I was mildly shocked by the network news leading off with the ‘cheating to get into college scandal’ last night. Were they just sick of starting each broadcast with the latest on Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and Tim Apple?
The story is pretty juicy, involving real-life arrests and Famous Actresses Shamed and photoshopping rich kids’ heads onto actual athletes’ bodies posed in rowing sculls—and, oh yeah, an ex-basketball coach taking in hundreds of millions to ‘help’ them cheat.
But really—who’s surprised by this? In my last blog, I mentioned David Labaree’s superb white paper on how social mobility—not democratic equality, job preparation or something as mundane as the joy of learning—had become the predominant reason and purpose for schooling in America.
To Labaree, it’s all about credentialing. And to wealthy, influential parents, evidently, the right kind of credentialing matters more than setting a good example, or, you know, personal integrity.
In the end, I think it’s a kind of dumb and not very important story, for six reasons I’ll list in a bit. A national episode of schadenfreude isn’t going to change people’s minds about the actual value of a college degree, unfortunately.
But first, I’d like to re-share one of the more interesting stories that got buried when it first surfaced, in the days after the 2016 election: The Story Behind Jared Kushner’s Curious Acceptance into Harvard.
ProPublica editor Daniel Golden wrote a book a decade ago about how the rich buy their children access to elite colleges. One student he covered is now poised to become one of the most powerful figures in the country.
It’s the grubby secret of American higher education: that the rich buy their under-achieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations. The book reported that New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998, not long before his son Jared was admitted to the prestigious Ivy League school. At the time, Harvard accepted about one of every nine applicants. (Nowadays, it only takes one out of twenty.)
I also quoted administrators at Jared’s high school, who described him as a less than stellar student and expressed dismay at Harvard’s decision.
“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,” a former official at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey, told me. “His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not.”
Today’s story has drawn a great deal of attention—and a boatload of commentary on social media. Much of that seems to be either hatred of Hollywood stars (and a surprising amount of speculation about the political leanings of actresses), hatred of rich people who get things they do not deserve, defense of admissions policies at elite schools by those who attended them–and righteous anger over poor kids who tried so hard to get into Stanford or Yale, but were cruelly rejected because someone took their slot.
I haven’t heard or read a single comment today suggesting that NO college degree is worth a half-million dollar payoff, before the kid even steps inside a classroom. What makes people angry, evidently, is the internalized belief that a degree from a prestigious college is a kind of golden ticket—and not something that can be purchased. The shiny and utterly erroneous conviction that attending a high-status university is a matter of (chuckling) ‘merit.’
So that’s the first thing that makes this an unsurprising, less than meaningful story: getting your kid into college by deceptive means is, ironically, something that rich people (who have the money to pay full tuition) do. It’s not a liberal or conservative thing–it’s a fraudulent, morally bankrupt rich person thing. And the kids whose parents spend fortunes to scam them in already have a backup bank in their corner, and plenty of connections to a world of privilege and affluence. Now that this particular con has been revealed, their goal—a degree from an exclusive college—has been cheapened and devalued.
Second–it’s been going on forever. Rich people have been buying privileged educations for their (perhaps undeserving) children, since the first ‘legacy’ admission to a respected college, 300+ years ago. Rich people offer colleges and universities perks and money and wings on new buildings, and somehow, colleges get off their admittance high horses, and let Junior in. And let’s not even get started on the cheating that always happens on SAT and ACT tests, and the loose admission standards for athletes.
Third—the media framing of this story doesn’t lead viewers or readers to useful conclusions. What people will remember is that two actresses did this–when they were only two of three dozen privileged (white) families who cheated to get their kids into prestigious colleges and GOT CAUGHT. The other families, unnamed by the media are also guilty (perhaps more, if you assess guilt by the amount of money paid to their fixer). And what about the ACT proctors who were bribed, and admissions officers and coaches who were paid off? Why aren’t we seeing their pretty faces?
Fourth– Perhaps this will be an informative experience for parents who think that having their kid get into a prestigious college is the be-all and end-all of the path to a happy life. Doubtful. But it would be wonderful to have a spate of media pieces pointing out that, for example, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks and wannabe President, graduated from Northern Michigan University. Matriculation is not destiny. Jared Kushner is not leading the Middle East peace process because of his Harvard education—he’s been given extraordinary powers and undeserved access to our national security secrets because he married Ivanka Trump.
Fifth–And what about learning? Isn’t THAT why we send our children to college–to expand their intellectual horizons, challenge their academic strengths and build up their areas of weakness? What if the best college for your child’s intellectual growth–the place where they can dig in, develop their passions, try new things–is NOT the most famous or prestigious? Shouldn’t we be concerned about the undue hype attached to a small number of colleges, instead of improving all institutions of higher learning, making them more democratic, vibrant and welcoming?
Sixth—Deep under this story lies a question about exclusivity, education and the American psyche. Why has there been so much talk about who deserves one of the very few slots at Harvard—and no talk about the opportunity hoarding going on here? If the Ivies, Stanford et al are the ultimate educational experience, why don’t we reproduce what they offer at other institutions—or expand admissions numbers? Shouldn’t all worthy candidates have access to a top-flight educational experience?
You know the answer to that question.