro to American Govt at Harvard. Same class. Textbook.

      4. Wendy said,

        “(Btw, my daughter is loving DevPsych and regularly texts or FTs me to ask me questions about her development as an infant/toddler.)”

        That’s adorable!

      5. To Laura’s question as to whether students learn more from articles or a textbook, I don’t know about psych, but I would absolutely say yes, a course made up of articles is more demanding, and gives students a deeper sense of what is going on in a particular field. It requires them to read like psychologists, or the people in whatever field they’re in. Presumably they start to learn how to write as a psychologist as well. With a textbook they’re relying entirely on someone else’s summary. There are some great textbooks, but it’s a whole different ball game.

        I wouldn’t assign academic articles in a humanities intro course, but the parallel would be primary sources, novels, religious texts, etc. I could give students a one or two-paragraph summary of Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, or have them read a textbook chapter on the different views of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, but it is much better for them to read the whole source themselves and try to get ideas out of it. Or, to use your AmGov example, read Marbury v Madison itself. (I hope the better schools at least require that in addition to the textbook.)

      6. Are you saying that kids can learn the same from reading a textbook as they can from reading articles? Can they learn the same from reading a Wikipedia article about The Federalist Papers than they can learn from actually reading The Federalist Papers?

        I can assign my current students to read articles/primary sources. But only a few will actually read them. They learn from what I tell them (walking, talking Wikipedia article) and from me asking them to think through ideas in discussion (I brought out the 10 Toilet Problem™ the other day and also asked them to think about the college admissions scandal in terms of their belief in the Protestant Work Ethic). But my students want different things from education. They’re interested in the use value, in the applications. S (for example) wants to sit around and steep herself in ideas.

      7. Primary sources are different from badly written academic papers. When I taught political theory, I only used primary sources. Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Hobbes, Marx, and so on. But I would never have the students in an intro class read an article by a Professor Smith in a theory journal about the Rousseau. First of all, the contemporary article is probably more impenetrable than the original source. Second, it would take away time from reading the primary text.

        Typically, in an American class, there is a textbook and a reader with some primary readings. Both Rutgers and Harvard do that. That’s how my class in 1985 at SUNY Bing was taught.

      8. The most poli-sci guy I know used to teach at Harvard and is now teaching it at big-flat-state school. That’s the way Harvard does it with teaching undergrads, isn’t it? Hire early-career faculty and spit them out to tenured jobs in other schools.

      9. I don’t know anything about math, but it looks like Rutgers offers the same courses.

        Well, Rutgers has a decent PhD program so you can find math courses that cover as many topics of the undergraduate curriculum as you like. But they are very much not the same courses. For instance, at a cursory glance there are no math 25 or 55 analogues. A first year student at Rutgers with the interest and ability to take those courses could just start taking upper level courses, but it would be a patched together curriculum and he/she would have to do it on their own, with no infrastructure to support them and no peers at the same point they could relate to.

        I suspect that even the math 21/23 analogues are taught at a lower level and in less depth.

        Despite what you want to believe, there is a demonstrable difference in the education one can access at Harvard and Rutgers. The fact that the fluff survey courses are the same is irrelevant. Nobody goes to college for the survey courses.

      10. Amer Gov isn’t a fluff class. It’s a tough class that is expected to weed out dilettantes from the major.

        I don’t often talk with people that think that R1 faculty and students are dullards. We’re about to run out the door for a dinner party, so I’ll be brief and just look at SAT scores.

        Rutgers, like many R1 schools, is open to many different types of students. It even has a programs for people with intellectual and developmental disorders. And it has many different majors for all those different types of students. But let’s stick with math and the STEM fields since you brought them up.

        Their STEM classes and students are top notch. Many go into their engineering school. Average SAT score 1350-1490, Math 700-790. Their pharmacy program 1430-1520, Math 740-790.

        Jonah was admitted into the engineering program but turned it down. Math SAT without studying or tutors? 720.

      11. The most poli-sci guy I know used to teach at Harvard and is now teaching it at big-flat-state school. That’s the way Harvard does it with teaching undergrads, isn’t it? Hire early-career faculty and spit them out to tenured jobs in other schools.

        At least in the mathematics department, it is well-known that they don’t offer tenure to their assistant professors. (I think they’ve done it either once or twice in the last 30 years.). It is viewed by everyone (even the professors) as a six or seven year postdoc, after which they will be hired with tenure somewhere else.

      12. The most poli-sci guy I know used to teach at Harvard and is now teaching it at big-flat-state school. That’s the way Harvard does it with teaching undergrads, isn’t it? Hire early-career faculty and spit them out to tenured jobs in other schools.

        It is well known that in Mathematics, at least, the department usually doesn’t offer tenure to their assistant professors. (I think they have done it at most twice in 30 years.) It is properly viewed (even by the professors) as a six or seven year postdoc, after which they move to a tenured position somewhere else.

      13. The equivalent of your primary sources is journal articles in science.

        In a course like Cornell’s Dev Psych class, which appears to be teaching about science, as well as content, reading original articles is important. In a course on Dev Psych that might be taught at a more “directional” school (which I think actually means the use of compass points in its name, but I’ve decided to interpret as being one that teaches content for a goal, as well), the content, independent of the methods used to develop that content, might be the appropriate material.

        I’m going to potentially make a mistake in an analogy — say, for a citizenship test, you need to know that there are 3 branches of government. No one asks you why or what the purpose is. But, in a political science or history class, that might be the relevant questions.

      14. I don’t often talk with people that think that R1 faculty and students are dullards.

        I said this where, exactly? There is room in the universe of ideas to both believe that Rutgers offers a perfectly serviceable undergraduate education and also that Harvard offers elite experiences to academic superstars that are simply unavailable most other places.

    1. As far as I can tell, Harvard’s 55 is a class for the top 10 or so mathematicians in the country. There can only be one place for them, if they are going to find peers. So yes, if you are in that cohort, or might be in that cohort (say, the next 10 mathematicians) it might be a special place. But, I’m guessing that there have been times when the top 10 mathematicians should have gone somewhere else. Cambridge? That shouldn’t, in practical terms, make it a elite for everyone.

      1. I think there are other places where the elite math students could have the same experience. Princeton, for instance. Or MIT or Caltech. But the next best 10 or 15 take math 25 and there isn’t anything like that most places either.

        But this is exactly my point. Harvard doesn’t have the same classes or experiences as everywhere else and saying it does because you are looking at the survey classes for the legacy idiots misses the point. I was focussing on the math classes because that’s what I know. But I can’t believe it isn’t the same in every department, that the best government students don’t even take Government 1 and then they go and write an honors thesis with Harvey Mansfield or somesuch,

      2. Math is special because it is so —there’s a better word— linear. So one might know the top 10 mathematicians when they are 17. I don’t disagree that there are highly specialized programs for the super elite in each field. I just don’t think they are all at the same university and I think for the next group, the next 100 even and certainly the next 1000 and in fields where life experience and other content development matters, the education you might get at outside the curated environments of the Elites might be not just equivalent but better. At Caltech (no capital T, BTW, people get stupidly upset about it), there are 800 students —maybe 50 needed what could only be provided there. The rest could have gotten what they got at a lot of other places.

      3. bj said,

        “Math is special because it is so —there’s a better word— linear. So one might know the top 10 mathematicians when they are 17.”

        Yeah, and math has a lot of young virtuosos, so it’s important to have advanced material available to young students.

      4. Math is special because…

        Although I believe math is “special,” I would hesitate to say it is unique. Rather, I subscribe to Tolstoy’s happy family theory, that each discipline is special in its own way.

        Except communications. Those people are just idiots who shouldn’t be in college at all. And (coincidentally?) Harvard has no communications concentration…

      5. “Harvard offers elite experiences to academic superstars that are simply unavailable most other places.”

        My point is that experience is relevant to a small minority of students in general and also at Harvard.

        And, you that even that elite experience can be offered at a number of different schools, including flagship publics. In CS, for example, Harvard ranks fairly poorly, and Yale even worse.

    2. My experience is with a super elite, an elite, and a flagship public, and only in science classes. I think that the level and quality of the instruction in those 3 was pretty similar (in science). The broad peer group was broader at the elite & flagship public (but my super elite was very specialized). But, there were enough of the extraordinary peers at the other two (and potentially a few more at the flagship public, because it was bigger). Yes, it’s easier to find each other when everyone is curated, but you can still find each other (both other students and faculty) in the bigger spaces, especially in science/math.

      1. bj said,

        “I think that the level and quality of the instruction in those 3 was pretty similar (in science).”

        Isn’t college science instruction generally pretty poor (pedagogically speaking)?

        Hometown U. has a summer seminar for new faculty that is (according to what I’ve heard) mostly devoted to breaking junior science faculty of the habit of reading from the book during lectures.

  3. I’ve heard local people who are in a position to know credit/blame the recent drop in local rents on fewer international students. The students from Asia looking for apartments get steered into a pretty small area of Pittsburgh. Personally, I think the rents are dropping because there has been so much new construction and the owners of the older apartments aren’t happy that they either need to upgrade or drop prices.

  4. I work at an “elite”institution (cannot help anyone with admissions, I am a lowish level job!). i think you underestimate the power of money here. There is SO MUCH MONEY for summer jobs, internships, fellowships. It is not just fancy buildings! every department on campus wants the attention of undergrads. I think the fact that Nathan Chen can go to Yale and still think he can compete as an Olympic figure skater (and Chloe Kim thinks she can go to Princeton and still be a snowboarder?? there are no mountains near Princeton, what is she thinking?) says something about even elite college life in the US. The marketing is so powerful and is an essential part of working here!

  5. I find it striking that none of these Americans are trying to cheat their way into MIT or Caltech (or for that matter, RISD or Parsons or FIT). They know they couldn’t hack it there! I understand there is quite a bit of cheating among international students to get into those tech colleges though. And art schools are a whole other story

    1. spiralstars said,

      “I find it striking that none of these Americans are trying to cheat their way into MIT or Caltech (or for that matter, RISD or Parsons or FIT).”

      Yeah, that did stand out.

      Does somebody want to do a table of declared majors of the kids from the cheating families?

      Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen!

      1. ?

        Small sample size, anyone?

        Most of the applicants seemed to need to cheat on the SAT/ACT tests. They’re not going to be aiming at engineering schools. Plus, many of the parents were finance or Hollywood types. Again, neither engineering nor design types. Also, the parents seemed to be mainly based on the west coast, which explains the interest in Stanford, USC, UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego. Parsons, MIT, FIT, and RISD are far away from LA.

        The biggest problem is the cheating on the standardized tests. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/14/us/sat-act-cheating-college-admissions.html

        I look at the price differential. Arranging for test cheating was much, much less expensive than bribing coaches. ($10K per vs. $250,000 and up.) As I believe in supply and demand, that says to me that there’s more suppliers bidding to provide test fakery services. (That might be a core offering for the expensive college counseling outfits.)

        A standardized test is only useful if it’s actually taken by the student. I rather wonder if some of the colleges which have gone “test optional” recently noticed a trend of student performance not matching standardized test performance, especially for certain subsets of students?

        I searched for “hired test taker” and found lots of links. But guess what? There are ways to combat proxy testing: Test centers might also record the test subjects on digital video, and put the test taker’s photo right on the certification report. “Proxy testing used to be a big thing,” says Pearson’s Poyiadgi. “But once we required digital photos and digital signatures it disappeared.” https://www.computerworld.com/article/2490886/it-skills-training-pirates-cheats-and-it-certs.html?page=3

      2. “A standardized test is only useful if it’s actually taken by the student.”

        Made me chuckle. I read a lot about the technical details of standardized testing. There are an awful lot of points that are truly debateable. But, it is indeed indisputable that a standardized test is only useful if it’s actually taken by the student.

  6. Laura wrote:

    “It’s also hard to maintain a high moral high ground, when another 30 percent of your incoming class are the children of wealthy factory owners in China.”

    What elite college is this true of?

    Harvard’s admitted class of 2022 is 22.9% “Asian American” and Yale is 19.3% “Asian”. I was looking up Columbia and NYU and their total Asian percentage is also around 20%. Elsewhere, elite colleges have been putting their fingers heavily on the scale to keep the total percentage of Asian students down. And those numbers presumably include 100% true blue actual Asian-Americans, including South Asians…

    “So, you have to imagine the cops coming to your door saying that arrested a criminal who was breaking into your shed. Yay. Aren’t you happy? And, oh by the way, the cops say, what are all those unopened boxes of televisions doing in your shed?”

    That is a funny analogy!

    “And by pointing out all the problems and rot in elite universities, it totally trashes their brand, which is about they only thing that they have going for them.”

    Let’s not forget that top state colleges are also very fond of their full-pay foreign Asian applicants…

    This is an old story (so I didn’t have the time to look up current numbers), but as of 2011,

    “Nearly 18 percent of the UW’s freshman class is from another country, and more than half of those students are from China. It’s a dramatic increase from six years ago, when only 2 percent of the school’s freshmen came from other countries.”

    https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/foreign-enrollment-skyrockets-for-uw/

    1. Enrollment by international students is decreasing dramatically at our university and this may be a nationwide phenomenon post-Trump. I don’t have time to look up the numbers, tbh. (Right now I’m supposed to be writing a proposal to revise admissions standards for our Honors Program because I have a shaming deadline: I’m going to be at a meeting Monday with the admissions person I met with a month ago when I agreed to write this proposal, and I’d like to be able to say “Oh yeah, I have a draft proposal ready!”)

      1. If you’re thinking of Chinese students, it’s probably due to Chinese currency controls instituted in 2016 to combat capital flight. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-11-21/china-s-capital-controls-keep-a-very-bad-year-from-getting-worse

        The exchange quota for citizens is $50,000, which probably won’t cover full pay and living expenses at a university.

        The social credit system introduced recently probably discourages trying to get around the limits.

  7. Class size really does make a difference in foreign languages–you get more active practice the smaller the class is, which means you make more progress.

    I don’t know how things are now, but I was a Russian major at USC in the 90s, and it was not uncommon for advanced classes to have 4-6 students.

  8. The elite schools aren’t victims. They built the “side door”. If all the coaches were like the Stanford coach, who deposited the bribes into university accounts, I think they would be spinning like mad to cover it up. The whole purpose of giving coaches this option was to create avenues outside the regular admissions process. The sailing coach, or tennis coach doesn’t have the same power as a football coach at Ohio State or Nebraska. If the universities didn’t want this avenue into the school, they wouldn’t let them have those options. The system worked almost as designed, the universities just didn’t get the cash.

      1. Ok, they are victims because they didn’t get the cash, but it’s less like a car dealership and more like a drug dealer complaining that a junkie ripped him off.

      2. Yes! Harvard gets the money for a building in exchange for admitting Jared Kushner? Perfectly okay! Some schlub in the athletic department sees this, and sells a soccer admit? Not okay, total theft! Harvard is the victim! In one case, they tolerated some diminution of the brand in exchange for benefits. In the other case, brand diminution, no benefits to the institution. Easy-Peasy!

    1. Peggy Noonan has written a mash note for Tennessee Tech, which sounds a lot like George Mason and Purdue:
      “I’ll tell you where I saw 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. . . .
      Here is a school that is an antidote to that. Three years ago I went to a smallish school that enrolls mostly students who are the first in their families to go to college. It was Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville. A lot of the kids are local, a racial and ethnic mix, immigrants and children of immigrants. They were so mature—gracious, welcoming, quick with smart questions on presidents and policy. At a reception I complimented a young woman on her pretty cocktail dress. She smiled and said, “I got it from the clothes closet.” I shook my head. The Clothes Closet, she explained, is where students go to get something to wear to a job interview or an event like this one. People contribute what they’ve got, the students can always put something nice together. In time they contribute clothes too.
      Cheryl Montgomery, the college’s director of development, laughed when I called her about it this week and told me that the closet, which had literally been a closet, is now in an office renovated to function as one. “We’ve got everything,” she said. “Men’s suits, women’s professional suits and dresses, ties, belts, shoes. We don’t want a student to worry, ‘Am I dressed appropriately?’ ” Interviews are hard enough. A lot of students don’t have anyone in their lives to help them. “Last Friday a gentleman who’s a quite spiffy dresser came to see me, a very successful businessman, and he donated four sport coats, a trove of men’s dress slacks and very nice button-down shirts, all in style.” When a cash donation comes in, it goes toward clothes for the unusually large and the unusually small.
      I came away from Tennessee Tech thinking what I always think when I see such schools: We’re going to be OK.”

      1. That was worth the read.

        But, will there always be a Tennessee Tech, and will any of those students reach the positions of power that we see, say, the Tiger Daughter/Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld following: Harvard/Yale Law/Kavanaugh clerkship/some other appeals court clerkship? And, potentially, eventually a supreme court clerkship (she says she’s going to serve in the Army, but that’s something I’m going to keep my eye on), some years at big law, and then an appeals court appointment, . . . .

        I think the flip side of the complaints about elite colleges is the undermining of the “ellis island” colleges (a term from Abraham Verghese about ellis island hospitals that provide entry for immigrant doctors, specifically, but used here more generally for schools that offer entry to the american dream).

      2. Bee Jay, the trajectory you are predicting for Sophia C-R is certainly plausible, and it’s less likely I think that Sophia C-R would succeed that spectacularly if she went to Rutgers/Creighton etc. I think the problem is worse where you have a difficult time determining competence, so you look for certification – here is a similar mash note for my kid’s school, George Mason: https://flipboard.com/@WashPost/no-bribery-needed-to-go-to-george-mason-a-university-of-strivers%2C-not-schemers/f-f848f56922/washingtonpost.com and it notes that engineer/podiatrist/nurse practitioner are less susceptible to the certification effects of HYP. Arizona is going in the same direction, and I am pretty favorably disposed to the ‘striver’ schools, as you can likely tell.

  9. The benefit of going to an Ivy or elite school is not the content of the courses but getting to know other elite students who will become your friends and marital partners—it’s how the “old boys club” forms. These are the connections that will help you throughout your life. It’s not what you know but who you know that makes you elite.

  10. I think that you are overestimating the requirement that an institution police itself against the rules that requires people to follow. Yes, one can make the case for universities that there is a willful disregard of verifying that their rules are being followed, but that doesn’t mean that when clear violations are discovered, they can’t embrace the idea that they are the victims.

    I haven’t been paying attention to the lawsuit by the students — the shifting one that tries to allege that they have been defrauded because their applications weren’t considered appropriately by the schools named in the FBI case. But, I think the motive for that case (in addition to the financial/etc. motives that are part of the class action lawsuit business) is to force universities to confront their willful disregard of the rules (and, potentially uncover more malfeasance).

    I hope that lawsuit will gain some traction, because I do not believe that the effect on the brand, for schools like Harvard, will be sufficient to have any impact on the market. Maybe USC and Georgetown might feel a bit of impact, but, not sure how much, even for them.

    1. Your late to the party. Anand Giridharadas, “Winners Take All” (philanthropists are trying to buy safety with their do-gooding) has been dining out on this guy since the admissions story broke.

      “https://www.ft.com/video/ca6f15c2-b624-4a2b-bb81-0d1a72bd13de”

  11. The scandal is a good argument for higher marginal income tax rates, since it would have been much harder to catch if they hadn’t tried to make their bribery tax deductible.

  12. This discourse about Chinese students buying their way into elite schools really bothers me. Maybe because it echoes complaints about African American students and affirmative action. I work at an elite SLAC. The Chinese students I’ve had in my psci classes are amazing. Are their parents filthy rich? No idea. Do they have the intellectual firepower to be at my school? Most certainly.

    Also, classes at the intro level across institutions are not at all the same. I would never teach out of a text book (even for intro to American politics). My students hate it when they are taught from a textbook. We read articles and books from the field.

    1. Thanks for chiming in with info.

      The numbers aren’t all in one place, but it looks like a number of the elites have 20% or so international students, of which a 1/3 or so are of Chinese origin. And, Asian-American students are, in the college stats, not foreign students. So, “30 percent of your incoming class are the children of wealthy factory owners in China” is certainly not true.

      English language skills among Chinese students can be an issue at our flagship public, especially in discussion based classes. The general attitude is to figure out ways to accommodate both the language skills and the cultural differences, and for some, that will change the class significantly. And there is evidence of systemic fraud in test taking in foreign sites. But neither of those factors should be used to question Chinese students in general (just as the fraudulent backstories produced by the Landry School in Louisiana shouldn’t be used to complain about 1st gen African American students in general).

      But foreign test fraud, weighting of admissions to legacy and rich kids athletics, fraudulent back stories, and bribery and cheating in the US certainly contribute to a general story.

  13. Jonah Goldberg wrote:

    “If there’s a maxim that should serve as a golden rule for policymakers, it’s this: Complexity is a subsidy. The more complex we make a system, the more it rewards people with the resources (social, cognitive, political or financial) to navigate them. A system that rewards subjective priorities — in the name of diversity, athletics, social justice, donations, preferences for legacy students, whatever — creates opportunities for bureaucrats, parents and students to game the system.

    “You’re never going to create a system where some parents won’t do anything and everything to help their kids. All you can do is create a system that makes it more difficult to cheat or exploit loopholes. That requires clear, simple rules applicable to everyone.”

    https://nypost.com/2019/03/17/the-college-admissions-scandal-should-make-everyone-furious/

    1. This is a reason why things like work requirements for receiving food stamps (or the complexity of the FAFSA) are problematic. Conservative allocators of government resources seem make a extreme case for making sure that the undeserving don’t get the allocation — producing significant complexity in the system.

      From my point of view, we need enough complexity that we meet our goals (say, people getting handicapped parking stickers when they need them) with the goal that the system work right some percent of the time, knowing that we can’t get it right all the time without introducing complexity to a level that makes the service only available to a few. What we debate is what percent that needs to be.

    2. Look, convergence of ideas — Tim Wu making the complexity point for the left. He makes it generally but does include a reference to the idea that complexity is sometimes introduced to placate conservatives and marketing (meaning the idea that markets can solve all the problems.)

      “https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/21/opinion/democrats-complexity.html?action=click&module=MoreInSection&pgtype=Article&region=Footer&contentCollection=Opinion“

  14. Or, two Stanford students! They are the victims! Two Stanford students also filed a federal class-action lawsuit, implicating Stanford, USC, UCLA, the University of San Diego, the University of Texas at Austin, Wake Forest University, Yale University and Georgetown University.

    The students allege the rigged system denied them a fair chance to matriculate at the elite institutions and could tarnish their degrees from Stanford.

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