Campus of Stanford University, one alleged members of the Operation Varsity Blues scandal

College Admissions Madness

The Operation Varsity Blues college admissions scandal brought the topic of college admissions front and center in America this week. Are college admissions fair and equitable? If not, what needs to change? We discuss in our Political Pen Pals series. If you like what you read, check out more Political Pen Pals debates here.


Dear Joe: I am sure you have seen the most recent college admissions 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. 

My best,
Joe

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…

Be sure to check out more Political Pen Pals debates here.

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Civic entrepreneurship. Civil discourse. Radical centrism.

Taylor Rose

Taylor Rose is a Strategic Planning Advisor at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, former McKinsey & Company consultant, and alumnus of MIT. 

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Paul Adams
1 year ago

Very well-written and to a sound and logical premise. What I liked about this piece is that it came across as a message of unity, despite the fact that this is obviously a big blow to the reputation of colleges as bastions of diversity and egalitarianism. This article exposes the facade; we see that the plutocracy in this country has corrupted just about all of our sacred institutions with their avarice and their acceptance of Machiavellian tactics. Their agenda is to keep the wealth concentrated at the top and one malfeasant and criminal tactic involves ensuring that their offspring—the entitled one’s, which they have no qualms about behaving like entitled punks (I lived with a lot of them when they took over my Irish-American ghetto in Boston called South Boston or Southie and they have no manners, respect, or empathy) into the Ivy League Mafia. Think about this, they have learned that they could skate by in life by being a mediocre or even a terrible student because money talks and bullshit walks. The Ivy League Mafia and its propagation of intellectual laziness and the acceptance of mediocrity is a problem. But the biggest problem is that these mediocre or shitty upper class students are conditioned at a young age that breaking the rules is how one gets by—it’s how we survive and stay in the upper class. The ramifications of this culture has serious affects on the lives of ordinary folks. Entitled and avaricious criminals started the Great Recession by giving out bad mortgages to the poor (a majority black) and taking out insurance on the bad mortgages. So while we suffered, the mediocre elites believe not only do rules not apply to them, but that empathy, honesty, and service to others are the hallmark virtues of the weak. I was born in a housing project in Boston. I was lucky to do well enough in school that Boston College High School defrayed the cost of my tuition if I used my free periods to work for the school. And that school taught me how be spiritually healthy and joyful. We are meant to serve our fellow man. At BC High we say that the grad at graduation knows what it means to “be a man for others.” Those mediocre folks who are not monsters but very spiritually sick, may never understand that the divine fingerprint of God is in everything, particularly humanity. And my point is this: this article talked about “poor folks” rather than trying to associate race with poverty. This great article did not even assume that all of the elites are white. Yet it did talk about the dire need to be exposed to diversity in college. I truly enjoyed this piece. Thank you.

Emperor Publishing LLC

My husband and I found it ironic that news of this scandal was released a day after we had a conversation with our kids about the whole idea of “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” mentality that is prevalent in the thinking of many US citizens. We told them that this idea is a boatload of malarkey and that in reality everyone needs a hand and everyone who achieves in life is helped by someone else.

NO ONE PULLS THEMSELVES UP BY THEIR OWN BOOTSTRAPS! Sure people who make it work hard (LOL- except those who are the children of the mega wealthy-as evidenced by the scandal) but even those who work hard are helped in some way by someone else. We told them parents of successful kids will “cheat” for their kids sometimes. They will “complete their kids homework sometimes.” so they don’t fall behind, and if they can afford it they “will hire tutors” to help their child.

Kids in better socioeconomic strata’s have more access to opportunities and are better versed at navigating systems because they often know more people and are able to get answers to problems and get them solved faster. They are also less fearful of authority and will go to battle for their kids in those systems when they have to.

Do not be deceived into thinking the only reason poorer children do poor in schools is because of the “poor schools.” It’s often because their parents don;t know how to maneuver within that system, so NEVER think you are better than someone else because you are successful-it is most likely because you have experienced a privilege and been exposed to opportunities that other kids may not have been afforded.

Boom!-The very next day we were proven to be correct. Me personally, if I had $500,000 to bribe someone to get my kid in a college I would never do it. Not so much because I am morally better than those parents (although I am) It’s mainly because I am cheap. If I had that kind of money, seriously, what would I even need their college for? I could send my kid ANYWHERE and they would be successful! And I’d have a whole lot more money for myself to hang out in Hawaii!