The college admissions scandal revealed by the FBI last week exposed the willingness of some very wealthy people to lie and cheat to enhance the status of their children. It also resulted in charges against several employees of testing services and prestigious universities, who sold-out their institutions for pure financial gain. These actions may have harmed more deserving applicants to the defrauded academic institutions. Perhaps as sad, the children whose parents cheated are bound to suffer life-long consequences.
Strong prosecution of these crimes will deter other parents entertaining similarly crooked avenues in pursuit of ambitions for their kids. The schools and testing organizations should be motivated to tighten their internal governance processes. My hope, however, is that legislative bodies will refrain from passing new laws in an effort to regulate college admissions. Many schools accept a small percentage of students, legacy or otherwise, who do not meet their academic standards but whose wealthy families make substantial, above-board donations that benefit other students. Putting an abrupt end to these transactions might not be helpful to anyone.
With certain conditions, I do not object to wealthy parents wishing to pay an above-board premium to get their kids into the college of their choice, nor do I object to schools that are free to name their price. First, the school should always receive consideration in an amount adequate to benefit other students or deserving applicants. Second, the acceptance of a privileged but academically inferior student should represent an increment to the school’s freshman class, never taking a coveted slot otherwise filled by a better student. Third, an institution should never guarantee successful completion of a degree program in exchange for such an offer. Fourth, I’d like to see schools make public the number of students falling short of academic qualification whom they accept in exchange for such offers, as well as the aggregate remuneration they receive in all those cases. Fifth and finally, I see no reason why these practices should be limited to private schools. However, a public school’s remuneration must be more than sufficient to make unnecessary any taxpayer subsidies attributable to a new matriculant.
I don’t believe any of these conditions should be a matter of law. Private and public educational institutions are market participants, even if they do engage in non-price rationing. Market incentives should guide institutions to protect the integrity of their brands by awarding degrees only for real academic achievement. This bears on my third and fourth conditions above: no school can guarantee to parents that a degree will be awarded to their child without compromising its integrity. Also, a school’s academic reputation should reflect the extent to which it accepts applicants lacking the school’s minimum standards.
One of the thorniest problems with my conditions has to do with the poor academic standards that actually exist in certain degree programs. These make it possible for bad students to earn diplomas. Grade inflation is all too pervasive, and grade-point averages are notoriously high in some fields, such as education. It may be exceptionally difficult to monitor and prevent instructors from allowing poor students to skate through classes with decent grades. And too obviously and sadly, it’s often the diploma itself that matters to people as a status symbol, rather than real educational achievement. If employers are content to rely on mere signals of that kind, so much the worse.
There’s nothing to be done if that’s all that is demanded of a college education. I think that, more than anything else, is what inflames the passions of Bryan Caplan, who calls the entire system of higher education wasteful. More demanding disciplines have some immunity to this form of decay. Competitive markets might punish schools and employers having weak standards. But wherever the importance of real merit is discounted due to classist loyalties, legal impediments, professions lacking in academic rigor, or any other form of compromise, the diploma signal is paramount, and that is lamentable.
The admissions scandal has prompted howls of indignation directed not only at the cheaters ensnared by the FBI’s “Varsity Blues” operation, but more broadly at the perceived injustices of college admissions in general. The process is said to be unfair because it tolerates admissions for scions of wealthy families and even those who can pay for multiple rounds of standardized tests, multiple application fees, interview “coaches” and the like. These advantages are not unlike those endemic to any market in which ability-to-pay impinges on demand. Yet generally markets do an excellent job of facilitating the development of affordable substitutes. College education is no different, and longstanding mechanisms are in place offering means of payment for academically-qualified applicants who lack adequate resources. The conditions I listed above would enhance that support.
Nevertheless, critics say that the disadvantaged do not get adequate preparation in primary and secondary education to be competitive in college admissions. They are largely correct, but the solutions have more to do with fixing public K-12 education than the college admissions process. Primary and secondary education are almost devoid of competition and real parental choice in disadvantaged communities. There are many other social problems that aggravate the poor performance of public education in preparing students who might otherwise be candidates for higher learning. Realistically, however, the college admissions process cannot be blamed for those problems.