The Four Unspoken Rules for Getting Into College

The recent college admissions scandal is spectacular in its size and scope, but hardly surprising. Let me make four major points.

  1. Whenever there are scarce resources in much demand and a non-market solution is used to allocate those resources, there are bound to be problems.

At the schools involved in this admissions scandal, there are probably at least five applicants for every student admitted. In a competitive market, prices will be forced up to the point that the number of buyers equals the quantity supplied. Harvard has an Admissions Committee; McDonald’s does not. Selective universities gain prestige by turning away customers. Universities deliberately sell their services at below equilibrium prices, benefiting mainly relatively affluent kids who make up the bulk of the applicant pool. Admission to a top-ranked school may be worth one million dollars over four years, yet is sold by the school for dramatically less ($250,000 or less). Therefore, some parents think it makes good sense financially to use shady, morally reprehensible means of achieving admissions.

This is particularly true for those wanting in the very top schools. Raj Chetty and his team of researchers have estimated the average family income of students at many Ivy League schools is about $500,000 a year (the median is “only” around $200,000). Rich kids want to network and bond with other rich kids, and if necessary, using an unscrupulous “private admissions counselor” to bribe your child into Elite U is money well spent. It is unfair, immoral, and prevents admission of some more deserving kids – but it happens. And rich kids then network with other rich kids and get super jobs through family connections.

  1. This problem has existed at some level for decades, probably as long as there have been selective admissions.

Daniel Golden, Harvard alum and an ex-Wall Street Journal reporter, wrote a great book in 2005: The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates. The lure of big dollars for buildings, endowments, etc., lead schools to sometimes accept the otherwise underqualified kids or grandchildren of very wealthy alumni. The “donation” may reach into the millions. The very overt preference schools give to alumni children (legacy admissions) is common, and no doubt also leads to some abuses.

Even at my only mildly selective university (Ohio University), as long as 40 years ago I heard stories about a dean who accepted a large bribe to let a kid into the medical school (!) he headed, and many years ago, I even heard rumors of an unscrupulous but fortunately long departed admissions official offering admission to a student in return for sexual favors.

Therefore, it is not only the elite private schools where this is a huge problem, as the recent scandal revealed (involving students at public flagship schools UCLA and the University of Texas, or UT.) A number of years ago UT Board of Regent member, Wallace Hall, complained publicly and aggressively about the admission of kids of politically powerful people despite poor academic records.

[Today’s College Admissions Scandal Started Years Ago]

The alums, some fellow Regents and UT and key politicians ostracized him and even tried to get him impeached (probably the only university trustee ever to face that indignity). The evidence shows Hall was absolutely correct, and the problem was widespread. In a recent interview with the Texas Tribune, Hall said “Politicians who take money and free dinners from people and then get their kids into universities are engaging in the same quid pro quo arrangements as the guy caught taking cash for the same service.”

  1. So-called “Holistic” Admissions Criteria Allow for Corruption and Dilution of Academic Values.

Most top schools claim they now use a “holistic” admissions process to assure they do not attract nerdy dweebs possessing little personality but great test scores. This issue is at the heart of the current Harvard lawsuit alleging discrimination against Asians. In most parts of the world, admission to top schools is based strictly on academic performance – how well the student did in secondary school and/or how he or she did on a college entrance examination. Not in the United States. Why? Many factors are at work, I think, but very important is affirmative action. Skin coloration is of extreme importance to American university officials, regrettably in my opinion.

The extreme irony of this is demonstrated by Jerome Karabel in another superb book, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. In the interwar era, top Ivy League schools were finishing schools for mostly Protestant kids from wealthy families. Lots of very smart Jewish immigrant kids started applying, and effectively quotas were placed on numbers admitted. Aside from being anti-Semitic, it was an embarrassment, and led after World War II toward more objective criteria based on academic merit —hence the College Boards were born (today’s SAT test).

In modern times, in order to accommodate racial minorities not meeting high academic standards, the Ivies and other top schools have reverted to allowing admissions counselors and committees more discretion, opening the door to corruption, and bribes (although cheating on the SAT played a role in the latest scandal as well). The SAT is being downplayed by some schools that are now “test optional.”

  1. The Absurdity of the Role of Athletics Plays in Admissions Is a National Embarrassment. 

The notion that American colleges and universities are really quasi-country club/finishing school institutions providing a gap period between secondary school and the Real World rather than places where intellectual exploration and discovery is Job One is reinforced by the ridiculous emphasis put on proficiency in using balls – tennis balls, basketballs, volleyballs, footballs, soccer balls, etc. We see kids getting into schools like the University of Southern California on the basis of their alleged ability to handle balls. Nowhere else in the world is that an important or usually even any consideration in evaluating a student for admissions.

Bottom line: our admissions process is badly flawed. I blame it partly on the decline in the predominance in academic values coinciding with the bureaucratization of the university. Administrators are crowding out faculty not only numerically but in terms of power. I blame it partly on our academic obsession with evaluating people on the basis of group characteristics, not individual merit. What would Alexis de Tocqueville say visiting 21st century America, learning that students bribe their way into a ticket for economic success by lying about their ability to hit tennis balls? Is that the new American exceptionalism?

A final word. I fear the politicians will try to score points by trying to “solve” this problem. While changes are needed, I worry about the federal government attempting to take over a competitive, decentralized system of higher education.  The cure could be far worse than the disease.

Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder directed the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and teaches economics at Ohio University. He is also an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His new book, "Restoring the Promise: American Higher Education Today," will be published this spring.

9 thoughts on “The Four Unspoken Rules for Getting Into College

  1. We’ve heard from schools on how they are tightening up their athletic recruiting. But we’ve not yet heard from two important culprits here: ACT, and the College Board, purveyor of the SAT. The companies that allowed these kids to get approved for 2 day testing that had essentially no supervision and allowed unlimited cheating.

    Without that, most of these kids would not have had the SAT and ACT scores to try to get in via the athletic side door. In fact there’s not a single one of those cases publicized (did I forget any?) where there wasn’t a fudged SAT or ACT score. Kids who had already done pretty well on those exams were willing to take their chances with the un-corrupted process, it seems. (Or else, the cases were detected because of the test cheating — which would suggest there’s lots of athletic cheating still undiscovered.)

    SAT and ACT have no right to be silent here. They need to own their culpability and say how they won’t let it happen again. Or else, they should be investigated by Congress. There are various other scandals with their tests — international testing comes to mind — that could fill out the docket of a congressional subcommittee.

  2. “Whenever there are scarce resources in much demand and a non-market solution is used to allocate those resources, there are bound to be problems.”

    Very true. But equally true, as the author noted:
    “So-called “Holistic” Admissions Criteria Allow for Corruption and Dilution of Academic Values.”

    Indeed.
    And in the end, the Market will out.

    When formerly elite programs bypass merit, and choose instead “holistics” or “demographics”, or — in the case of Varsity Blues — sheer $’s to build enrollments, or stack faculty, quality dies. If rigorous standards would otherwise limit ‘holistics’ then rigor, obviously, must go. As rigor evaporates and program quality withers, the graduate becomes weak. And when top-notch firms hire high-rep grads from high-rep schools….only to discover that in place of ‘gems’ they’ve purchased gravel, the value of the high-rep commodity crashes and burns.

    What we witness with this latest scandal (and the accompanying public hue&cry) is simply the open recognition of the dirty, little secret known for years by hiring managers throughout corporate America: a glossy degree from a glossy place and a shiny $1 bill won’t even get you a good cup of coffee.

    In fact, the outrage at the ability of the so-called ‘elite’ (albeit a second tier, B-list elite) to buy glossy degrees, from declining programs, for their clueless progeny is actually more amusing than outrageous. A twit with a glossy degree is still quite obviously a Twit. And the more eagerly & enthusiastically high-rep institutions throw themselves upon the Twit-held sword of anti-merit, the more quickly their ‘brand’ will crash & burn.

    The American auto industry PAINFULLY learned this lesson back in the 80’s when reliable, high-quality foreign product displaced & destroyed a fat and careless industry. So too will the Know-Nothing College Graduate destroy an equally fat and careless Academy which equally has lost completely an understanding of who and what they’re supposed to be. We suspect they don’t really care.

    In the end, what has been happening already on a small scale will only enlarge and accelerate. Market dollars will stop flowing to the Glossy & Clueless and will move instead to those individuals who have demonstrated (in much less-glossy places) their ability to think critically, to work effectively, and to consistently and efficiently produce high quality results. Many of those success stories will not even come from the Academies (see Mike Rowe on Work & the Good Life).

    And in the meantime, Buffy can get her picture photoshopped with the Crew Team…. Biff can gather his 4.0 with a degree in Self-Adulation….and names that used to be uttered with awe and envy will become little more than the punch lines to a knowing snicker.

    As Eliot said, ““Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead.”

  3. An interesting concept that I’d have taken one step further — why are colleges selective in the first place? Arguably, by admitting the best students, they are ensuring having the best graduates and hence are maintaining brand quality. Except that by watering down their applicant quality, they are watering down their product quality (i.e. the quality of their graduates) and thus jeopardizing the long-term quality of their brand name.

    The example often given is that of a sausage company which is highly regarded for the quality of its product but increasingly uses cheaper and lower-quality meat which results in a lower-quality product. Eventually it gets to the point where people realize that the brand name doesn’t mean anything anymore and hence the product no longer can be sold for a premium price.

    Conversely, is there truly excessive demand from the cadre of highly selective students or does there merely appear to be, and how much of it is artificially influenced by governmental policies? The average tuition discount rate of private institutions is currently something like 47%, they wouldn’t be discounting their tuition like that if they could actually charge even more. And look at the caliber of the purported students who entered college via this scandal, they’re definitely degrading the selectivity….

    So how many students are there who could both meet the highly selective standards and pay the exorbitant tuition — and how many of the latter merely drift through a watered-down institution merely for credentialing purposes? In other words, is the Harvard degree still highly regarded because of what it meant in the 1950’s, and because people haven’t yet realized that the quality isn’t there anymore….

    And what will happen when they do?

  4. The last point about sports should really be more about the amount of emphasis. A person’s ability to work hard and excel at a sport is laudable and likely to translate to success in other areas of their life. It is something that should be considered like any other extra-curricular activity. I agree, however, that we have taken it too far particularly in basketball and football.

  5. The balls are important beyond admissions. Where the balls are bid, and profitable for football, basketball, for example, the favoritism extends to class schedules, class performance and general coddling. Look at “one-and-done” practices at big named basketball schools, now just pro league farm clubs.

  6. the average family income of students at many Ivy League schools is about $500,000 a year (the median is “only” around $200,000). Rich kids want to network and bond with other rich kids,

    The first sentence contradicts the second. If the average is $500 K, and the median is $200K, then the mode, the most common value, is under $200 K. Obviously a small number of very-rich are driving this average, and the “typical” income is much, much lower.

    And so what you’re saying here is the majority of students come from family incomes much less than $500 K–so most of them cannot be “rich kids” seeking to bond and network with other “rich kids”. $500 K is pretty affluent, and to some it may be “rich”, but $200 K is not rich

    1. I disagree — neither of us knows what the mode (or modes) actually is/are, and it is impossible to guess without access to the actual data.

      Above and beyond that, I also maintain that $200K is “rich” — remember that the median family income in 2017* was $73,891 so an income 2.7 times more than the median to be “rich” — much as one 2.7 times less ($27,368) would be considered “poor.” (In 2017, a child from a family of four with an income below $31,980 would have received a free school lunch, a common definition of “poor.”

      Yes. I know that one can not statistically draw standard deviations on the basis of free school lunch eligibility, but in terms of how family resources are viewed as impacting on K-12 education, $200K is rich…

      Look at it a different way — what can $500K provide a child that $200K can’t? What “things” will the parents with only a $200K income be unable to provide that they would if they had a $500K income? (NB: Not “could” but “would.”

      *I used 2017 to have a common reference.

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