Credentialism and Corruption: A Second Look at the College Admissions Scandals

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

We’ve had yet another college admissions scandal enter the headlines, briefly, and so I thought I’d aggregate the other recent college admissions scandals; it’s surprising — or not! — how prevalent they are. Then I’ll do a simple piece of arithmetic that I haven’t been able to find in the coverage.

The Scandals

This aggregation is by no means exhaustive[1]; what is most striking is the routine seaminess of it. Interestingly, only the “Varsity Blues” (2019) and “Clout goes to college” (2009) have catchy, “Watergate”-like monikers; the others are simply isolated news stories. Where no moniker exists, I invented one (“Fencing Coach Gets House”). In particular order, but starting with this month’s scandal, which made me think, “What, again? So soon?” Sometimes the institution is corrupt (e.g., Harvard), and sometimes the ingenious providers of professional services are corrupt. In all cases, the parents who participate in these schemes are corrupt.

Gaming Guardianship (professional services). From Inside Higher Ed:

[T]hat parents in suburban Chicago had taken part in a scam to increase their children’s eligibility for need-based financial aid for college. The scam, apparently devised by independent college consultant Lora Georgieva, owner of Destination College in Lincolnshire, Ill., involved parents giving up legal guardianship of their children during the junior or senior year of high school to a friend or family member. That allowed the student to claim independent status, meaning that eligibility for financial aid was based only on the student’s earnings rather than the parents’ income and assets.

Yes, you read that correctly. Parents gave up legal guardianship of their children for the purpose of qualifying for financial aid for college. In Lake County, Ill., alone, there were 38 cases in 2018 where a probate court judge granted transfer of guardianship for a teenager in the junior or senior year of high school. Most of those cases involved families living in homes valued at more that $500,000.

The story raises a number of questions. Did no one in the legal system in Lake County find an epidemic of wealthy parents giving up guardianship of their high school children in the least bit suspicious? Nearly all of the 38 cases above were filed with similar language: “The guardian can provide educational and financial support and opportunities to the minor that her parents could not otherwise provide.” I have read enough Scott Turow novels and watched enough episodes of The Good Wife to know that the judicial system in Illinois may be less than pure, but really?

“Operation Varsity Blues” (multiple Ivies and wannabe Ivies). The Guardian:

There are 50 people charged in the case, including actors Felicity Huffman, known for her role on the TV show Desperate Housewives and the feature film Transamerica, and Lori Loughlin, a cast member on the TV series Full House. Defendants in the case include parents and college athletics coaches.

The wealthy parents were part of the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice, prosecutors say, accused of conspiring to get their kids into elite colleges through bribery and cheating. The FBI investigation was dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues”.

Administrators of the SAT and ACT college exams were bribed to allow someone else to pretend to be the student and take the exam in their place, according to a criminal complaint. In other cases, the proctors gave the students answers or fixed their wrong answers after they had taken the test.

The children sometimes faked learning disabilities so that they would be able to take the tests at facilities where staff had been paid off, the complaint says; parents paid between $15,000 and $75,000 a test to participate in the cheating scheme, which was allegedly masterminded by William Singer, who ran a college prep company called The Key.

In another part of the scheme, college coaches allegedly received bribes to designate applicants as recruited athletes – which gives them a leg-up in admissions – regardless of their athletic ability, and sometimes when they didn’t even play the sport they were supposedly recruited for. Clients paid Singer a total of $25m to bribe coaches and university administrators, prosecutors say.

The schools include Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, the University of Southern California, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Texas.

Fencing Coach Gets House (Harvard). Deadspin:

The Boston Globe reported Tuesday that an independent investigation initiated by Harvard determined that Brand violated the university’s conflict-of-interest policy when he sold his home to wealthy Maryland businessman Jie “Jack” Zhao for $989,500 in 2016, or about $440,000 more than its assessed value. Zhao’s eldest son, Eric, was then attending Harvard and competing with the Crimson fencing team; Zhao’s younger son, Edward, was still in high school and “interested in fencing for Harvard.” Zhao purchased Brand’s home at the obscene markup in May 2016; 15 months later Edward began attending Harvard as a fencing recruit; two months after that, in October 2017, Zhao sold the home at a loss of more than $320,000. In the view of Harvard’s investigators, this sequence reeked of conflict.

“Clout Goes to College (University of Illinois). Chicago Tribune:

At a time when it’s more competitive than ever to get into the University of Illinois, some students with subpar academic records are being admitted after interference from state lawmakers and university trustees, a Tribune investigation has revealed.

Hundreds of applicants received special consideration in the last five years, according to documents obtained by the Tribune under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The records chronicle a shadow admissions system in which some students won spots at the state’s most prestigious public university over the protests of admissions officers, while others had their rejections reversed during an unadvertised appeal process. In one case, a relative of Antoin “Tony” Rezko, the now-convicted influence peddler for former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, got admitted after U. of I. President B. Joseph White wrote an e-mail stating that the governor “has expressed his support, and would like to see admitted” Rezko’s relative and another applicant.

Since 2005, about 800 undergraduate students have landed on the clout list for the Urbana-Champaign campus. It’s unknown how many would qualify for entry on their own, but their acceptance rate is higher than average. For the 2008-09 school year, for example, about 77 percent were accepted, compared with 69 percent of all applicants.

That’s in spite of the fact that patronage candidates, as a group, had lower average ACT scores and class ranks than all admitted students, records show….

[T]he Tribune review of about 1,800 pages of documents shows politically appointed trustees and lawmakers routinely behave as armchair admissions officers advocating on behalf of relatives and neighbors — even housekeepers’ kids and families with whom they share Hawaiian vacations.

Juice at the Board of Regents (University of Texas at Austin). Texas Tribune, one of many examples:

During the tenure of UT-Austin President Larry Faulkner, which ended in 2005, one official saw a note from a a UT System regent that said every graduate of a specific high school should be admitted to UT.

Gaming Special Needs (professional services). WGBH:

Gordon Caplan, a prominent attorney from Greenwich, Conn., pleaded guilty in May to paying $75,000 to get his daughter fraudulently diagnosed with special needs, which enabled her to get extra time on the ACT exam. Speaking outside the federal courthouse in Boston, he apologized to his daughter.

“We’ve seen a remarkable and disturbing pattern lately of highly-advantaged people taking illegal advantage of the college admissions system, but this is just the tip of the iceberg,” [Paul Reville, a former Massachusetts education secretary who now teaches at Harvard University] said. “Whether or not you can get a designation for a special need that will then enable you to get extended time so you can improve your scores on the SAT is just one of many legal pathways to the advantaged further advantaging their children.”

Gaming the Transcripts (professional services). New York Times:

T.M. Landry’s founders, Mike and Tracey Landry, put the very real obstacles that exist for some minorities — a higher proportion of first-generation college applicants, limited access to wealthier school districts, and a scarcity of affordable college application coaches and tutors, to name a few — at the very heart of their pitch.

The Landrys explicitly vowed to get black students into top universities; to level a vastly uneven playing field; to put into reach a college education that many teenagers and their parents worried was outside their grasp.

Their magnetic pitch had students staying at T.M. Landry despite enduring what they described as severe emotional and physical abuse. “He seemed to see in us what we didn’t see in ourselves,” Raymond Smith, a T.M. Landry alumnus, said of Mr. Landry.

In addition, dozens of parents have continued to stand by the Landrys. “The reason I’m here is return on investment,” one woman said in an audio recording of a parents’ meeting convened after our initial investigation was published in November. The Landrys “give us hope that I never would have imagined going after,” she said.

But the Landrys could not have attracted students without also delivering results. Transcripts were littered with inflated grades, nonexistent extracurricular activities and fictitious classes. In recommendation letters, they fabricated and exaggerated stories of hardship that played on negative racial stereotypes. And they encouraged students to do the same.

The Arithmetic

And now the promised arithmetic. Since “Operation Varsity Blues” focused on the Ives, let’s do the same. For the Class of 2021:

Total Applicants: 32,724 + 37,389 + 47,038 + 20,034 + 39,506 + 40,413 + 31,056 + 32,900 = 281,060

Total Acceptances: 2,722 + 2,185 + 5,889 + 2,092 + 2,056 + 3,699 + 1,890 + 2,272 = 22,805

Now, some percentage, as we have seen from the aggregation above, of the Total Applicants will be corrupt (corrupt in the sense of taking place through fraud or bribery, and not “donating” for a building or being a legacy). What percentage shall we use? Since the United States, obviously, is not a Third World country, where literally everything is done with personal networking and tea money, and everything is for sale, we should set the percentage of corrupt applicants quite low. Let’s set the percentate of corrupt applications at 1%: 281,060 * 1% = 2,816.

Of the corrupt applications, how many will turn out to be accepted? I would argue 100%. That’s what the (wealthy) parents thought they were buying. China Daily:

The parents involved in the scandal, however, obviously wanted more than a mere 10-fold advantage, they wanted certainty, could afford to pay for it and didn’t care either about what methods were used or who would be harmed.

So, if 100% get in, you can assume that 2,816 — forgive the spurious precision — of admissions to the Ivies are fraudulent. Assume further that they all graduate, either because the Ivies are lax, or because they (and their parents) apply the same methods to collect the diploma that they applied to secure their admission. That means that of the (roughly) 22,805 graduates from the Ivies in 2021, 2,816, or more than 10%, were fraudulent applications. On the bright side, if the letterhead from your collection agency has a Harvard man (or woman) listed on it, there’s a one-in-ten chance they’re a crook. So there’s that.


Lifetime will make a movie about it all. People:

The Lifetime network announced on Tuesday that it was greenlighting a new movie based on the high-profile scandal. The working title is College Admissions Scandal, but the network acknowledges that the title may change.

The movie will follow two wealthy mothers who share an obsession with getting their teenagers into the best possible college. When charismatic college admissions consultant Rick Singer offers a side door into the prestigious institutions of their dreams, they willingly partake with visions of coveted acceptance letters in their heads.

But when Singer cooperates with the FBI and pleads guilty, the mothers must face the consequences of their actions and the loss of trust and respect from their families.

Those (“wealthy,” “highly-advantaged people”) people aren’t crooks. They were seduced. “The woman said, ‘The serpent beguiled me, and I ate.‘” Maybe so. But Singer wasn’t the serpent.


[1] Perhaps I was not diligent enough, but I couldn’t find a comprehensive study of corruption in the college admissions process, at least in the United States (as opposed to China). A quick scan at NBER yields no titles of interest. I’d welcome such a study for follow-up.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. dearieme

    15 months later Edward began attending Harvard as a fencing recruit; two months after that, in October 2017, Zhao sold the home at a loss of more than $320,000

    What a moron! He should have waited (i) for the boy to graduate, and (ii) for a housing market crash, whereby the loss of value could be camouflaged. Or he could have passed the parcel around a group of family and friends until the matter was obscured.

    What’s the world coming too when a naïf like me can advise a Chinese businessman on how to be a better crook?

      1. deplorado

        This is a great find! Saving this paper. Quote: “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high
        and decisions urgent” — best description of life today!

        Andrea Saltelli’s site also has really good stuff.

    1. John A

      Not a moron at all. Just someone who wanted to get his kid into Harvard. He obviously did not want the house in the first place, it was simply a 440,000 dollar bribe – the excess on the assessed value of the house, why not call it ‘goodwill’, and then dumped the house later. But effectively, he made a ‘100,000’ dollar profit on the assessed value of the house. By the sounds of it, that was probably chump change to the Chinese businessman

        1. JEHR

          Mr. Zhao was a moron for not taking a few simple steps to create some plausible deniability.

          Maybe so, maybe not. What would have happened if the parents had made sure that their child would learn how to learn. If he could not, then he doesn’t go to an Ivy-league school. It all makes education appear as just incidental to life and not worth the hard work to gain the education. Education is not about the name of the great university that one’s child attends; education is about learning how to learn, knowing how to think and using one’s best qualities to their highest. What has happened to education that none of these seem to matter but only the knowledge that one attended (and maybe graduated from) a hoity-toity University?

          Universities have failed when they convey more importance to having attended the school than by what was actually achieved by attending. These students whose attendance is achieved by bribery, fraud and donation just earn a Degree in Bribery, Fraud and Donation.

    2. bruce

      What happens when a fake fencing recruit engages a real swordsman/woman on the piste for the first time?

  2. Joe Well

    >>Since the United States, obviously, is not a Third World country, where literally everything is done with personal networking and tea money, and everything is for sale


    Seriously, how do you cast blanket aspersions on something like 4/5 of the world’s people? (There is no definition of “Third World” so I’m going to go with one that includes high-middle-income countries like Mexico.)

    A lot of those countries have far more honest admissions to their top universities than the US, for the simple reason that those top universities have been nationalized or were never private to begin with. So the local elites go to US (or Canadian or British) universities. And because they are honest with themselves and don’t act like corruption is something that only happens in certain other countries.

    1. @pe

      Maybe it was intended as snark, and a basis for make the most generous prediction from the data, which still gives an awful result on the value of ivy diplomas.

      ‘Cause in fact, for anyone who has lived for extended periods outside of the US in the first and third worlds, the US is obviously an immensely rich third world country, with the same pathologies accelerated.

      I’ve always wondered about the corruption indexes that show the US in the top tier of “non-corrupt” countries, when in fact the relative levels of corruption are incredible and obvious to anyone with eyes to see. Just open a newspaper from a gulf coast state! It’s easily comparable to the more stable South American countries.

      1. Ember Brody

        Depends where you go in America. Compared to Northern Europe, I see it as a 1.5 world country. It is heading more in the direction of Brazil than Sweden. Every day on this site documents the continuous decline of the US, and it’s a one-way street.

  3. John B

    That’s a brilliant piece of math. And, when you add in gray area students — open legacies, recruited athletes, and those who bought their entrance honestly through donations to the college, what percent of Ivy League graduates really are talented?

    1. KLG

      “What percent of Ivy League graduates really are talented?” 3.82759146%.

      Including Yves and Jerri-Lynn.

    2. paul

      I don’t think that really matters, if you care to read todays John Harris interview with our colony’s first minister on her meeting with UK PM Alexander Johnson:

      “Well, I said a moment ago that he talks what, in my view, is a load of nonsense, with utter conviction. And I do think there was an element of that sense of entitlement; the idea that you can make anybody believe anything if you say it in a particular way.”

      That’s what they all want to pay for, to produce a dentally perfect monomaniac,an apex predator for our troubled world.

      I believe the incel ‘community’ refer to them as ‘chads’.

  4. meadows

    We as Americans are a culture of myths:
    Wealth is virtue
    Credentials convey knowledge
    And a lotta other drek

  5. Anon

    The arithmetic is relatively basic. The data may be a bit more obscure. What percent of applicants were aware of the chicanery? I imagine some of the advantaged applicants realized they were “in over their heads” and shuttled to a less vigorus academic venue; others likely were asked to leave?

    Some likely made it through the academic maze unscathed. The ones that became crooks probably learned it from their parents.

    1. anon y'mouse

      you act like the admissions process is about determining ability more than simply weeding out the wrong sorts.

      perhaps the weeding process is much more rigorous than the day-to-day academic work (i have heard the urban legend that just being admitted to Harvard is a sign that you will probably succeed in life, thus even dropouts like Bill Gates show something about the process). perhaps many more normal human beings could engage in those places and reap whatever benefits of the classwork (ha!)if they didn’t have the gatekeeping. but the gatekeeping reinforces the mythology, so it has to stay.

      i find something disturbing in the idea that “the system is being gamed” rather than “the system is illegitimate”. doesn’t that just make the whole idea of meritocracy stronger? thus “we have to protect and uphold a just sorting mechanism, and eliminate the cheaters cheating”. what should become apparent is that this is about maintaining class/caste systems. i don’t see a lot of anger about that, so the mythology “meritocracy” is still strong.

      1. paul

        Meritocracy started out as a rather arch joke,expressed by michael young.

        The most tragic thing is that his and Jenni lees’ greatest and most kindly achievements,the open university (amongst other things) were undone by a terrible combination of a father’s love and a child who could never grow up.

  6. ElectricMiniVanGuy

    University of Illinois grad here – the special applicant list has been an issue for a long time. Plus the latest ‘guardianship’ scam is in my backyard. Because markets…also schools have re-priced for these applicants. Alabama, Iowa, Mizzou (to name a few) grabbing kids from Chicago suburbs who can’t get in or pay the in-state rate.

  7. Hank Linderman

    This is not an excuse for cheating.

    The entire college admissions system is a scam. Costs have skyrocketed. Parents are expected to give up equity in their houses to pay for their kid’s education? A 21-year-old who is supporting themselves and is not claimed as a dependent on their parent’s taxes is considered a dependent by the college? Loans are predatory and not subject to bankruptcy, wtf?

    Forgiveness of student debt can’t come soon enough, as well as the return of truly public universities.


    1. RopeADope

      I have to say I wish I had thought of cheating for college back in the early 90s.

      My parent had lost half of his savings in some emerging market crap his so-called financial adviser had him in the year I applied for college. I ended up switching to an athletic college as a result to try for a scholarship as I was clocking Olympic trial level times on the track that year. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a routine surgery at Stanford Hospital turned into a complete fiasco where they ended up firing the surgeon and buried all info on what had happened. I never recovered that performance level so the scholarship was toast by the time the next tuition year rolled around.

      We lived in a very high cost of living area (thanks Greenspan!) and I was still under the age where they looked at your parent’s income. Because the Feds never adjusted it for regional living costs no financial aid was possible. Instead of cheating I decided to age it out. I think I was at $45k pre-tax income by late 90s by the time I had passed that arbitrary age where they count your parent’s income. But by that time rent in the Palo Alto area was running $2k a month so that income was a joke and I also think was also above the aid threshold as well. The other parent had the Stanford tuition matching program kicking in by the early 2000s so I figured I could just wait a couple more years. Too many years later I ended up taking off a year from working so I could claim dependency for the matching parent’s tuition. I ended up getting [family blogging] around by a reference that was angling for a Harvard teaching position the next year and was stalling to get me to apply to Harvard a year later with them so I could assist them. I had refused to apply to Harvard on moral grounds due to the Larry Summers crew so it was a fight they were not going to win. I could only afford to not work for a year so ended up walking away in disgust after the application deadline had passed.

      It is funny how the mind works as I had actually forgotten the complete circumstances of why I had not done the 4 year college straight out of high school bit until Warren and Sanders released their student loan plans. I had grown up hearing how my parents and grandparents had gone to Berkeley on a summer job so the idea of student loans was a foreign concept that long ago.

      But at least a rich mediocre person can get in and join our leadership class. I am sure nothing bad will happen to America with this system.

  8. JBird4049


    Might I suggest some deep breathing exercises and meditation? Hey, it’s worked for me. Sometimes.


    More seriously, as a student perpetually struggling to just stay housed and finding it hard to pay his education without using loans, I should be angry, even enraged, but by now it’s like all the other corrupt BS I see happening, it’s become whatever. “I am shocked, shocked that there’s gambling here!” Even if I manage to maintain my GPA despite having problems with things gas, hunger, and textbooks (textbooks are yet another grift) and somehow stitch together the necessary funds for the rare degree, I feel I might be denied because of such bribery. California higher ed already has a preference for the higher paying out of state students to actual Californian citizens.

    Meritocracy of wealth is what this is.

    1. bruce

      Textbooks were a grift when I attended college in the early 1970s, but you have a new tool that we didn’t have. You have my permission to cut the pages out of your textbook, scan them into a .pdf and distribute it freely.

      1. JBird4049

        Most of my teachers as well as the college’s administration also don’t like how the prices keep pushing up. Putting books on permanent hold for course students, printed .pdfs of absolutely required chapters, class wide loans of textbooks, as well as suggestions on how to get used books more cheaply.

        A big problem is California’s requirement that textbook editions cannot be more than a few years old. IIRC, 3-5 years, which is crazy for some subjects. Algebra, philosophy, foreign language, English, are all subjects in which I have run into this law. It would be something if it were physical anthropology, modern American history, genetics, or even astronomy, but it is not. Furthermore, many of the “new” editions are merely rewrites of the textbook examples and problems, like 2+2=4 becomes 1+3=4.

  9. @pe

    Nothing new. If anything, it’s a bit less explicit and obvious now.

    At least we know that he actually took his entrance exams, since the results were so awful, as opposed to George Jr. who probably paid for someone to take his tests. But then again, George Jr was closer to our time.

    One wonders who really wrote Profiles in Courage? Apparently his speech writer Ted Sorensen. For that, he (JFK) got a Pullitzer! So nothing changes.

  10. bruce

    I’m still recovering from the unimaginable news that somebody paid half a million dollars to get their kid into USC. Did this really happen? I wasn’t previously aware that a rich dolt could still be too stupid to get in there. The way I heard it go down, she was on the chairman’s yacht in the Bahamas when she heard the news, and she had to put her top back on. Can you imagine the lifetime, Google-able stigma? I would prefer that my parents had paid half a million dollars to put me in a dog pound. Will somebody here adopt me?

    1. Clive

      What I never got in this whole sorry saga was, why didn’t the parents simply buy their kids a Wendy’s franchise or something? Okay, the financial requirements are moderately higher, but you’d have thunk the parents were affluent enough to stump this up, if they can lay close on half a $mil for college entrances.

      I suspect class and class aspirations had a lot to do with their choices and actions. This was about far more than a child’s future earnings or career prospects.

      1. paul

        Right on brother, money (especially if it is soiled by the bi-procucts of labour) is not the end all,what they are trying to buy is the be all.

        Egyptian royalty had a similar outlook,outsourcing parenting

      2. PlutoniumKun

        One of the interesting things I think about the hipster phenomenon is the number of quite posh young individuals setting up cool cafes, barber shops, craft beer brewers, etc., etc. I’ve wondered for a while if this is a symptom of the educated classes realising that good salaried jobs are going away, so setting their children up in business is a better option than just educating them. In the meanwhile, what might be termed the nouveau riche are desperately trying to push their children up the class ladder by making them accumulate degrees in prestige universities, even beyond any element of rational payback.

        Its a little like the mid 19th Century when aristocrats desperately tried to get their fingers into the growing pie of industry, while the newly rich industrialists tried to marry into old money for the social cache.

        1. FKorning

          It’s a service-sector pyramid scheme. middle-class kids setting up boutiques for other middle-class kids. the market is the next wave of their peers who will aspire to the same pipeline (dream).

  11. Bob

    There is a cheaper and sometimes better way –

    Why not a community college ?

    Graduate in two years, have a marketable skill, reasonable tuition and fees, and if you wish an entree into the four year world.

    1. Jack

      As Clive mentioned I feel this has more to do with the parents “pride of ownership” rather than making sure their kids have the best outcome possible. Most people with that kind of money run in certain social circles, and boasting about your kid getting into Harvard has some standing, vs. oh we saved some money and Junior is going to attend the local two year comm college. Think weddings. Large expensive weddings are 99% about the parents social standing and circles, and not about the kids. You can get married in most states for less than a $100. So why drop $40-50k on a wedding, a one time event? Its all about pretense, bragging rights, and social expectations. Which college you attend nowadays has more to do with social standing, than ability, or future career earnings. Our “President” is a prime example.

      1. Felix_47

        I asked a friend about that because she was insisting on sending her boy to a rather expensive private college and the kid was just not college material. She said that it had nothing to do with education. She said it had to do with the marriage market. You are not going to meet good marriage candidates out of school or in the wrong school.

        1. Tim

          That’s old fashioned. Almost nobody meets their significant other in college anymore. You have to get that first job to start paying your student debt asap, and you go where the good job is, which could be cross country, so getting married in school is a no-no, unless you want to live in pain city the rest of your life.

    2. jrs

      are you so sure you can graduate community college in two years, because I suspect they are too overcrowded for that to work.

      Plus people who go to 4 year colleges usually graduate with a 4 year degree, those who go to community college usually don’t. It’s all predetermined for most, driven along by larger factors. It’s a pipeline, which one does one aspire to be in. It’s not completely irrational for people and their parents to aspire to a 4 degree and then get into the most likely path for achieving that, which definitely isn’t community college, too many don’t make it, it’s a 4 year college, the odds are much better.

  12. human

    Monied people taking advantage with their money. (sigh) This has got to be as old as the worlds oldest profession.

    Thanks for the details, Lambert.

  13. The Rev Kev

    The worse thing about this series of scandals is that it is showing that America is being cheated of recruiting their bets and brightest in the colleges for higher education. Instead they are getting a – hopefully – small stream of second-rate students who are regarding college as some sort of ticket-punching scheme. Something tells me that there would be other schemes going on in those colleges which stop these entitled students for being kicked out as they cannot do the work. And how destructive can the damage be for America tolerating this? First example that comes to mind is George Bush who went on to become President who, when in school, was just a C grade student who nevertheless got into Yale and Harvard.

    1. Acacia

      Something tells me that there would be other schemes going on in those colleges which stop these entitled students for being kicked out as they cannot do the work.

      Many. Services for writing essays on order. Services that send professional notetakers to lectures, and then provide the notes for a fee (so the wealthy students can skip classes, party, and skim the lecture notes later). Files of college essays maintained by fraternity houses. Etc. Combine that with grade inflation, buck passing (“well, I guess he passed Freshman English, soooo”). Etc. etc.

  14. nycTerrierist

    replying to The Rev at 9:20 a.m.

    “The worse thing about this series of scandals is that it is showing that America is being cheated of recruiting their bets and brightest in the colleges for higher education. Instead they are getting a – hopefully – small stream of second-rate students who are regarding college as some sort of ticket-punching scheme.”

    recovering academic here. Sadly, higher ed now markets itself as ‘some sort of ticket-punching scheme’
    where students, a.k.a. tuition-vehicles, are positioned as entitled consumers of the school brand.
    Quality of instruction is an after thought. It’s all about keeping the customers happy, to keep those
    tuition checks and donations coming in.

    1. Acacia


      A friend who worked in higher ed for a number of years once pointed out that the branding is now often more about “selling an experience“ than imparting knowledge and that under these conditions “special snowflakes have become a growth sector“.

      1. polecat

        Hence the luxury condo-like dorm ‘arrangements’ that many of these supposedly learned institutions have developed – with all the amenities so Buffy & Lance can feel right @ home !
        “No spartan lodgings for MY PRECIOUS PROGENY !!” .. they get to Party the right way ….. not to mention the soccer, and water polo studies ….

    2. Math is Your Friend

      “Sadly, higher ed now markets itself as ‘some sort of ticket-punching scheme’”

      If there is anything like here, and I think it is, that’s how politicians have been marketing it for forty years or more.

      They want to sell it as what they are doing to make life better for hordes of students, giving them happier, more successful lives, with interesting, well paying jobs and higher social status, because they will have that magic degree. It plays well with lots of voters.

      But… in 1940 about 4.65% of the US population completed 4 years of college.
      In 1950 it was about 6.25%. Now it is more like 30%.

      So let’s think about it. In 1940 the degree probably conferred a substantial advantage, and it was geared to the abilities of perhaps … hand-waving… the top 20% of students, not all of whom would be successful in university.

      Now we have 30% graduating. Clearly either the students are a whole lot brighter than their predecessors, or the content and/or standards have been watered down.

      Furthermore, while the 5% with degrees in 1940 may contend for most of the best 15% of jobs, you can’t give that 15% to 30% of the people. Necessarily, degree holders are pushed farther down the income curve because there are so many of them. Now it would seem that a degree is the first step, but it must have a sufficiently excellent reputation to propel one out of the mire of mere degree holders.

      In essence, politicians like to sell the advantages of a university education like it was still 1940 or 1950, but in the inevitable balancing, not everyone can be in the top 5%.

      Add to that an increasingly complex technology and economy, and a growing interest in short sighted companies to want a pre-made specialist expert, which probably depresses the effective benefit of a first degree in something common, easy, or not immediately practical, such as English, history, philosophy, or psychology.

      Hence Modern Literature grads working at McDonalds, and feeling ripped off, or worse, like they have inexplicably failed.

      I’m not sure what the answer is, but we should probably ask people to stop promoting degrees as a ticket to the top of the socioeconomic heap, unless we start reducing the number of tickets enough to make that something less of a lottery with bad odds.

  15. Steve Strandberg

    Serious flaw in your math…

    You are conflating # of applications with number of applicants, which is wildly incorrect. My estimate is that each applicant applies to at least 5 of the ivies, if not more. Some applicants apply to 20 schools these days.

    You are probably overstating the number of cheaters by 5x.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      As NC readers now, I welcome checking of my arithmetic. But I’m not sure I understand. My back-of-the-envelope calculation was based on assumptions about the number of applicants being admitted on fraudulent premises and the total number of enrollees. Perhaps I wrote it in a way that wasn’t clear enough, but the number of applications per student wouldn’t impact my back of the envelope estimate. Maybe you think 1% is too high as an assumption, but that’s a different issue.

      If you have a different idea of how to do this sort of computation, please provide your formula.

  16. Off The Street

    Semi-related theme for credentialism and secondary education.

    California will not be outdone when there is an education change to be made. Something tells me that the proposed changes will be at the expense of other topics given that school days will not magically expand by a few hours. John Gatto’s ghost continues to roll over as education moves further away from sound learning.

  17. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    Given the crentialism, billionaires’ gladiator-farms disguised as college athletic programs, lucrative careers as administrators, and non-tuition extraction options (textbooks, rooming, etc) for rentiers, it’s more than just free college tuition.

    I think we need a complete overhaul of high ed.

    How much is a well-trained programmer worth to our hi-tech software corporations? Shound’t they pay for the training? Is this another welfare program for Big Business?

    1. Acacia

      How much is a well-trained programmer worth to our hi-tech software corporations? Shound’t they pay for the training? Is this another welfare program for Big Business?

      Good point, though the irony here is that many software corporations don’t even want to pay the market rate. They moan about how there aren’t enough qualified software developers, or “girls aren’t studying math!” and pressure the govt to keep dolling out H-1B visas to talented Asian engineers. The bonus is that they get to pay these employees less while stringing them along on temporary contracts, “because we have to wait and see what happens with your visa”. Meanwhile, there are many experienced developers, US citizens — especially older — who are excluded from consideration, “because tech is changing so fast” which is another fib the industry HR people (who don’t themselves have a clue about the tech) like to repeat.

  18. Math is Your Friend

    I think I’m confused. Harvard I understand. Yale, Stanford, ditto.

    I’m not as conversant with US universities below the top 10ish ones, so I dug into the QS university rankings for 2019, which explained others, such as California at Los Angeles.

    But the University of Southern California didn’t make it into the top 100, and Georgetown University didn’t make the top 200.

    How ‘deep’ and ‘graduated’ is this perceived hierarchy of prestige? And how much of a difference does it really make?

    1. JBird4049

      Some of it is prestige and some are the social connections as well as the focus of the particular school.

      Getting the right connections in your chosen career are increasingly more important with only a relatively few schools having them to give. You might have a good career but you will be prevented from being at the top.

      Stanford is the rich kids’ school (the spectators chant at a losing game is “that’s alright, that’s okay. You’ll be working for us someday!)

      Almost single one of the nine Supreme Court justices graduated from Harvard, maybe Yale law. There are many, many good law schools, but the social connections from Harvard and Yale just about determines your future legal career.

      Wall Street’s Lord of Finance especially at the firms like JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and of course Goldman Sachs almost always come from Harvard, Yale, and Harvard. Being in the Federal government at anywhere near Cabinet level position dealing with the economy pretty much requires coming from those firms.

      IIRC Georgetown is big on government and foreign relations especially as policy. Graduating from MIT pretty much guarantees success in a STEM just because of its cachet of being an excellent school, which it is. The University of Chicago was (still is?) good for a career as an economist.

      The problem here is that where you go to school is becoming more important than how good the school is or even how good a student you were. There are good schools in every state and probably world class ones in many states all filled with great teachers and students, but unless that school has that prestige and those social connections of the roughly twenty to thirty schools that are the Ivy League, the Seven Sisters, Stanford, and a handful of others, your rise to the top, your working career will be limited.

      So thirty American colleges and universities, mostly from the Northeast, have more influence, even control than the remaining 4,000 plus colleges and universities. This was not always true and many of those 4000 schools give an education just as good as those thirty but they lack the prestige and cannot give the social connections. The corruption scandal is the paying for the placement of parents’ children into those thirty institutions, which will almost guarantee the children’s success. That is also why the supposed American meritocracy is a lie. The game is rigged.

    2. Mike G

      USC may not have a top national academic rank, but it has considerable status in Southern California in the fields of business and the entertainment industry and attracts a lot of wealthy foreign students, too. It’s a place for rich kids to socialize and network with each other.
      It also has somewhat of a slippery reputation; when I first read about the admissions scandal I knew it would be involved.

  19. ewmayer

    Reuters piece in my feed today on the impact of the scandal on the attitudes of low-income students – yeah, I know, the first HS mentioned is a charter:

    As U.S. college admission process opens, scandal weighs on low-income students

    NEW YORK (Reuters) – Christine Bascombe, a New York City high school student who dreams of attending Cornell University, says she was devastated last spring to hear that dozens of rich parents had committed fraud to get their children into elite colleges.

    The 16-year-old, who will enter her final year at Brooklyn’s Williamsburg Charter High School in the fall, says nearly every waking hour is dedicated to earning a spot in the Ivy League school.

    “Sometimes you can work your hardest and still not get what you want,” said Bascombe. “And you feel even more powerless when you realize that these people are committing fraud to get into the schools you want to get into.”

    Bascombe is one of thousands of high school students who last week began submitting applications for admission to U.S. universities for the 2020-21 school year, an annual rite for seniors that begins each August 1.

    This year’s “Common Application” cycle is the first since the cheating scandal was exposed in March.

    More than 30 wealthy parents, including Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and prominent figures from the financial industry, were among the nearly 50 people charged in the scandal. They were accused of paying a California consultant millions of dollars to help their children get into Yale, the University of Southern California and other prominent schools through fraudulent means.

    Interviews with more than a dozen low-income students and college advisers suggest the scandal heightened questions about fairness of the admissions process, and shook the confidence of some who hope to beat the long odds of getting into a top school. The acceptance rates at Harvard or Yale, for example, are around 5% to 6%, and about 14% of those who apply to Cornell are accepted.

    Most of the students interviewed said they were not surprised the admissions system was tilted in favor of the wealthy. But they were outraged and felt further disadvantaged by revelations of how blatant the manipulation was in the bribery scandal.

    Several belong to an eight-year college enrichment program run by the Henry Street Settlement, a New York nonprofit. The program helps first-generation Americans and lower-income students maximize their admissions potential.

    “I feel like not much is going to change,” said Khemasia Pierce, a 17-year-old who hopes to attend the University of Rochester. “Anyone can be bought with the right number.”

    A recent Pew Research Center study indicates that wealthy students still have an edge in admissions, even as most top U.S. universities say they want to increase socioeconomic diversity.

    The percentage of U.S. undergraduates from poverty backgrounds increased 8 points from 1999 to 2016, the study found. Yet at the most selective universities, the percentage of low-income students increased by just 3 points while the percentage of admissions of students from the wealthiest households rose by 4 points.

    Full story at above link.

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