Lessons and non-lessons from the college admissions scandal

The college admission fraud revelations are a scandal of some significance. The fraudulent behavior was reprehensible and fairly widespread.

There are lessons to be learned. I agree with Heather Mac Donald that the two main ones are that “an elite college degree has taken on wildly inflated importance in American society, and the sports-industrial complex enjoys wildly inflated power within universities.”

However, some of the lessons being extracted from the scandal are specious, in my view. In this post, I will discuss three of them.

First, the scandal does not show that college isn’t a meritocracy. The vast majority of white college students are admitted because of their merit — high school grades, test scores, extracurricular activity, teacher recommendation, etc., or in some cases exceptional athletic ability. The vast majority of black and Hispanic students are admitted based on the same considerations, but only as compared to other applicants of the same race or ethnicity. (The same may be true of Asian students, to their great disadvantage). I discuss racial preferences below.

Most legacy students deserve, on merit, to have been admitted. Either they would have been admitted regardless of legacy or the legacy preference simply cancelled out non-merit related disadvantages such as being white and/or being from the suburbs of a big city. Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn, as Heather Mac Donald informs us, that at Middlebury College the legacies admitted had an average SAT score 33 points higher than the class average. At Harvard too, legacies are better candidates on average than other students, according to Harvard’s Dean of Admissions.

Some students, to be sure, are admitted because of factors unrelated to merit. Race and ethnicity are the biggest “culprits,” but connections, cheating, and bribery are also factors in some cases.

However, these cases are exceptional. My sociable Dartmouth daughter could think of only one acquaintance whom she suspected of being admitted because of connections, etc. Undoubtedly there were others (she didn’t tend to hang out with the rich and famous), just as there are beneficiaries of the practices at play in the current scandal who haven’t been identified.

But they are the exception. Their presence in the student body shows that college meritocracy is imperfect, not that it’s a hoax.

Second, the scandal isn’t an argument for or against race-based admissions preferences. Some on the left think that because the scandal has exposed meritocracy as a myth, there’s nothing wrong with departing from it for the benefit of blacks and other minorities. If the admissions process is a sham, why not tilt it in favor of minority group members too, rather than only the rich and famous?

But, as we have seen, the scandal doesn’t show admissions meritocracy to be mythical. The proper response to the scandal is for the system to better guard against abuses so as to make it more merit based, not to stop worrying about other departures from meritocracy, such as race-based preferences.

At the same time, the scandal doesn’t mean that race-based preferences should be eliminated or cut back (though I think they should be cut back significantly). Race-based preferences are a departure from meritocracy, but a different kind of departure than influence peddling, bribery, cheating, etc.

Advocates of race-based preferences advance policy justifications in favor of the practice — e.g., diversity and reparations. Such arguments distinguish this departure from meritocracy from the corrupt ones at issue in the current scandal. The case for race-based preferences stands or falls with these arguments.

I believe the justifications for race-based preferences are largely devoid of merit and, in any event, cannot justify the scope of the preferences in whose name they are doled out. But the current scandal neither strengthens nor weakens my case.

Third, the current scandal doesn’t show that colleges and universities are corrupt. I believe they are corrupt, or at any rate morally and intellectually bankrupt, but the scandal doesn’t prove it.

One component of the scandal is the doctoring of SAT scores. Obviously, colleges and universities are not responsible for this type of abuse.

Another component is fake credentials. This encompasses false claims about athletic accomplishments, false statements about race, and the bribery of gate keepers, especially college coaches.

College administrators aren’t to blame when someone lies about his or her race or achievements. Nor should the corruption of a athletic coach be imputed to them.

There’s a good argument that administrators are negligent if the coaches they employ consistently cause the admission of “athletes” who never play the sport. Certainly, athletic directors should notice the pattern and call it to the administration’s attention.

But negligence isn’t corruption.

College administrations arguably act corruptly when they make sure the children of big contributors get a leg-up in the admissions process. That’s been going on for as long as anyone can remember. The current scandal isn’t about that. As Steve has explained, the current scandal is about ways to manipulate the system when you’re rich, but not rich enough to pay for a new building. These practices generally occur outside the knowledge of administrators.

The current scandal confirms that money can be an asset in the admissions process, just as race and certain ethnicity have become. We’ve always known this.

With money, you can pay for better SAT tutoring. You can visit and apply to more colleges. With enough money, you may be able to buy a leg up.

In other words, the college admissions process is not perfectly fair. It will never be. All we can hope is that, in the wake of this scandal, colleges will endeavor to make it more fair.

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