Steven Volk, March 13, 2019
What was your first reaction when you read the news about the FBI operation known as “Operation Varsity Blues” that took down the latest college admission racket? You know, the one that had wealthy parents paying bag-loads of money to get their kids – often without their knowledge – “guaranteed” admission to gold-plated universities, colleges to which they otherwise (i.e., in the real world of college applications) would not have been admitted. Um…what else is new? Isn’t this what happens all the time? As Libby Nelson put it, “the whole business of being admitted to elite colleges in America in 2019 — and make no mistake, it is a business — is corrupt all the way down.”
I must admit that my own reaction was to think: Oh, crap. Yet another reason for the public to throw shade on higher education. As if we needed another one. Nearly 60% of Republicans already think that higher education has a negative impact on “the way things are going in the country,” according to Pew survey. Sean Westwood of Dartmouth observed that “Colleges are simply seen as a production facility for Democratic beliefs and Democratic ideology.” (I probably should stop here to note that, according to the latest survey of undergraduate teaching released by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA, some 48% of the faculty identify as “liberal,” a number which has fallen from the 2010-11 survey. A large number, to be sure, but not even half of the faculty.) For their part, lower-income families will argue that the economic value (the “return-on-investment”) of a college education has fallen, although that is also inaccurate. And it probably doesn’t help that the media and the current occupant of the White House are fixated on challenges to free speech on college campuses that, studies show, are extremely rare, on controversies over “trigger warnings” that are daily, unremarked-upon, lead-ins to radio or TV coverage of difficult issues, or on cultural appropriation dust-ups which – also few in numbers – manage to live on for years, fueling the public imagination that all we do in college is argue about who can eat sushi and wear hoop earrings.
I don’t have to tell you, loyal readers, that the admissions process in higher education is, to use the technical term, deeply screwed up. According to figures recently released by the National Association for College Admission Counseling for 2018, less than 20% of the 1500 higher education institutions in their survey admit fewer than half of their applicants, and yet, those are the ones that hoover up the most applications.
We all have our favorite culprits for this rush to the colleges which, by virtue of this rush, become the most selective. My own happens to be the ranking by U.S. News and World Report and other ranking agencies. Will a student receive a “better” education at what US News or the Princeton Review consider to be the #3 national institution rather than at the #53 institution? Probably not. Will a student have better connections to alumni and peers that will pay off economically in future years? Probably yes. Which is why parents who can afford it will pay a lot to get their children into the “best” day care, so that they can get into the “best” K-8 schools, so that they can get into the “best” high school… And it’s also why some parents, seeing that all this is not going to be enough, sweeten the pot by dropping hefty donations onto the preferred colleges. Which, strangely, always seems to be these same highly selective colleges. Last year, 28% of all donations to colleges and universities went to 20 elite institutions that educate 1.6% of undergraduates. Sigh.
What “Operation Varsity Blues” points out most starkly, however, is not what we already know about “how the politics of higher education sabotaged the American dream,” to quote from the subtitle of an excellent study.* What the FBI operation discloses is the degree to which the arrogance and entitlement of the super-wealthy has swelled to almost unimaginable heights. It’s not just that, to quote Barry Switzer, their kids are born on third base and go through life thinking that they have hit a triple. They now believe that they have the right (not just the opportunity) to pay pitchers to let them walk home unhindered. And then they go out and buy a hotel in Cooperstown to host their wealthy friends when their progeny are inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. This massive arrogance has been nurtured by the same system that has deprived workers, unions, immigrants, and the poor of any say, and often of their democratic rights as voters, while generating tax bills and legal protections that shower wealth on the top tenth of one percent.
Let me just quote from a cooperating witness in this dismal admissions scheme who explained why his clients didn’t just do what many well-heeled parents do, which is to donate large sums to their children’s dream college as a way of getting closer to the “fat envelope” in the mail :
“What we do,” he said, is “help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school…there are [families who] want guarantees, they want this thing done. They don’t want to be messing around with this thing. And so they want in at certain schools… My families want a guarantee. So, if you said to me ‘here’s our grades, here’s our scores, here’s our ability, and we want to go to X school’ and you give me one or two schools, and then I’ll go after those schools and try to get a guarantee done.”
So called “back-door” arrangements are no longer enough because “everybody’s got a friend of a friend, who knows somebody who knows somebody…” They want guarantees. They don’t want to be “messing around with this thing.”
There’s so much that’s so infuriating about this statement and the arrogance that underlies it. But I’ll just limit myself to two points:
In the first place, this scam is so utterly outrageous that it allows those who are, in fact, responsible for the care and feeding of the entitled super-rich to get off the hook by dumping on a few Hollywood stars. Enter Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s top adviser, who accused those involved in the scheme of “lying and buying” spots in college for their kids. Really, Kellyanne? You’ve got the chutzpah to call out anyone for lying? And, as far as buying your way into college, wasn’t it your boss who pushed through a tax bill that, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, will deliver to taxpayers who earn $1 million or more a tax cut of $37 billion this year alone? That way they can use the usual “back-door” arrangements, what the above informant dubbed “institutional advancement” schemes which cost “ten times as much money.”
More importantly, however, is the harm that will be done to the vast majority of higher education students in this country who don’t attend selective colleges and universities. You know, the ones who get in through the “front door… on [their] own,” who work hard, hold jobs and raise families while studying and accumulating too much debt. And they do this because they know that education is perhaps the only way forward for those not born on third base, even if that game is also rigged against them. Because of this ugly scandal, some people will go to jail, others will face large fines; individuals (deserving or not) will be raked over the social media coals until they are well charred; universities will examine their policies to see how this could have happened, but probably not examine the legal “back-doors” through which many wealthy but unqualified applicants gain admissions.
But those who will suffer the most, once again, will be the poorest students, not the wealthiest. It is the poorest who will see the public’s support for higher education diminish further and, with it, state support for education funding which has only just begun to climb after years of cutbacks. Legislators in many states, seemingly always on the lookout for reasons to reduce funding to “liberal” projects such as, well, education, will find this scam as useful as a campus Halloween controversy when they once again search for public programs to trim. Oh yes, did I mention that Trump’s FY2020 budget seeks to cut $7.1 billion from the Education Department? Hello, Kellyanne? Anyone home?
Perhaps this crisis will help the country examine what is really at the heart of the “admissions problem”: an economic and political system that has allowed the wealthiest in the country to turn higher education, not to mention most other institutions, into their own private entitlement. It’s high time to see it as a common good and to fund it as a public good.
*Suzanne Mettler, Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream (NY: Basic Books 2014. See, as well, Anthony Abraham Jack, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019) and Ellen Schrecker, The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University (New York: New Press, 2010).