The indictment last week of more than thirty clients of William Singer, the Max Bialystock of élite-college admissions, by the U.S. Attorney in Boston was, among other things, a form of de-facto federal-government support to journalism, because it gave so many people so much to write about. It wasn’t just that the details were so juicy—celebrities, rich helicopter parents and their spoiled kids, S.A.T. cheating, coaches taking bribes—but also that they seemed to confirm something that many people already feel, which is that the admissions system is deeply corrupt. Over the years, as the ratio of available slots in the very best colleges to the number of aspirants for them has become more and more insanely lopsided, and the way that the decisions are made has remained mysterious, it has become almost impossible to avoid concluding that somebody in this system is getting screwed. Maybe it’s kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, or kids who don’t fit into any of the categories that bring you special consideration, or, most likely, it’s you and people you know. Nobody seems to believe that the process is fair.
As often happens, a spectacular crime has drawn the public’s attention to a system where what’s legal and objectionable is actually much more pervasive than what’s illegal. It isn’t all that common for affluent families to cheat on admissions tests or to pay six-figure bribes, but it’s very common for them to provide their children with expensive and evidently effective coaching—for tests and other aspects of admissions—that ordinary families can’t afford, and to make over-the-table gifts to colleges from less than purely philanthropic impulses. Most coaches probably can’t be bought, but most coaches are given (in Singer’s phrase) a “side door” into the admissions office, which allows them to bypass the normal deliberative process for their favorite recruits. It may be that the Singer case will engender not just new precautions against outright criminality but also a fresh look at some of the standard practices that Singer found ways to corrupt. That would be a healthy outcome.
But it’s important not to expect too much from whatever reform this case might inspire. The idea that, hovering just over the horizon, there is some right way to do admissions, a way that all reasonable people can agree on, is an illusion. A recent Pew survey showed that the only admissions criterion that gets majority support from the public is grades, and there are far more students with perfect transcripts than there are places in the most selective colleges, so that won’t work. Athletic preferences, preferences for diversity and disadvantage, and preferences for alumni and donor children are all unpopular with people to whom they don’t apply. Like most political systems, élite admissions represents a set of compromises among interest groups, each of which is consequential enough to have got the admissions offices’ attention. There isn’t an easily achievable, politically possible fix for that.
Even if there were a way to make élite-college admissions perfectly fair, it wouldn’t do much to change the structure of opportunity in America. The institutions whose admissions processes Singer was able to corrupt—Stanford, Yale, and so on—produce more than their share of prominent adult Americans, so changes in whom they admit do make a difference. But there is no chance that any of the kids of Singer’s clients wouldn’t have been able to go to college without cheating; it’s just that they wouldn’t have been able to go to the college they cheated their way into. Taken together, all American colleges that accept fewer than a quarter of their applicants—and that’s a far less stringent standard than the Ivy League’s current seven-per-cent average rate—educate only five per cent of American undergraduates. Most American college students go to a school within fifty miles of their family’s home; three-quarters go to public colleges. The culture of obsession about getting into a selective college is wildly unrepresentative of the college experience of almost all Americans; people who live inside the culture don’t seem to realize that.
Going to college is worth it—not just in graduation-speech terms such as wisdom, values, and critical-thinking skills but financially. A college degree—any college degree—confers about a twenty-per-cent premium in lifetime earnings over a high-school diploma. A graduate degree confers another twenty per cent, and, of course, getting one requires a college degree. (I am a member of the faculty at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.) College graduates are also healthier, less likely to get divorced, and more involved in civic life. Non-college graduates who are white, and are experiencing the bad consequences of being undereducated in today’s America, are the group Donald Trump’s promises of the restoration of lost status has seduced away from the Democratic Party. No change in whom the most selective colleges admit would have a fraction of the good effect on the country that increasing the proportion of college graduates would have.
What’s the barrier to this? It isn’t that we don’t have a big enough higher-education system. These days, about ninety per cent of young people have some interaction with college. The problem is that not enough of them graduate, and so they cannot reap the copious benefits that a degree provides. A commission of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of which I was a member, reported that only about sixty per cent of students at four-year colleges graduate within six years. Only thirty per cent of community-college students, who are supposed to get their degrees in two years, graduate within six. There are a number of reasons for this . . .