A modest proposal regarding college admissions
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Earlier this week, the Department of Justice sparked a national frenzy when it revealed the existence of a sprawling college admissions scandal. At least six prestigious universities were involved in flagrant and widespread bribery, records falsification, cheating on entrance tests, and more.
There is much to condemn here, on the part of the parents engaged in bribery, the sleazoid middlemen, and the collegiate staff who either participated or were asleep at the switch. Yet, weirdly, the default response has been to paint the scandal as a sweeping indictment of American society. As one Washington Post op-ed put it, “The college admissions scandal isn’t fair. Nothing about our social mobility system is.” Affirmative action advocates insisted that a susceptibility to rampant fraud somehow argues for giving admissions offices more discretion to admit students on the basis of race.
I’m afraid all these hot takes leave me cold. For one thing, we’re not talking about colleges being done in by Mission Impossible-style, uber-sophisticated deceit. We’re talking about the failure of admissions offices to detect rampant, outrageous, clown car corruption that spanned nearly a decade. This is about officials failing to perform even minimal diligence as athletic coaches sold slots, and failing to notice as applicants fabricated athletic profiles or had their faces photo-shopped onto the bodies of actual athletes.
This all unfolded at institutions whose leaders never tire of lecturing the rest of America about their moral shortcomings (at least when they’re not explaining why taxpayers should eagerly funnel vast new sums into higher education). These same paragons, of course, can’t seem to stop themselves from offering “legacy admissions” or selling seats to donors willing to pledge a building or a cool couple million for the campus capital campaign. Nobody is forcing colleges to sell access; that’s all on them.
Here’s another way to look at this: This isn’t an indictment of America but of the elite college cartel and the pathologies that it has enabled and exploited. It’s an indictment of the way elite colleges sell fast-passes to lucrative jobs on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, of the manufactured scarcity that they have cultivated, and of the way they have avidly marketed that scarcity. When colleges sell access, or are so inept that they make it easy for the rich to buy access, this isn’t an indictment of American parents who pay for tutors or who diligently use their 529s to save for their kids’ tuition. This is an indictment of elite colleges.
If admissions offices cannot detect even rudimentary corruption and institutions can’t stop themselves from selling access, it raises the question of whether we can trust them to make subtle distinctions when it comes to sensitive issues like race and merit. What we’ve learned this week can’t help but raise questions, for instance, about affirmative action and whether the courts can in good faith give admissions offices the latitude to make fraught decisions about how to incorporate consideration of race within the delicate bounds of constitutional propriety.
Given all this, here’s a modest proposal: Maybe elite colleges should put their money where their mouth is when they pontificate about the need to democratize opportunity, take a page out of the K-12 charter school book, and switch to lottery admissions.
Lottery admissions would help dissolve the relationship between where people went to school, how talented they’re presumed to be, and where they would ultimately work. Students, of course, would still be free to apply to the campuses that they find the most attractive and most convenient. Faculty at elite colleges would still do their research, teaching, and mentoring, just with a less curated (and self-impressed) student body. Obviously, all this would only affect a sliver of American higher education, in any event, since most colleges aren’t selective.
I’ll concede that lottery admissions might force people to find new ways to network with the powerful, assert their status, and figure out which high schoolers “won.” I think the nation would survive.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: This is crazy! It would be a huge blow to the prestige of prestigious schools. It would be a huge pain for corporate HR departments, and a giant bummer for the college prep industry.
I hear the concerns. But, upon reflection, I think I’m still okay with it.
If you’re worried that these prestigious schools wouldn’t be able to serve all the talented applicants they’d like, I get it. So, here’s a solution: The colleges can expand. They can double their size, or even admit everyone who’d like to go. That might further dilute their manicured prestige, upend carefully cultivated cultures, force them to spend endowment dollars to buy land and erect buildings, require the hiring of many new faculty, and so much more. It’d be really inconvenient.
But such is life.
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