The college-admissions fraud

It seems like last year, but it was only last week that United States Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling announced the indictments and related arrests in the college admissions bribery scheme dubbed Operation Varsity Blues by the authorities. The Department of Justice has posted a press release with links to the charging documents filed so far here. It lists 50 defendants.

Lelling held a big press conference with the FBI that was carried live on cable (video below). I caught it via satellite radio. The Boston Herald quoted highlights in its story on the case.

As the press conference dragged on with a description of the scope and length of the investigation, Lelling inevitably got around to the rationale in terms of the harm done. This is how Melling formulated the harm: “For every student admitted through fraud, an honest and genuinely talented student was rejected.”

I thought about the practice of affirmative action carried on by each of the schools involved in the name of “diversity.” To my knowledge, “diversity” was first invoked by Stephen Douglas to justify the Founders’ toleration of slavery. Now the elite colleges — all of them, not just those involved in the current admissions scandal — invoke the shibboleth of “diversity” to justify their discrimination by race in admissions.

The “diversity” rationale has spread like cancer. For a serious “biography” of the issue, I recommend Peter Wood’s great book, Diversity: The Invention of a Concept. (Quotable quote: “Without [Justice Lewis Powell’s opinion in] Bakke, the diversity argument–the conceit that racial and ethnic diversity are educationally constructive–might have languished along with the labor theory of value and a thousand other bits of leftist rhetoric that never caught on.”)

Who, I wondered, would have the nerve to compare and contrast the current college admissions scandal with the practice of affirmative action in these and other elite colleges? Heather Mac Donald would. She comes at it from her own angle in the City Journal column “Unmasking the college-admissions fraud.” As so-called legacy preferences were brought into the discussion that followed the press conference, Heather had this to say (links omitted):

Racial preferences are a far more significant deviation from academic meritocracy than legacy preferences, which are not even implicated in the current scandal. An underreported but salient detail in the Singer scam [i.e., the Varsity Blues case] is that he “falsified students’ ethnicities,” according to the New York Times, because “some families and students perceive their racial backgrounds can hurt or aid their chances of getting in to schools that consider race in their admissions decisions.” This is not a mere perception; it is the truth.

The claim that blacks are disadvantaged in college admissions, especially compared with legacies, is false. At Middlebury, the admission rate of legacies in the class of 2006 was 45 percent, compared with 27 percent for the entire class, according to the New York Times. But the 30 legacies admitted were also more academically qualified, with an average SAT score of 1,389, 33 points higher than the class average. By contrast, nearly 60 percent of all black and Hispanic applicants were admitted. Though the Times did not report their average SAT scores, it is a virtual certainty, given unbroken national patterns, that they were roughly a standard deviation below the class average.

At Harvard, legacies are better candidates on average than other students, Harvard’s Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons said in a 2011 interview. Nevertheless, blacks get a bigger boost than legacies, despite lower academic scores. In fact, the boost from being black is so strong that Harvard limits the contributions of non-race factors to a black applicant’s composite admissions rating. Just being black quadruples your chances of admission to Harvard. The university claims that if race were not a factor, then the percentage of blacks at the school would fall to 0.6 percent, compared with the current 14 percent. The Asian share of the student body would be at least 43 percent, by Harvard’s own estimate, compared with 18 percent, if race were removed from the admissions equation.

[Defendant William “Rick”] Singer told another parent involved in the scandal, Gordon Caplan, co-chairman of elite law firm Wilkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, that “institutional advancement” (i.e., connections and donations) is “no guarantee” of admission. The admissions officers are “just gonna give you a second look,” he said. Artificially boosting test scores is a better bet, and racial preferences provide the greatest test-score assist. Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor summarize the data in their book, Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended To Help, And Why Universities Won’t Admit It. The University of Michigan in 2003 gave racial minorities 20 extra admission points; legacies got four extra points. A 1990 federal investigation of Harvard’s admission practices found that the SAT scores of legacies were 120 points above those of black students admitted.

Eliminating racial preferences at Harvard (and elsewhere) would have a far greater effect on increasing admission slots for qualified Asians than eliminating legacy admissions, according to Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono, the plaintiffs’ expert witness in the recently concluded Harvard racial-preferences trial, which focused on Harvard’s anti-Asian admissions penalty. On average, Asians admitted from 2010 to 2015 at Harvard outperformed admitted blacks on the SAT by 218 points (admitted whites outperformed admitted blacks by 193 points). Test scores and GPA that would give an Asian only a 25 percent chance of admission at Harvard would be a virtual admissions guarantee—95 percent—for a black student.

To be sure, legacy preferences and racial preferences should both be eliminated….

Heather has more here in her terrific column.


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