In 1939, Robert Maynard Hutchins, then President of the University of Chicago, got rid of the football team amid concerns that college sports were turning young athletes into “perjurers, scalpers and football gigolos.” Football did not return until 1969. Reportedly, students at my alma mater were having none of it. Some “turned up at a club game bearing signs that read ‘Ban the Ball,’ in English and in Greek.” Those were the good old days.
In the college admissions cheating scandal that broke on Tuesday, it looks like the young applicants themselves were kept in the dark, but their parents were prepared to do all sorts of things to help their children get into good schools. Among those things was paying a consultant to “superimpose the face of a . . . student onto stock photos of athletes.” One parent paid a graphic designer to make it appear that his son, who doesn’t play water polo, played rather well. William Singer, the admissions consultant at the center of the scandal, noted that the Photoshop attempt put the child too high out of the water—“no one gets that high.” Perhaps not.
Good higher education scandals are an opportunity for pundits to let us know they were right all along. Among the most prominent hot takes on this one is that “meritocracy is a cruel joke.” If you assume, as these takes do, that the parents are more or less rational actors, one piece of the scandal suggests that meritocracy isn’t altogether bunk. If the SAT and ACT didn’t measure something other than income bracket, wouldn’t have to pay $10,000 to $75,000 to have someone else—perhaps someone a quartile or two down in the income scale from you—take them for you.
In that respect, at least, this scandal proves nothing about the health of colleges and universities any more than people getting arrested for insider trading proves that markets are broken. People will try to game even tolerably well-designed systems. Wealthy people have more games at their disposal than others. They’ll find accomplices in higher education as they do in other fields. That’s true, but not very enlightening.
However, I wish Robert Maynard Hutchins were here to tell us, as he surely would have, “I told you so!” Consider the parent who dressed his child up in water polo garb. He was acting on the probably correct impression that being a successful athlete might drastically boost his child’s chances of getting into a choice school. Even at Harvard, an internal review found that “athletes with the highest or second-highest academic rating on an internal Harvard admissions scale have an acceptance rate of 83 percent—compared to 16 percent for non-athletes.”
Lower down the scale, “recruited athletes with an academic rating of 4 had an acceptance rate of 70.46 percent, nearly a thousand times greater than the 0.076 percent admit rate for non-athletes with the same academic rating.” I’d guess, despite the claim colleges make about these things, pretending to be a great water polo player gets you more than pretending to be great at doing charity work.
Charges that making up classes this way is inconsistent with any credible account of the mission of higher education, while they were being made long before this latest scandal, deserve our consideration.
It is a particular embarrassment that schools like Yale and Stanford, with endowments well in excess of twenty billion dollars, are apparently caught up in this scandal. These are schools that, from a policy perspective, can do anything they want. They’ll still have donors lining up to give and students willing to sever a limb for the honor of attending. They could do what the decidedly more serious college, St. John’s, does and get out of intercollegiate sports altogether. Even though it is much less well-endowed, St. John’s had to deal with the “angry cries of alumni” who protested the elimination of athletic programs. If anyone can afford to deal with that kind of griping, it’s Yale and Stanford.
But I have heard rumors that even the University of Chicago is deploying face painting and destination events to boost support for the football program. Apparently, there are now “honest-to-god tailgaters.”
May the ghost of Robert Maynard Hutchins haunt them.