On Tuesday, the Department of Justice charged 50 people with involvement in a scheme that allowed rich parents to bribe college and testing officials to smooth the path for their children’s admission into top colleges. According to The Washington Post, the “alleged crimes included cheating on entrance exams, as well as bribing college officials to say certain students were coming to compete on athletic teams when those students were not in fact athletes.” Targeted schools included Yale, Stanford, UCLA, Georgetown, and the University of Southern California.
Caught up in the snare were actresses Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives fame, and Lori Loughlin of Full House. Loughlin and her husband allegedly spent $500,000 in bribes to get their two daughters designated “recruits” for the USC crew team; the two daughters were then admitted on that basis. Huffman allegedly paid $15,000 as a faux charitable donation to the Key Worldwide Foundation so her daughter could be admitted to a top college; the money actually went toward paying a third party to correct her daughter’s SAT scores, boosting it to 1420 from 400 points lower on a practice SAT the year earlier.
The question is why. Both these families are wealthy. The children of these families weren’t going to lack for opportunity in life. Furthermore, isn’t college designed to train people for the real world? Wouldn’t admission under false pretenses result in the kids flunking out? Wouldn’t their lack of merit be revealed by the simple pressure of the schooling?
The answer is obvious: no, it wouldn’t. Colleges aren’t about training kids for the real world, or teaching them significant modes of thinking, or examining timeless truths. Universities aren’t about skill sets, either – at least in the humanities. They’re about two things: credentialism and social connections.
In our society, there is an easy way to be perceived as intellectually meritorious: point to your degree. Those with a college degree all-too-often sneer at those without one, as though lack of a college degree were an indicator of innate ability or future lack of success. That simply isn’t true. But for generations, the widespread perception has been that the smartest kids go to college – and that the relative merit of each college confers a similar level of merit on the students. A student who goes to Yale is smarter than one who goes to junior college. This provides a lifelong advantage: employers are willing to take more chances on those who earn a Yale degree than those who went to junior college, for example.
Then there’s social connection. Social institutions in the United States have been fading over time. Churches used to provide us our chief means of social connection. Colleges now do. JD Vance writes in Hillbilly Elegy that admission to Yale Law School granted him social capital: “the networks of people and institutions around us have real economic value.” They also have social value. We often get jobs from friends, or from friends of friends. The social circles in which we travel matter. That’s true for those born rich as well as those born poor.
Here’s the problem: neither of these priorities actually demands that universities teach anything. Credentialism occurs upon admission, so long as you aren’t thrown out of school; social capital begins to accrue with presence, not with performance. Hence colleges watering down curricula and grades in order to make it easier to credential, and to generate less friction. That’s what students and parents demand: not skills, not education, but credentialism and social capital.
After I was admitted to Harvard Law School, I attended orientation. Our 500-strong class was gathered in Memorial Hall, in historic Sanders Theater, where then-Dean Elena Kagan (now Supreme Court Justice) spoke to us. She informed us that the competition was over – we were in! No need to worry about the stuff we’d seen in The Paper Chase – we were all going to leave with degrees and jobs. Not just that – as graduates of Harvard Law, we were destined to rule the universe. She informed us of how many alumni were in the Senate, how many in Congress, how many on the Supreme Court. The battle was over upon our acceptance to the institution.
All of this has significant social ramifications, of course. It means that our meritocracy doesn’t begin in college – it ends, for many, upon admission to college. And that, in turn, means that the failures of our lower education system loom larger. It also means that in the absence of functional non-collegiate social institutions, the social gap between college-goers and non-college-goers will grow.
This also has significant political ramifications. It means that students admitted to colleges expect to be pampered, not challenged. Professor Harvey Mansfield of Harvard University was essentially forced by the administration not to give honest grades – he started giving two grades, one for merit, and then one for the administration, so as not to penalize people for taking his classes. Politically, this also means that students expect not to be challenged – they expect to be comfortable. Professors who challenge their politics, for example, may threaten their “college experience” – which may, in turn, threaten their social capital. Professors who make students feel uncomfortable may be threatening the ease they were promised. Discomfort becomes a bug, not a feature, of higher education. Pampering becomes the rule.
That’s why rich and famous people would spend oodles of money just to get their kids into top universities: not because their kids won’t have jobs or will go hungry, but because they want their kids credentialed and admitted into the social club. This story, then, is less about people committing a crime, and more about a system that fails the tests of meritocratic education so badly that people can buy their way past the merit and the education.