[Marxism] ‘It’s an Aristocracy’: What the Admissions-Bribery Scandal Has Exposed About Class on Campus

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
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, 
degree-seeking undergraduates.

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 
“dream school.”

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 
country-club sport.

“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 
high-priced consulting.

“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 
money? No.”

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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