[Marxism] ‘It’s an Aristocracy’: What the Admissions-Bribery Scandal Has Exposed About Class on Campus
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Thu Apr 18 06:09:10 MDT 2019
Chronicle of Higher Education, APRIL 17, 2019 PREMIUM
‘It’s an Aristocracy’: What the Admissions-Bribery Scandal Has Exposed
About Class on Campus
By Jack Stripling
Long after the spectacle is over, when the rogue coaches and television
actresses have made their final legal pleas, the fallout from the
admissions-bribery scheme in which they’ve been implicated will live on.
It has exposed too much, confirmed too much.
Anyone who suspected that the game was rigged can find new evidence in
the scandal, which showed how wealthy parents, including a couple of
celebrities, paid off coaches and testing administrators to buy their
children’s way into the likes of Stanford, Yale, and Georgetown. Those
institutions enroll only a tiny fraction of college students, suggesting
that the scandal’s broad resonance supersedes personal connections to
highly selective universities. It has tapped into populist skepticism
about money and power.
Criminal prosecutions stemming from the admissions scheme have been
limited to a few dozen parents, coaches, and William (Rick) Singer, the
college consultant who masterminded it. That narrow scope has allowed
university leaders to distance themselves from the scandal,
characterizing their institutions as the unwitting victims of a few bad
actors. But that won’t forestall tough questions about the codependent
relationship between the nation’s top-tier colleges and the power elite
who fuel their endowments, finance their buildings, and willingly pay
full freight for their children to attend.
Faculty members see it every day. In his three decades as a sociology
professor at Wake Forest University, Ian Taplin says, he has seen the
privilege of the university’s student body rise in tandem with its
national prestige. Wake Forest, which was targeted in the admissions
scheme, was always a place where North Carolina’s “good and great” sent
their children, Taplin says, in part because it offered elitism without
the “nasty Yankees” one would encounter up the road at Duke. But now
Wake is an international destination for the well-to-do, Taplin says.
“If you walk around campus, you’re most likely to get knocked down by a
Range Rover or a high-end Audi,” he says.
Taplin, who researches luxury goods and writes about wine, recalls being
taken aback when he asked a student about her go-to house vino.
“She said, Every now and again I’ll really splurge,” Taplin says, “but
on a general day I drink Tignanello,” which runs about $100 a bottle.
“This was a 22-year-old.”
Katie Neal, a spokeswoman for the university, says Wake Forest is making
progress toward greater socioeconomic diversity. The average need-based
scholarship, she says, is about $47,000, which covers 66 percent of the
total cost of attendance. A decade ago, the average need-based
scholarship covered only 45 percent of the total attendance cost.
Statistically speaking, however, most universities targeted in the
bribery scandal are provinces of privilege, a recent study suggests. At
Wake Forest, 22 percent of students come from families in the top 1
percent of the income scale, meaning that their parents earn more than
$630,000 a year, researchers reported in 2017. In general, these are
places where the “one percenters” on the income scale outnumber or rival
the mere mortals in their midst.
Provinces of Privilege
The admissions-bribery scandal has renewed criticism that elite
institutions cater to the wealthy. Of the six private universities
involved, all have more students from families in the top 1 percent of
the income scale than the bottom 40 percent.
About the Data: Family-income data come from Opportunity Insight’s
report “The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility.” Families in
the bottom 40 percent make less than $38,400 a year, families in the top
20 percent make at least $110,200 a year, and families in the top 1
percent make more than $630,500 a year. Data are based on the 1991
birth-year cohort, which is approximately the undergraduate Class of
2013. Enrollment data are from the National Center for Education
Statistics for the fall of 2017, and include only first-time,
Jennifer L. Mnookin, dean of the law school at the University of
California at Los Angeles, describes the scandal as the “criminal
leading edge” of a much more deeply rooted problem. Appalling as it was
to learn that a Bruins soccer coach had allegedly accepted bribes to
help rich students, Mnookin says, “my students are just as concerned
with the legal version” of privilege in admissions.
“There’s nothing illegal about spending the cost of a Tesla on a tutor,”
she says. “And that will probably help.”
Unpaid Internships and Country-Club Sports
Volumes of research are devoted to how income inequality figures into
college admissions. Test scores have been found to correlate with
wealth, and rich families can afford college counselors or
extracurricular activities that pave the road toward a highly selective
What professors on the nation’s elite campuses see, in addition to those
structural advantages, are the subtle ways that people of means position
their children for admission into top-tier institutions. Clayborne
Carson, a history professor at Stanford, says he has been approached
several times by parents who’ve asked if their high-school children
could work for him — free — during the summer. He usually turns them down.
“Elitism perpetuates elitism,” says Carson, who is founding director of
the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. “Who can
afford to do that? The ability to take an unpaid job as a way of getting
into something you want to get into is an enormous advantage in our
society. If you’ve already worked with a Stanford professor, that can’t
hurt you when applying to Stanford.”
Explaining his scheme to prosecutors, Singer described the three
doorways through which a prospective student can enter an elite college.
The front door is for traditional admissions, the back door is for the
children of wealthy donors, and the “side door” — Singer’s specialty —
is for the beneficiaries of bribery.
At Stanford, which accepts only 4 percent of its undergraduate
applicants, a former head sailing coach pleaded guilty to accepting
bribes in exchange for falsely claiming that two prospective students
were competitive sailors — giving them a leg up in the admissions
process. That’s clear-cut fraud, but professors are concerned too about
how advantageous it can be for a student to compete in a so-called
“Many of the sports that Stanford supports are themselves bastions of
privilege,” Carson says. “If you don’t have coaching and lots of
support, you’re not as likely to become a world-class swimmer or a
world-class water-polo player or a gymnast.”
In many cases, the admissions scam was made possible because coaches had
relatively unchecked authority to admit recruits who met minimum
academic qualifications — an enormous advantage at highly selective
institutions that reject several times as many students as they admit.
Admission Through the ‘Side Door’
Dozens of people, including famous actors, college coaches, and a
university administrator, have been charged by federal prosecutors for
their alleged roles in an admissions-bribery scheme involving Yale,
Stanford, and other elite institutions.
“The fact that there is an entirely separate route for athletic
admissions that circumvents the normal application process makes it ripe
for abuse,” says Gross, who is chair of Concerned Faculty of USC, a
group that was formed in response to several recent scandals. “Should
head coaches be, in effect, admissions directors, making final decisions?”
Athletics admissions in California drew renewed scrutiny last week, when
the Los Angeles Times reported on an investigation, completed in 2014,
into parents who had made donations to UCLA’s athletics department in
exchange for their children’s admission. UCLA officials, citing a
systemwide policy that prohibits any consideration of financial or
political gain in admissions decisions, have since acknowledged that the
investigation found several coaches had violated university policy in
connection with the donations.
California lawmakers have introduced a slate of legislative proposals in
response to the latest scandal, including tougher requirements for
oversight of special admissions for athletes at public institutions.
University of California campuses can admit up to 6 percent of their
students “by exception,” a category reserved for athletes or those with
special talents who fall short academically.
‘Climb or Die’
The bribery revelations have effectively put the entire
selective-college admissions system on trial. Anthony P. Carnevale, a
labor economist, describes the system as a flawed machine that most
reliably manufactures successive generations of wealthy, white families.
“College provides access to good jobs, and our college-selection system
is reproducing the inequalities in K-12 and projecting them into the
labor market, which starts a whole new cycle,” says Carnevale, director
of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “The thing people
are getting mad about is that the meritocracy looks like it’s locked in,
so it’s an aristocracy.”
How did we get here? As Carnevale puts it, college leaders are “no more
evil than the rest of us.” They don’t set out to prop up aristocracies.
But for the most selective institutions, the business model demands a
steady stream of high-achieving, high-income students, Carnevale says.
Admitting those students, and rejecting a lot of others, drives up
national rankings and creates a product that wealthy families are
willing to pay for through tuition dollars, test preparation, and
“The business model is climb or die,” Carnevale says.
College leaders are 'no more evil than the rest of us.'
At the University of San Diego, where a former basketball coach was
accused of accepting a bribe, the scandal has spawned larger questions
about inequity in admissions.
“We’re going to dig deep,” says James T. Harris III, the university's
president. “Have we lost our values? Are we serving the right population?”
There is little indication, however, that many college presidents will
seize on the crisis as a moment for truth telling. Leaders of the eight
universities targeted in the scheme have made limited public statements,
and their admissions directors have in large part avoided answering
direct questions about the scandal. Of all the presidents whose
institutions were named by prosecutors, Harris was the only one who
agreed to speak with The Chronicle for this article.
San Diego is a bit of an outlier in the scandal because it is
considerably less selective than the other institutions are. But Harris
says the underlying issues that the controversy raises are broadly
shared at colleges with competitive admissions standards.
“We really are trying to serve,” Harris says. “But what we get caught up
in — everyone does — are the rankings, and the ratings, and the
prestige. And what we really should be concerned about is the social
good. How do you balance all of that is the question for every
president, and every board and every faculty, in the country.”
When enrolling a class, most selective colleges are forced to make a
series of trade-offs that allow some wealthy students with subpar
qualifications to get in ahead of better-qualified students of modest
means. Sandy Baum, an expert on higher-education finance, says those
cases are real but rare.
“We all hate it,” says Baum, a nonresident fellow in the Center on
Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute. “It’s terrible from an
equity perspective. It’s a big problem that affects a small number of
As maddening as people find this scandal, it centers on a relatively
tiny sector of higher education. As defined by Barron’s selectivity
index, nearly all of the institutions involved are in the “Ivy Plus” or
“Other Elite” category, where fewer than 8 percent of undergraduates enroll.
Elite private colleges make for easy targets in this populist era, but
it’s a misconception to say that they “start by taking all of the
richest people,” Baum says. At the same time, it would be naïve to think
that money doesn’t matter at all.
“If you give $10 million,” Baum says, “you’re going to get in.”
In Through the Back Door
That $10 million opens what Singer described as the “back door,” an
entryway for the children of donors or the politically connected.
College presidents don’t like to talk about the back door, but there is
little doubt that it exists — and every so often there’s proof.
In 2009 a Chicago Tribune investigation revealed the existence of a
“clout” list for University of Illinois applicants with powerful friends
or family members.
In 2015, William (Bill) C. Powers Jr., who was then president of the
University of Texas at Austin, acknowledged that he had insisted that
the flagship campus admit a few “must have” applicants each year. That’s
the way admissions works at “virtually every selective university in
America,” said Powers, who died in March.
E. Gordon Gee, a past president of two highly selective universities —
Brown and Vanderbilt — told The Chronicle recently that any president
under “truth serum” would concede that, in rare cases, donor connections
make a difference in admissions.
“As president, I did have a certain number of quote-unquote ‘slots’ that
I could use for very particular reasons to support a student’s
candidacy,” said Gee, who is now president of West Virginia University.
“I can’t remember how many I had — six or 10, something like that. And I
didn’t use them very often, but I did. Did I ever have anyone offer me
Gee did not elaborate on what might have compelled him to use a “slot,”
but he said he guarded against any clear “quid pro quo” in which a
donation was exchanged for a student’s admission.
“We tried to keep a very bright line there,” Gee said.
The bright lines are easy to see, which makes the bribery scandal so
easy to condemn. But privilege in college admissions seldom crosses into
the realm of pure criminality; it’s typically a lot grayer than that.
It’s preferences for the children of alumni. It’s a good word from the
president. It’s an unpaid internship with the right professor. It’s
acing an admissions test on which better scores track with higher family
“The whole system is a pay-for-play system,” says Joseph A. Soares, a
Wake Forest sociology professor who has written about family income in
admissions. “But that’s America.”
Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and
governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at
jack.stripling at chronicle.com.
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