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Dear Joe: I am sure you have seen the most recent college admission scandal: Operation Varsity Blues. To tell you the truth, I can’t say I’m shocked. Rich parents have always been buying their kids into elite universities. How else could Jared Kushner have gotten into Harvard? Sometimes this corruption takes the form of large donations and named buildings. More often, it is middle and upper class parents buying their kids hours of SAT tutoring or tennis lessons.
We have grown used to a false narrative that elite colleges are meritocratic and the recent revelations destroy a piece of that narrative. I think we need to take this opportunity to look at American universities and ask if they really do have fair admissions processes. We can dig up the age old debate about affirmative action, but I think this scandal also raises questions about the legitimacy of considering legacy status, athletic ability, and even test scores (which rich kids inevitably perform better on after hours of expensive tutoring) in admissions.
What do you think, Joe? Is this a sign that the system is rigged for rich kids or is it a one off?
Dear Taylor: Glad to hear you fired up, as always. Don’t let these passions get the best of you, though. You must concede that there is an important difference between literal bribery in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, where federal crimes may have been committed and individuals may be going to jail, and other admissions quirks such as legacy and athletic admissions. I think the former is wrong. I am not sure about the latter.
I think it is easy to criticize admissions processes from the outside, but admissions officers have an incredibly difficult job. They process thousands of applications and have to balance a university’s competing interests. A university cares about academic achievement, of course. It should also care about diversity (of background and experience; of race, religion, gender, socioeconomic status) based on the idea that diversity enhances the fullness of an education. (I would note here that I agree with this interest and, as a result, support affirmative action.) Another legitimate interest of a university is financial. Rejecting the child of a wealthy donor inhibits that goal. Universities care about school pride, too, so rejecting the star quarterback recruit isn’t productive.
American universities are the best in the world. People come from all over to attend our universities. At the same time, a college degree is one of the great equalizers of opportunity and tools of upward mobility. These are things we should be proud of.
This scandal was wrong. But we shouldn’t forget what is right with higher education in the United States.
Hey Joe, I’m glad we agree on something! I’m also a big proponent of affirmative action and racially, religiously, and socioeconomically diverse student bodies. However, I worry that our admissions officers aren’t always achieving these goals.
In 2017, the New York Times collected data on over 2,000 US colleges and the socioeconomic brackets from which their students came. At 38 colleges in the US, including five of the eight Ivies, more students came from top 1% homes (annual income greater than $630k) than from the bottom 60% (annual income less than $65k). When you look at the ultra-rich population, the picture becomes even more bleak. One quarter of kids from a top 0.1% home will go to an Ivy or other elite college yet less than one percent of kids from the bottom 20% of American families will go to one of these universities. I honestly can’t imagine a worse depiction of inequality. If you’re rich, you have a pretty good shot of getting into a top university in the US. If you’re poor though, good luck.
The problem with this is that you’re right–colleges in America should be the great equalizer. But when our elite institutions are accepting far more students from prosperous homes, how can they do this? While I understand that it’s expensive to run a modern research institution (heck, I fundraise for MIT: please donate at giving.mit.edu), I also believe that our universities have a duty to educate students from across the income spectrum.
I acknowledge that children from upper-income households are more likely to apply to college in general, so there are certainly things we must do to improve the pipeline into these colleges at an earlier stage. But the makeup of elite colleges’ student bodies implies that many schools are prioritizing fundraising and athletics over other, more meritorious, factors like socioeconomic diversity. I personally think that’s as much of an issue, if much more nuanced and subtle, as a handful of coaches accepting bribes.
Taylor: Thanks for the response. You focus a lot on “elite” colleges but perhaps we should consider the public universities in America. In your article, a relatively similar proportion of the top 1% and bottom 20% attend public universities, which is encouraging. These are great academic institutions–over fifteen of the top fifty universities in the 2019 U.S. News and World Report are public universities. And your article shows that selective public universities strongly promote upward mobility.
Beyond selective public universities, your article points out the great work high “mobility rate” universities do, too. The article lists ten schools like the City College of New York that move over one third of their applicants from the bottom 40% of income earners to the top 40%. Amazing! Let us not forget the hundreds of schools that are need blind in admissions processes and the dozens meet the full demonstrated financial need of applicants.
We could go on as I am sure that we will. I believe there is more right with the American university system than there is wrong. Do there need to be improvements? Sure. I would argue for increased intellectual (read: political) diversity on campus, but that is an argument for another day. Today, let’s just agree that Operation Varsity Blues was wrong.
And if I can proposed one more agreement, let’s watch some March Madness. You can root for the teams that didn’t recruit and admit student athletes… I’ll be rooting for Duke.
Taylor Rose is a Strategic Planning Advisor at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, former McKinsey & Company consultant, and alumnus of MIT for whom she continues to fundraise…
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