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Why College Admissions Isn’t Only about Academic Talent

Summary:
My employer, Georgetown University, is one of the universities involved in /victimized by the recent admissions scandals. In 2017, we fired tennis coach Gordie Ernst for “admissions irregularities”; he is alleged to have accepted .7 million in bribes to help around 12 students get an edge in admissions. Phil Magness and I have a book coming out next month called Cracks in the Ivory Tower, which argues that universities are fundamentally corrupt in the way they advertise, allocate gen ed requirements, and more. We don’t discuss admissions much in the book because everyone is already aware of the problems; we go after the less obvious but more fundamental stuff.Nevertheless, there’s plenty to say about what this episode reveals about college admissions. Phil and I have a

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My employer, Georgetown University, is one of the universities involved in /victimized by the recent admissions scandals. In 2017, we fired tennis coach Gordie Ernst for “admissions irregularities”; he is alleged to have accepted $2.7 million in bribes to help around 12 students get an edge in admissions.

Phil Magness and I have a book coming out next month called Cracks in the Ivory Tower, which argues that universities are fundamentally corrupt in the way they advertise, allocate gen ed requirements, and more. We don’t discuss admissions much in the book because everyone is already aware of the problems; we go after the less obvious but more fundamental stuff.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty to say about what this episode reveals about college admissions. Phil and I have a piece on the admissions scandal at Reason here. Among other things, we say:

Elite universities are a kind of ideological paradox. On one hand, faculty and staff overwhelmingly identify with the Left and push social justice causes. But on the other, the universities are hierarchical and reinforce social hierarchies. They serve as gatekeepers of prestige, power, and status. Many have plenty of physical capacity to expand the number of students they admit, but they instead work to keep admissions rates and the number of undergraduates as low as possible, all to enhance the elite status of their brand.

Some of the celebrities in question, such as actress Felicity Huffman, frequently campaign for social justice. Yet, when push comes to shove, we see them (allegedly) using their advantages to secure further privileges for their children. This sort of thing happens throughout academia. Loud, enthusiastic trumpeting of moral slogans conveys the image that one is good and noble, and so people have a selfish interest in being political outspoken. But, half the time, when you dig in, you find that moralistic language actively disguises selfish behavior. It’s often just a pretense to ask for more money and power for one’s self.


Universities are medieval institutions, and their behavior matches the medieval Catholic Church. The Church pushed moralistic slogans and ideals, yet it was grabbing as much wealth and real estate as possible. University faculty, students, and administrators push social justice sloganeering and egalitarian ideas, but their actual behavior (and the effects of their behavior) is anti-egalitarian. They focus instead on maximizing personal wealth, personal prestige and status, reinforcing existing social hierarchies that benefit them, maximizing institutional wealth and prestige, and fighting to destroy competitors that would undermine their gatekeeping power. Universities have lots of left-wing talk, but they and the people that work there are highly right-wing in terms of actual behavior and effect. In general, the most “elite” a university is–and thus the more it contributes to and reinforces class division–the more left-wing its rhetoric is. It’s mostly a disguise.

All that said, I want to be fair to these institutions. In the aftermath of the scandal, many people point out there are perfectly legal ways to “bribe” your way in; just offer to pay for a wing of the new athletic center or fund a scholarship program. Boom, your kids enjoy preferential treatment. Further, people wonder, why should star athletes or other people with non-academic skills receive preferential treatment in the first place? Further, why do universities admit legacy students at higher rates (even controlling for the quality of legacy students’ SAT scores/grades/etc.)?

Let’s start by thinking about non-academic excellence. This is the easiest to defend…sort of. (I’ll get to the downsides in a moment.) Places like Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Penn, and some of the other involved schools have low admissions rates and high standards for admissions. Most of the students admitted are academically gifted, but a large number rejected are also gifted and would flourish there. Only a few elite universities (e.g., Caltech) admit students almost entirely on the basis of academic ability. Why?

Consider it from the perspective of a student. Which school would you rather attend, 1 or 2?

  1. A school where they just admit the 1500 applicants with the highest SAT scores and grades, irrespective of any other abilities, talents, or accomplishments.
  2. A school with very high academic standards, but which also tries to recruit students who excel at a wide range of skills and activities, from trumpet to tennis to entrepreneurship to activism to whatnot.

My guess–and to some degree, the # applicants schools receive tends to confirm this–is that students prefer 2 to 1. The reason: Part of the very thing schools are selling to students is…other students. Those are the people you befriend, date, have lifelong relationships with, possibly even marry, start businesses with, network with, and so on. As a student, you want to go to school with cool and interesting people, not just gifted scholars. This point is especially true at certain elite liberal arts colleges where the students are amazing but the faculty are, frankly, unimpressive as scholars or researchers.

In Markets without Limits, Peter Jaworski and I make a similar point, and then extend it to legacy admissions:

 Consider: Ivy League universities and their peers do not simply admit students on the basis of academic achievement. Instead, they admit students who have other kinds of achievements, such as excellence in music or sports. They do not simply select individual students on their individual merits, but also aim to create a student bodywith a particular kind of character. Admissions counselors want a diverse student body, where students will encounter other students who have different backgrounds and life history. The hope is that students will grow in their human, social, and cultural capital as a result. Much of what Harvard is selling to its students is the other students.

  Now consider the role of legacy admissions again. Legacy students—students whose parents and grandparents went to these elite universities—usually have a certain degree of cultural and social capital. They’re usually upper or upper-middle class. They were raised in environments where they learned the manners, modes of speech, and behaviors of the elite. They are, in a sense, aristocratic in their behavior. One reason why elite universities might admit such students is that they want their otherstudents to learn these elite manners, modes of speech, and behaviors, or to at least be exposed to them. Harvard grooms its students to become the new elite, and one way it does this is by socializing them with the current elite. It’s a product most students want to buy.

Of course, there’s a major downside to all this. Rich, privileged parents can more easily ensure their students look impressive in “other” ways. The Princeton Review might be able to help you go from a 1000 to an 1150 on the SAT, but it can’t help you go from a 1000 to a 1570. But rich parents can pay for their kids to go to lacrosse camp, take violin lessons, invest in their start ups, or whatnot. Poor students are more likely to have to work part-time after school. It’s far easier for rich kids to look interesting than poor kids. While students themselves may prefer school type 2 to type 1, the more we move toward type 2, the more we give social elites an edge in admissions.

As for “pay to play”–you donate; we let your kid in–even Michael Sandel says there’s a kind of devil’s bargain here, which might be worth taking. The idea is that some parents pay extra–for buildings, for scholarships, to endow professorships, or whatnot–in exchange for prestige and preferential treatment. When their kid gets in, they take the spot of another kid. But, perhaps, because universities have extra money, they can then afford to admit talented students regardless of their ability to pay. They can give students a better education than they would if the universities were entirely tuition dependent. These sorts of “bribes” have some positive-sum characteristics as well as some zero-sum characteristics. If this reasoning is correct, then the optimal amount of pay-to-play is greater than zero, though it might be far lower than it currently is. Still, all this is open to empirical investigation. Richard Vedder’s forthcoming Restoring the Promise provides strong empirical evidence that endowment money and other donations are not used to offset tuition nearly as much as they could be.

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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