What a perfect scandal for 2019! Rich and famous parents, shady fixers, and corrupt employees are splashed across the front pages of newspapers and social media sites. It’s an issue that is easily graspable and instantly infuriating: the wealthy getting whatever they want, once again. It feeds into a growing recognition and alarm about the national and global crisis of economic and social inequality. Finally, almost as if on cue, it helps to escalate the assault on American higher education that has been intensifying in the past few months and that reached a new high (or low) with President Trump’s proposal at CPAC last week that federal funding be pulled from colleges that don’t toe his political line. Plus, the click-baity headlines and hot takes across the Facebook and Twitter-verse basically write themselves.
The dynamic of the hot take is such that every new iteration needs to go a step further. So the debate has moved from the basic observation that the rich have many advantages in the college admissions system (undeniably true) to the argument that what happened in this scandal is not substantively different than what happens legally (more doubtful) to a headline like “All College Admissions Are a Pay-to-Play Scandal” (definitely untrue).
Neither these takes nor this dynamic is particularly surprising. But it has been slightly more surprising to me that virtually no one engaged in these debates seem to have any idea of – or interest in – the concrete ways in which wealth and admission not only do intersect, but MUST intersect for any institution of higher education that is not fully funded by the state. This is not totally surprising when it’s a tweet or post from someone from outside of academia. Colleges and universities do an excellent job of making the whole process as confusing as possible, so there’s no reason to expect that folks will understand. It’s a little more troubling when professional journalists do so. The issues are hard but not unknown or unknowable, and a little bit of research would improve their pieces quite a lot. Plus, the well-known fixation of national media with the richest and most famous universities – the true outliers in the national educational landscape – does not help them understand the vast majority of schools where tuition revenue is a hard constraint rather than a soft one. Most surprisingly, at least to me, is that most of my colleagues who are employed by universities also don’t really know how the system works.
So the point of this piece is to show at a basic level how money and admissions work together, not to defend the players in this week’s scandal – as I’ll argue below, this really is scandalous and harmful behavior – but to defend the work of the vast majority of admissions officers in colleges and universities across the country who do not deserve to have their daily work equated functionally, or especially morally, with the criminal acts that are alleged by the government. Most admissions officers are neither corrupt nor scam artists. To the contrary, many of them do a remarkable job of opening opportunities to larger numbers of non-wealthy students than outside observers may realize.
To reiterate, the fundamental constraint for virtually every admissions officer is that the functioning and survival of their institutions, and for the salaries paid to all of their professor critics on Twitter, is that they have to enroll a student body that can pay the amount indicated in the university budget in the “tuition revenue” line. They have other targets related to other goals, but they must be close to this target every year or they lose their jobs. I know most of us wish this wasn’t the case, but it is the daily reality for these folks. They live in a system of global capitalism, in a country that regularly elects people to cut state education budgets, and in institutions where fees for tuition, room, and board are not luxuries but necessities. If you can envision a world in which this isn’t the case, don’t @ me. I can too. But I don’t think it’s coming in the near future.
At the same time, most people in higher education (including in admissions) understand that one of the core functions of higher education is to provide for social opportunity and social mobility. As a result, no selective institution that I know of allocates its scarce admission spots by price alone. After all, college admissions could operate on a simple supply and demand curve or even adopt a baroque surge pricing system like airlines or Uber as a way to maximize revenue, but maximizing revenue is not what universities are about. It is this fact that created the possibility for the scandal in the first place. Rich folks actually can’t just go out and purchase admission openly.
Each institution deals with the many competing economic pressures and social and institutional goals it faces slightly differently. Let’s take just one simple example. My own institution, Lafayette College, is a relatively wealthy private undergraduate school. It charges a lot of tuition, and it gives a lot of financial aid. I used the latest publicly available data (from IPEDS), from 2016-2017, and rounded some, but for our 2600 students we gave about $48 million in aid out of a total sticker price for enrolled students of $171 million, or about 28%. This was distributed in a variety of ways, with some going to full rides to talented students from economically distressed families, some, less defensibly, to cornerbacks for the football team, and a lot going to fund partial scholarships for middle-class students who could pay some amount of tuition, but not the total $66,000 charged that year. The average net price for students on financial aid was $26,148, less than half of the sticker price.
Let’s say that we wanted to increase the number of talented students who come from poor families. This is something we actually do want to do, and by “we” I mean not just faculty, alumni, and others, but especially the admissions staff. They are the ones who get to know some remarkable potential students who they know would both benefit the institution and derive benefit from it and have to send heart-breaking rejection letters because of financial reasons. In fact, let’s say we wanted not just to increase but to maximize that number. Given the tuition and financial aid amounts in that year, we could have enrolled 28% or 182 such students, a much larger number than we actually did. But the flip side is that the other 468 enrollees would have had to have been full pays. The unwary might think that, given the class inequities present for primary and secondary education, the academic “merit” of the scholarship students would be lower than that of the rich students. This is not the case. There is considerable competition for the limited pool of rich and “meritorious” students. One can quickly slide into the pool of rich and less meritorious students as a result. More importantly, there are a lot of talented and poor students out there. I’m quite confident that the 182nd full scholarship student would be more engaged in my classes than the 468nd full pay student.
But the point I want to make here is that in this case, as in all the other scenarios you might run, there are actually multiple competitions that must take place in every admissions decision-making process. There is a dimension of “merit” that is prominently in play, though I won’t get into the enormous issue of what constitutes merit and how to measure it here. There are, at many institutions, a number of other dimensions too. The ability to excel in an intercollegiate sport is an expensive dimension that is not obviously aligned with the other goals in play, but admissions people don’t get to erase the culture of sports and higher education that developed in America over the course of the twentieth century. There are also leadership and personality dimensions that come into play, sometimes perhaps too much into play (energetic extroverts have a leg up in the game; not coincidentally, most admissions people are energetic extroverts). And there are many other dimensions than these. But it makes no sense to imagine that money should not play a role in this process, unless you believe that an admissions team looking at 10,000 applications to admit 3,000 in order to enroll 700 will organically choose a set of students that will result 700 matriculated students who can collectively afford to pay what the budget requires.
Thus, at some point, the team has to bring all of these measures done by different people on different dimensions into a process that produces a single slate of admitted students (with the hope of enrolling a much smaller group). This process is complicated, confidential for the most part, and largely opaque, not just because these are discussions judging groups of teenagers that ought not to be public but also because providing an exact algorithm would make it even easier for the rich and connected to game the system. It seems unlikely that admissions teams always get this process right. Nor are all of their processes beyond critique. I think there are structural improvements that can be made. And internal oversight must be robust. Admissions teams control a scarce and valuable resource and do so in secret with many parties trying to exert influence on them, so the potential for malfeasance is always present. But in the vast majority of cases, college admissions is not a scam, and, at least in my view, it is neither corrupt nor immoral. It takes place in a global system in which wealth and power inequalities are profound, but it’s a pretty good faith effort to do the best they can in those circumstances.
Finally, let me also suggest a little more complexity when it comes to “legacy” admissions or preferences given to large donors. The example I gave above was premised on fixed financial aid resources. Obviously, more can be done to offer social opportunity and mobility the more financial aid is available. We’ll put aside the question of whether it’s an acceptable goal to try to build an educational institution into something more than a four-year experience and to encourage multi-generational engagement, something that can I think at least be debated. Even in purely financial terms, let’s imagine that there is a family who has generously donated to their alma mater in the past and may be thinking of a financial aid endowment of $2.8 million dollars. With a total student cost at present in the range of $70,000, and a standard investment draw rate of 5%, this would allow the college to replace two full-pay students with two full-need students not just once, but for every year going forward. Let’s say they have a daughter who does just OK in school. Maybe she gets Bs and does a couple of activities without excelling in them. She can do the work in college, but would not normally be accepted with those credentials. Bringing her to the school her parents went to would mean that another very wealthy student, on the lower “merit” end of the full pay bracket, would not be accepted. No quid pro quo is of course ever mentioned. Is it immoral to accept her? I honestly don’t know the answer to that. But for me, the tradeoff of giving two economically challenged students a free ride every year for the foreseeable future in exchange for accepting a less achieving student for four years is not an obviously bad tradeoff. Again, if you want to tell me that this young lady has gotten yet another social advantage because her family is wealthy, don’t @ me. I get it. But if, in this case, that advantage also brings benefit to others, perhaps many others, who lack her family’s wealth, and that makes it a little different. Maybe, in this day and age, it even counts as a win. After all, most of the machinations of the wealthy to preserve their privileges help only themselves.
This brings us back full circle to the scandal that occasioned this essay, because the bribery and fraud alleged in these cases lifted no one else up. The extra money paid did not go to pay for more opportunity for others, it went into the pockets of sleazy middlemen and coaches. My alma mater, Stanford, fired their sailing coach yesterday for that reason. I am angry at the coach and am concerned more generally that he thought the culture of the institution was such that the scheme might work (even if it appears it did not). Still, at the same time I remain glad that, many years ago, for reasons that will forever remain obscure, that institution, founded by a deeply unethical and exploitative robber baron, saw fit not only to accept me but to give me a full need-based scholarship. Other people, for reasons of their own, gave their money so that this could happen. I still donate to Stanford every year, not because my pittance makes much of a difference in their coffers, much less that I expect it will affect an admissions decision for a relative, but because I feel myself to be a member of that community.
I admit, though, that I reduced my donation this past year, not because I am disillusioned with Stanford, but because my family now donates more to a far-more-lightly endowed institution, Marlboro College, where my son is now enrolled. They’ve got no intercollegiate athletics, a lean administration, and a bare-bones approach to student life, with no pricey new dorms or gourmet sushi stations in the dining hall. They do have smart, committed professors, small classes, a thoughtful curriculum, and a funky student body. They’re going to make better use of that money. So if you want to do more than express shock and outrage about the rich abusing the privileges of wealth with an acid tweet, find a college or university where you can use your own resources, however limited they might be, to improve education and reduce inequality. Because it really isn’t a scam.
(n.b. In my nearly twenty years at Lafayette, I’ve served on many committees, including the Faculty Academic Policy Committee, which advises the President on the yearly budget, and the Enrollment Planning Committee, which meets monthly with our top admissions and financial aid officers. Obviously, my views in this piece are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect that of Lafayette College or anyone employed by it.)