The college admissions process will never be meritocratic. There's just too many variables, too many incentives for universities to do things for the wrong reason, and too much disagreement about what even constitutes "merit" or "fairness" for anything approaching either term to exist.

What's worse is that academia will respond to this bad publicity the only way it is capable of responding to anything: with more administration. The second I saw this news story I could picture the Associate Dean of Application Decision Review being hired at five times a faculty salary, the Merit Consultants whipping together a website and business cards, and the creaking sound of yet another layer of institutional bullshit being dropped atop the basic academic mission of a university (which seems to keep receding further into the background). Faculty committees to review applications. Faculty committees to review the committee reviewing the applications. More "metrics." More paperwork. More compliance officers. All of it.

That's what will happen, because trying to quantify and enforce a quantitative approach to "fair" enrollment decisions is like trying to hold a puddle of mercury. You just can't do it. Every student's family situation is different. Some of these kids went to high schools that are better than a lot of colleges; some went to high schools where they turn the lights off two days per week because they're so broke. Standardized testing is the most consistent measure available but it's easy to boost performance by throwing money at it – tutors, prep classes, practice tests, and the like. Then add in all the various goals universities are trying to accomplish – well-rounded students who participate in the community, in sports, in non-classroom intellectual activity, and most of all a diverse student body that isn't just a bunch of white kids from the suburbs – and it's just futile to adjudge "merit" like it's some objective thing.

A better solution might be to stop telling students constantly that academia, or life in general for that matter, is a meritocracy. Yes kids, having balls-rich parents or being exceptionally well connected are big advantages. People who have those advantages get things us normals will not get. The whole idea of anything in this fundamentally unequal society is a meritocracy is so silly that students should never be taught such a thing in the first place. Life isn't fair. College admissions are not, college is not, the job market after college is not, your future workplace will not be, the economy is not, and on and on.

I'm not saying it isn't worth it to strive toward fairness and equality, but given the systems in place in this country we are so ludicrously far from either that we're flat-out lying to kids by telling them anything is either fair or equal. There is nothing wrong with telling kids, yes, some kids get into Harvard because their parents went there. Or because they donated $2.5 million. Some day you will work for a boss who has her job because the company is owned by her dad. Some day you will apply for a job and not get it because you're not buddies with the hiring manager.

Basically, why not treat this the same as the criminal justice system and just do away with the pretense that any aspect of it is blind, fair, or meritocratic? Even in the unlikely event that the problems with inequality in these processes is fixed, it certainly won't be happening anytime soon. Aren't we getting tired of pretending?

34 thoughts on “THE BIG LIE”

  • IF they knowingly defrauded the state/private institution all parties should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

    If someone who knowingly ALLOWED their parents/school administration to perpetrate a fraud they should be stripped of licenses and diplomas "earned" until such time as their cases are resolved.

    Too harsh? I'd rather just beat them publicly or get the names of more deserving indivduals who were passed over in favor of them, "cuz, MONEY and let THEM do the beating.

    I predict that the vast majority of such cases will wind up involving KKKonservatives and it will not be a surprise to anyone.

  • I thought the issues were really:
    1) That they *cheated* on the tests.
    2) That they claimed the applicants were athletes, but they weren't.
    3) That they took everything as a charitable donation/tax writeoff.

    Obviously, wealthy folks have advantages.
    "Life's not fair" is one of the most difficult, important lessons.
    And obviously, if you donate $Millions to build a building, your kid gets in (and you may be able to take a tax writeoff for a charitable contribution.)

    The surprising thing here is that the parents were so dumb they needed to hire a bribery service. And the bribery service was so corrupt they thought to sell it as a charitable contribution.

  • Ivory Bill Woodpecker says:

    Yes. We need to quit pretending that meritocracy exists, or even can exist.

    The only way to redistribute wealth is to redistribute wealth.

    Do I want this country to be like Venezuela? No.

    Do I want it to be like the Scandinavian or Finnish social democracies? HELL YES.

  • Remove all government monies from these institutions if they will not play fair. Fuck them. And,prosecute the bastards involved to the fullest extent. It would be nice to see a few of these folks driven to dumpster-diving for their sustenance. Shave the heads of Huffman,Laughlin, et al as the Vichy-French were treated.

  • I am astounded that the athletic scholarship ruse worked. If you are the coach of the Yale women's soccer team and you are shorting your team by selling fake scholarships, one would think that would be very obvious, very quickly. Teams need every scholarship athlete they get to be competitive and I am amazed that AD's at these various schools didn't suss this shit out right away.

  • Ed can imagine all too well what entitled airheads would be floating through the curricula of these institutions, wasting professors' time and insulting their assignments. And the darlings wouldn't necessarily be aware how their parents cheated to put them there. You have to wonder why the kids were intent on those schools–prestige? keeping up with their friends? Careers waiting on the other side? Certainly they weren't interested intellectually. Or maybe it was the parents' need to maintain appearances in front of their own friends?
    I can't wait to run into my Yalie friends. I haven't seen them since before Kavanaugh's confirmation.

  • " students who participate in the community, in sports"
    Why should either of these things be an admissions criteria? Not everyone is in a position to "participate in the community". And just fuck sports. I would love to see colleges opened that advertise No Sports At All and No Greek Shit. Send us your daughters because we just excluded 95% of the rapists.

  • Lawrence may be old enough to remember the U. of Chicago under Robert Maynard Hutchins. (Well, never mind. Hardly anyone is that old) Hutchins got rid of football to emphasize academics. Does UC have football again? I wouldn't be at all surprised.

  • If we all accepted that college admissions are corrupt and have nothing to do with academic ability or merit, then this would be a non-story. It would be like getting upset because some rich guy bought a fancy car. At least people still consider this kind of outright corruption to be criminal, and it has shed light on the more ordinary legal corruption that has long been accepted in the college admissions game. I don't think it is possible to have a level playing field, but at least there is a consensus that having a level playing field would be a good thing. If everyone assumes that admission to a name brand college is just a commodity, such admission loses a lot of its prestige.

    My college was considered one for the elites, but it didn't have legacy or athletic admits and considered admissions and the need for a financial aid package separately. There were plenty of children of alumni but also a lot of working class students, something missing at many elite schools.

  • psloterdijk says:

    @deadweight. Yale doesn't give athletic scholarships, nor does any school in the Ivy League. I think the Patriot League is the same. DIII schools do not give scholarships either, such as Amherst, Williams, Wesleyan, Bowdoin etc. What the Yale soccer coach did was put the kids down on his "recruited athlete" list and provide that to the admissions office. The tag of recruited athlete increases your admission chances to Yale by about 20-30%. With and admission rate of 7%, that's as close to a shoe-in as you're gonna get. The same with Harvard, Princeton, Middlebury etc. It increases the applicant's chances greatly at getting in. And then they don't even have to show up to report to play soccer, they can claim "injury", or nothing at all– no scholarship commitment. The coach gets $$$$ and loses his "recruited athlete allotment" for one admission (or however many he receives in a given year). Obviously, the Yale coach didn't care if he lost the ability to push for the admission of a couple of genuine recruited athletes, he got paid. In the case of USC, it's the same principle: recruited athletes get admitted at much higher rates than Joe-normal-app. However, they do get put down on the roster (of the rowing team, water polo, or similar). In which case the rich kid reports to the "normal orientation" for the mass of freshman, not the rowing team orientation. Then the kid is marked as a "no show" and that's it. Now it's on to what college is all about: Instagram, You Tube, big games and parties.

  • @anotherbozo

    For what it's worth, the University of Chicago does have a football team, but it's not a big part of life on campus. I was a rower in college and in graduate school at Chicago, where it's a club sport. Chicago also has a Greek system, but by and large, it's still "the school where fun goes to die". I loved it.

  • While I'm at it, I'll make a plea for the Colleges That Change Lives, a group of about 40 colleges around the country. There are some outstanding choices (I went to one of them as an undergraduate) and many are not fiercely competitive for admissions. Get a great education and go on to an excellent graduate/professional school.

  • Fwiw, increasing a 7% chance *by* 30% brings the chance to a still-unlikely 9.1%. Increasing a 7% chance *to* 30% increases that chance by 428%. psloterdijk wrote the former yet meant the latter, iiuc.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    I believe one of the main qualifications for being a college administrator, is having tried to hold puddles of mercury for too long, too often.

  • I would love to see a college, any college, announce the following admissions policy:
    1) Based on your application, we will judge you to be "above the bar" or below the bar". "Below the bar" is a rejection; "Above the bar" means you're good enough to come here (but not yet admitted).
    2) If you've been marked above the bar by Dec 1, you are eligible to participate in a straight-up dollar auction for the first 5% of the incoming freshman class slots. Bidding closes Dec 15. Money paid into this auction is nonrefundable. All funds raised go into a need-based scholarship grant endowment.
    3) On Dec 16, the remaining 95% of the slots are chosen by absolutely equal-chance lottery among all "above the bar" applicants. You have two weeks to make an up-or-down decision, extensible for $20 a week. Money paid to extend the decision deadline is nonrefundable and goes to the scholarship grant endowment.
    4) Every week, another lottery runs to allocate the slots that people have declined.

    All numbers tweakable, obviously. I think the lottery alone would only encourage people to find shady backdoor ways to use their money to game the system; make it transparent and they'll just pay in the open. The auction alone would, for obvious reasons, lead to a … problematic student body. But a lot of the other stuff that admissions offices are theoretically "building the class" with (at least, ostensibly) should shake out pretty cleanly from a random lottery.

    …though I admit this would be incompatible with the way university sports programs work, of course.

  • Old money has been doing the same for centuries but when new money dares to do the same! HEAVEN FOREFEND!

    I don't defend these people but, jesus christ, you can read a five year old's zip code and tell him just how fucked he's going to be with a fair amount of skill.

  • Few will read this now, but I can't forbear mentioning that for one brief moment in California a meritocracy existed. Call it a fluke. I benefited. Coming from the lower-middle class but benefiting from sterling public schools financed by Big Oil property taxes, I was catapulted to U.C. Berkeley, where education was prepaid by the state. Thence the Sputnik scare provided graduate school loans. Another instance was the education of writer Richard Rodriguez, who recounts the rise of "scholarship boy" in Hunger of Memory. Meritocratic advances have happened here, and of course happen all over Europe on an ongoing basis, where education is seen as a right, not a privilege. Don't be too cynical, if cynicism means acceptance.

  • john danley says:

    Merit is necessary but not sufficient, and what's sufficiently considered meritorious may not be necessary.

  • Safety Man! says:

    Ed, your colleagues at Georgia Tech are quite famed for being absolutely clear to students that they are fools, nothing they do will ever matter, and that they will die unloved in a ditch of cirosis of the liver.

    -STaC ‘07, anyone else?

  • @Safety Man! – Went to GT for 2 years, but transferred to a less serious (and therefore more fun) school in the fall of ought 2 – UGA! Go Dawwwwwggggsss! Sic 'em! And so forth. Incidentally, that's how I came to know of Ed and this blog. I sure did miss Under the Couch after I left, though…

    UGA is an absolute case study is how athletics is eclipsing (has eclipsed?) academics at major universities. I remember clearly that my professors didn't have the budget to print their quizzes out, yet the athletic association seems to be a multi-million dollar operation that doesn't contribute to the overall financial health of the institution.

  • Safety Man! says:


    I actually went to UGA for grad school. You are absolutely correct, while I was there the University had to slash their subscriptions to research journals. Meanwhile, the Athletic department had their own airplane.

  • I used to shine a lot til I changed my after shave moisturizer…

    And the cockroaches never seemed to mind…

  • This is the most compelling argument for unionizing I have ever seen. It is the only thing that can bring any semblance of fairness into any of this.

  • "So my advice is to do what many of us did at some point throughout this lengthy process: stop thinking about it. Assume nothing is ever going to come of it, and be pleasantly surprised if anyone is ever held to account for their crimes"

    I finally took this advice upon myself two year's ago after I quit Facebook. It really does help. Not expecting anything with any semblance to justice during the two year process made the public humiliations of Cohen, Manafort, Stone, etc., absolutely delightful despite the fact that the big shark remains untouchable.

    Speaking of big sharks, I decided recently to dwell into one of my favorite forms of escapism from sci-fi politics, by what else: an action sci-fi movie on cable. "The Meg," pits Jason Statham against a 75 foot prehistoric Megalodon shark who chews up whales as easily as he swallows up waves of humans. Perhaps by mere coincidence, Meg bears a remarkable resemblance to Trump – fat, lumpy, disgusting & nasty with his big mouth always open. Once I got it, I was hooked. In the final epic battle scene, (Spoiler alert) Statham in a state-of-the-art mini-sub, manages to evade "The Meg" until one of the sub propellers gets chewed up leaving a mangled metal edge. Statham in his angry genius uses it to slash a long gash on the monster's side before a really pissed Meg's jaws force him out of his sub with only an emergency mini oxygen tank, mask and spear gun. Still he is able to thrust a spear into Meg's eye as a last resort. Just when all hope is lost . . . Meg's blood draws every damn shark within 10 miles to feast! HE GETS EATEN BY HIS OWN. What a satisfying and very logical metaphor. The demise of Trump and those who enable him will be operatic. There will be no standing ovation. I refuse to live my life at the expense of his shit – which by the way is worthless.

Comments are closed.