Oh, the Varsity Blues

David Randall

The headline news this last week is how dozens of wealthy parents were caught bribing, cheating, and otherwise making a mockery of the college admissions process to get their children into elite schools.

Astute commentators have noted that this scandal couldn’t have taken place if there weren’t a lot else wrong with American higher education. American universities are supposedly meritocratic, so getting into a top college should signal that you’ve got the chops to be a member of the American elite. But American universities are also massively corrupt. On the one hand, millionaires can donate money to a college and get their children on to a “Dean’s Interest List” that improves their chances of admission. On the other hand, race and sex preferences in the guise of “diversity” make a mockery of the meritocratic ideal. Sports teams, bands, and academic departments all reserve spots for students who say they’ll help keep that part of the university alive—and clever applicants know how to game that system too. Preferences for children of alumni have become another featherbed for unqualified applicants. Admission criteria such as “character,” with no defined content, license universities to bend admission rules as they like. Black-box admissions offices allow arbitrary, corrupt admissions practices. And our elite universities are getting closer to becoming diploma mills each year, so once you’re in, you’re just about guaranteed to graduate—with all the cachet that comes with being a highly deserving, duly enrolled member of the meritocratic elite.

Bribery and cheating are worse than the ordinary, perfectly legal corruption that’s now the heart of American higher education. But this story wouldn’t have made headlines if it hadn’t struck a nerve. American higher education is a patchwork of special privileges as corrupt and arrogant as the ancien regime of France. The anger of the American people is the anger of the sans-culottes dreaming of the guillotine.

At the NAS, we’ve opposed college corruption for a long time. We’ve opposed race and sex preferences since our founding in 1987, and we’re in favor of academic rigor. We think high standards and equality of opportunity would be the right thing for American higher education, even if there weren’t outright bribery and cheating to take advantage of the corrupt status quo. But this scandal underlines why our colleges and universities need equality of opportunity and academic rigor.

What this scandal changes for us is that we’re now focusing ever more on the need for transparency in college admissions. What enrages Americans is the discrepancy between our colleges’ claim to be meritocratic and the corruption their secrecy allows. Even an openly corrupt system would be more tolerable than one that pretends it’s disinterestedly searching for merit. College admissions offices need to open up their files and be honest about how they admit students. That can’t be just as a means to another end. Admissions transparency has to be a prime goal in its own right. Otherwise, the anger in America is going to get even more dangerous.

Americans already get angry at each other far too often. We don’t need to add another cause for rage to the list.

We don’t right now recommend a particular way for college admissions offices to be more transparent. But we strongly advise them—we entreat them—to get rid of the black-box admissions model now.

Before the anger in America explodes.

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October 6, 2020

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