The True Scandal of College Admissions


Around the Ides of March, the college admissions scandal became America’s most popular news story. Many people were surprised, and very unhappily surprised, to learn that there was widespread cheating on college admissions. As someone who teaches in a college, I was shocked, but not surprised. I’ll tell you why.

A few years ago, I enjoyed one of my few social encounters with the very rich. I was invited, along with several other faculty members, to a country club lunch for graduating seniors from the town’s best prep school. The food was pretty good, and the people — the students and their parents — were very nice. There was no agenda, but the topic of conversation soon became the terror gripping both parents and children — the hideous, enormous, overwhelming fear that the kids wouldn’t get into college. All of them were applying to seven or eight schools, including one or two C-rate schools in case they were rejected by the better ones.

I reminded everybody that the kids were attending a high school with a great reputation, and that (as I had been told) they had good grades and high test scores, so of course they’d get into a good college. My words did nothing to dispel the terror, which was irrational and obsessive. It was as if the kids had cancer and were desperately trying to find a doctor — any doctor — who could cure it. The possibility that the cancer didn’t exist meant nothing at all.

In our time, the idea of college inspires unnatural respect and, consequently, unnatural anxiety. The students I met at the country club were well motivated; they would probably do well in college and get some intellectual benefit from it — if they and their parents could ever relax for a moment and indulge a bit of intellectual curiosity. But what shall we say of the millions of other kids who have no purpose in attending college except to receive a credential of purportedly exalted social status? They are wasting their time; the credential is false. It’s a credential awarded for nothing but showing up — as is particularly evident in the millions of instances in which the college itself, whether “noted” or not, is merely a degree mill; the courses passed are such as anyone can, and will, pass, addressed to subjects that are not worth knowing, and taught by professors who spend half their time in political agitation and the other half burnishing their resumes with absurd or empty “publications.”

America is a country that provides commencement ceremonies for kids who graduate from kindergarten — complete with tiny diplomas testifying to the fact that, yes, praise God, they made it! America is a country in which orgies of tearful congratulation are lavished on the “long, hard work” of young men and women who manage to leave high school without knowing how to read or write. America is a country that annually bestows upon higher education approximately two-thirds of a trillion dollars, the majority of which is spent on the production of credentials that are significant only because Americans assume that you are not significant without one.

In this context, the fact that a few (all right, a lot of) parents are willing to spend a fortune bribing colleges to admit their offspring, without any concern for the offspring’s desires or talents, or for the ethics of buying a status that is meaningful only if it results from intellectual achievement — no, that fact should not be surprising. Taken as a sign of the national mentality, however, it is certainly shocking, and still more shocking when one hears politician after politician proposing that the imaginary glory of attending college be passed out free, to all, like the shopping ads that cram your mailbox. America is now a place where everyone demands certification, even if it is the kind of certification that anyone — anyone, that is, with any values — should recognize as utterly and obviously bereft of meaning. Yes, that’s shocking, but at this point it is also quite predictable.

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I think that you are onto something here, but I suspect that we are dealing here with something much more fundamental than just some rich people panicking over their offspring’s Ivy League future who might, after all, have a legitimate reason for it. Being rich and influential, they are likely the ones doing a lot of hiring and their own biases in that process might thus the legitimate foundation for their fears. It is natural that parents want the best for their children and not providing it when they can must feel awful.
What I find interesting here is, that in a historically very short time, we’ve gone from people having to be forced to send their children to school (though that did not apply to the rich) to the “promise of access” to schooling becoming one of the major social forces capable to shape the future of nations. And what I mean here, in the context of your article, is just the “access” to it, not the actual education itself. The seemingly neverending need for ever more schooling became such an unquestioned paradigm (and also self-fulfilling prophecy – if everyone has a degree, you have to get one too just to stay in the consideration) that people who are aware of it can use it for all sorts of nefarious ends, with far reaching consequences for the entire society. And of course it can become a pretty good business and con too. Hyperbole? I don’t think so. I will try to explain.
Anybody paying just a little attention to the latest political developments can of course see the power the promise of free education can have on manipulated electorate, that seem to have been convinced that prosperity will only arrive when everybody has a Doctorate, whether they actually know anything or not. And of course our demagogues aren’t the first ones to come up with it. When it comes to manipulation with human emotions, it is a fair bet that whatever the latest ploy or angle is, the commies have not only thought of it before, but have actually already done it and free education was always a big part of their programs everywhere.
So how did the “access” to the “free” education in the communist countries actually worked and is it telling us something?
If you were to talk, at the time, to a wide cross-section of the population in a communist country and asked everybody to name the main reasons for their compliance with the regime, what propelled them to participate in annoying parades, attend boring meetings, to profess their allegiance to The Party, fake enthusiasm for the socialist system and to generally “participate” in all sorts of ridiculous charades few believed in, or why they, at least, kept their heads down even when the risk of any consequences was relatively mild, especially in the later stages of the one party rule, the answer would overwhelmingly be : “I did not want my children to be prevented from “getting into schools.” (Meaning high school and up. Please see (1) below.) By far! And when I say by far I mean it was such a common refrain that only politeness would stop you from framing your question in this manner; “Other than being worried about your children being denied a proper education, why else did you join a Communist party, signed this or that or voted for that imbecile?” No doubt the incidence of this excuse was inflated by its use as a cover for a more opportunistic reasons, but the fact still remains that this particular excuse was used precisely because it was so commonly accepted and it was accepted because everybody could relate to it
And it was not a plain worry either. Threatening that the future for your children will be in shoveling manure was usually the first and in probably majority of instances, the only threat necessary to get the troublemakers in line, especially in the early stages of communist power consolidation. Later on such a threat was more implied than actually said out loud but all parents knew how the game is played. (2)
But don’t confuse the planned economy’s “school choice” with the one you are familiar with. “The Party”, when the reality kicked in, could not afford to waste a penny on anything not deemed essential and so the decision had to be made about how many workers of each profession the state will need and only so many schools were then open as necessary to produce them .(4) So it did not matter how talented you were at something or if you were willing to pay for your education, if the quota of 30 musicians a year was already filled, your choice of schooling would narrow down to one opening left in metallurgy and three in livestock management. (5) Clearly, you don’t want to have these trimmed choices further complicated by being blacklisted due to your parents’ undisciplined behavior at a factory meeting.
What is even more interesting here is that in a state ostensibly owned by the toiling masses the education was not even a path to higher earnings. On the contrary. The typical engineer with a graduate degree could expect to earn at best close to, but often only about half of what the venerable creator of all actual value, the worker with rolled up sleeves, would earn for the sweat of his brow.(3) Only East Germans considered intellectual labor to be worth enough consideration to place a compass on their flag in addition to the traditional hammer and sheaf (not a sickle in their case). And on top of that, intellectuals, including judges, professors, management et al. especially in the first decade after the communist takeover, would actually be periodically required to add a helping hand to the workers and farmers on the weekends for free, should they be slipping behind the plan. But that pretty much fizzled out in later decades. Surprisingly, some office drones occasionally liked the exercise. Also, to keep them intellectuals from slipping into some form bourgeois decadence, some numbskull, but enthusiastic “worker” was often employed as their boss. Surprisingly though, the education itself (at least in the technical sciences) was almost the only thing they did that was actually good, but little good it did.
Obviously, for the reasons mentioned above, but also for the way apartments were apportioned (unlike houses they could not really be bought and sold in any meaningful sense) and other considerations, vast numbers of people chose not to work in their field or use their qualifications for a living. That is not counting those who would be prevented from it for political transgressions. And yet, to get back to our topic, despite all that, parents, were obsessively fretting over their children education, which apparently did not have much to offer for it. Plus. it was obvious, that the children would blame them anyway: either for ruining their life chances if the parents misbehavior steered their education options towards manual labor, or for selling out if they did not.(6).The only consolation or payback later on was when educational level was prescribed for many positions, which once again in a true communist fashion, led to comic situations when people who were already doing their jobs for 20 or more years suddenly had to obtain a high school or college diploma, which did not even had to be in a related field.

Ah and If all this seems a little too remote, here is a little story you might better relate to. Some years back local teachers union went on strike, but other than the teachers themselves, virtually nobody else thought that they had a legitimate claim ( mostly higher salaries again). Nevertheless, nearly every car passing the banner carrying strikers honked to express their support. While the strike was underway I found myself in agreement about it with a guy doing some work for me at the time. But at the end of the conversation he added: “But of course, I honk. My children go to that school!” ( And just a little cherry on top of it- I did not honk and an acquaintance’s wife that I knew just from seeing her around him, can’t stand me ever since and always turns away when she sees me. Have I had children in that school, honking would be advisable. Doesn’t it feel a bit like a diluted form of the choices mentioned above?)

(1)–Unlike in the US, choosing the right high school was potentially a life altering decision as the high schools were already specialized by profession, educating for supervisory and mid-level management positions. Absolvents would also work as accountants, registered nurses etc. In industrial fields, they would be expected to be able to design and perform structural calculation for machine parts and the like. These school required passing a fairly difficult exam - for a 15 year old - and written and oral exams at the end of it in several subjects. This was meant to separate the students by ability . Typically, only about 60 % of pupils of any given elementary school would qualify for it. The rest would go to trade schools (also requiring an entry exam but a much easier one). It was also typically clear to everyone –from about sixth grade on - who would go where. Finishing the High School’s final exams was also a precondition to be allowed to apply for college admission (which then required, as here, another set of exams) College itself was attended by only about 10 to 15 percent of the population. Same as in highly developed industrial Switzerland, if anyone thinks that number is too low. (Nowadays, however, everyone including the Swiss is cracking under the pressure of Education-Government-Political Activism Complex as per some notes above and the percentages of graduates grow everywhere-typically with nothing to show for it.)
(2) Here is how it usually worked. Suppose that you are a self-employed farmer and aren’t enlightened enough to see the advantages of joining the forming Collective Farm in your village. Your neighbors who know you and your family well would of course be hesitant to force you to join against your will or even apply punitive measures against you, (for which they wouldn’t have much clout anyway) however, they are tasked with bringing everyone into the fold and to report on any snags and so in their sincere exasperation from your refusal to join, they will dutifully report that you are just too stubborn. Thus your hardheadedness is becoming a problem for some regional apparatchik who also have to report to his higher ups. But now there is no familiarity between you two to moderate his zeal and so you receive a written invitation to a “friendly chat” at his headquarters where he and other motivated comrades will let you know what strings they have to pull. And it would start with your children’s schools. Oftentimes the very next day you would join the collective farm and your neighbors from here and on will sincerely claim that nobody was forced to join. (I am talking about purely economic or personal matters here. Open questioning of the leading role or the path of the Communist Party was, of course, a different matter entirely.) However in China people weren’t spared from personally confronting their neighbors. During the Cultural Revolution, if you were suspected of having some impure thoughts, the Red Guards would give you an “opportunity” to purify yourself by going into the house of your neighbor who was already accused of the same or worse and smash there all their china (which was forbidden to have) or vinyl records (where only classical music was allowed) and their furniture or anything else you could think of. On occasion they would be asked to shoot their neighbor or risking being shot themselves.
(3) I once talked to a college graduate here, working in the construction industry, who mentioned that all the freshly minted degree holders in construction trades are jealously and impatiently looking forward to the day when they will make more than the guy in the ditch. I assume he was talking about union diggers.
(4) Assuming we are never going to get rid of government student loans guarantees, I would actually be in favor of using a similar rationale in deciding which professions and how many people in each, will actually get that guarantee, providing you could pursue whatever education you want on your own dime. But such a sane(r) approach will only be possible when the government is either broke or one party has such a lock on power that it will no longer need to buy its votes or satisfy its base. For commies ,of course, both conditions were met. (this is also in line with my comment to your previous article about the need based shifts in socialist ideology and practice.)
(5) In China it was an official policy that if one sibling went into the liberal arts, the other one (if any) would not be even allowed to go anywhere near these professions. Thus, for example, of two gifted children of some piano virtuosos, only one could follow in their parents’ footsteps and the other one would have to go to work in the industry –typically a factory-or agriculture. How did they choose which one will do what I don’t want to know.
(6) I don’t mean to make light of the seriously bad situation though. The saddest result of this disparate access to education was, when some commies who got good education later defected and got teaching jobs at western universities or good positions at various companies. I heard of cases where former dissidents, who also managed to escape, worked as caretakers at the very schools the former commies who destroyed their lives by –among other things— denying them the education taught.


Here is a true story from my personal experience, related to the issues addressed in this article, but with a twist. I have had a long career as a computer scientist and programmer. In what seems like another lifetime, in the 1960s I was a graduate student in physics at a midwestern University. After several years of post-graduate study I gave up the quest for a doctorate, having found that I could relate better to the computer programs that processed our physics data than to the data themselves. I had very little formal training in computer programming, and was learning it mostly on my own as a hobby, although being a physics student did help me obtain access to computers so I could practice my skills (this was long before the advent of inexpensive PCs).

Sometime after I quit my graduate studies I started work at the academic computing center at the same university. One day I got a phone call at my office from a former fellow physics graduate student. He asked me whether I remembered him from our student days, and I said yes, of course. As we continued I noticed that his voice had a peculiar, almost desperate edge to it. He told me that he had finished his graduate studies and had been awarded his doctorate, but he made it sound as if he had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. I immediately guessed what the problem was, and instead of congratulating him I almost felt like I should console him on this tragic event. At that time there was a glut of newly-minted physics doctorates, and their job prospects were not very good. Sure enough he blurted out something like the following: "Dave, I don't know what to do! I have a wife and kid to feed, and I can't get a job! There are no jobs in physics and the employers think I'm over-qualified for anything else. Do you have any openings at the computing center? I'll do anything! Please help me!" I'm paraphrasing a bit, since after almost 50 years I don't remember his exact words, but I'm not exaggerating. He sounded like one of those people who had lost all their money during the Depression and were thinking of jumping off a bridge. Unfortunately I knew of no suitable job opportunities at my workplace, especially for someone with no computer experience, so all I could do was to express my regrets and wish him the best.

I never heard from him again, but I suspect he eventually found some kind of decent job and ended up doing ok. The point though was that he had emerged from graduate school with a doctoral degree but no obvious marketable skills, whereas I had dropped out but by good fortune had acquired a very marketable skill. Note that getting a doctorate in a STEM subject like physics was (and I suspect still is) not something one could fake one's way to while partying and skipping classes. Earning that sort of credential required some talent, lots of hard work, and considerable grit, and yet the recipient could still leave school with job prospects that didn't match up to his or her expectations.

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