By now, most people are familiar with the scandal involving wealthy parents who paid a fixer to help their children cheat their way into elite colleges. The scandal illuminates the seamy side of undergraduate admissions. It also underscores some paradoxical realities about the benefits of attending a prestigious college. Considering the choices facing some hypothetical students will illustrate the paradoxes.
Connery and Margaux are getting ready to start their senior year in high school. Wealthy parents have given them advantages of private schools, summers abroad and activities ranging from fencing to dressage.
Both are determined to attend an elite, private college. Unfortunately, both are slackers. Their grades aren’t perfect, and their SAT scores don’t crack the top decile.
Nonetheless, their parents will get them into an elite school. They have hired admissions coaches. They will make well-timed donations to the aspirant schools. If needed, they will do something nefarious.
This brings us to a paradox. Connery and Margaux had their economic fortunes largely determined at birth. Peer-reviewed studies have shown that graduating from an elite school confers no measurable economic advantage on such students. They would be just fine attending a large state university with a good football team.
So, is entrance to an elite school valueless? No. Admission into an elite school can be life-changing for some students. Consider two other students, Sofia and Eddy, who are getting ready to apply to college, and would love to gain admission to a prestigious, private school.
They are the exact opposites of Connery and Margaux. Their families reside at the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Eddy’s family is African-American. Sofia’s Hispanic mother was a single parent for most of Sofia’s childhood. Both attended public schools where minority students were the majority, and few students envisioned attending college.
A final difference is that they are not slackers; they are dedicated students. Due to hard work and support from their families their grades are almost perfect. Their SAT scores place them in the top 2 percent. They even managed to find time for sports and volunteer work.
Despite their stellar academic records, the chances of either graduating from a prestigious, private school are small. However, if Sofia or Eddy could graduate from an elite school, their economic fortunes would be transformed. A study by Harvard economist Raj Chetty found that lower-income students who graduated from elite colleges greatly improved their career opportunities.
This brings us to another paradox. Lower-income students have far more to gain from attending an elite college than wealthy students, but lower-income students are far less likely to have that privilege.
Given this fact, should elite colleges move to an admissions system totally based on merit? Should legacy admissions be abolished? Should colleges ignore donations when making admissions decisions?
This brings us to a final paradox. If elite colleges did move to a system totally based on merit, it would likely destroy the benefits that they presently confer. Yale doesn’t do a better job of teaching calculus than Michigan State. Sofia and Eddy wouldn’t learn more at an elite college than a top-tier public university. Indeed, Chetty’s work shows that public universities do far more to foster upward economic mobility for low-income students than prestigious schools.
Any advantage Sofia and Eddy would gain from an elite school would come from the opportunity to rub shoulders with people like Connery and Margaux. Entrance into an elite school would grant Sofia and Eddy access to friends and networks that would open doors for the rest of their careers. It is those contacts that would change their lives.
For this reason, elite colleges need the rich and famous. Prestigious colleges are not interested in dismantling the class system. They are deeply invested in perpetuating it. Indeed, elite colleges owe their existence to a system that grants privileges to the already privileged. The recent admissions scandal should make that fact abundantly clear.
Yet, the scandal may plant a seed for change. Toto has pulled back the curtain, and the public now has a much clearer view of the machinations taking place at elite colleges. None of the schools involved in the scandal can credibly assert that merit is the overarching factor in their undergraduate admissions process.
One can hope this causes applicants, and their parents, to be more reflective and diligent when considering colleges. Those who feel their college must carry a luxury brand like their Louis Vuitton bag and Cartier watch, will continue to look to the elite schools. Those simply interested in educational quality might consider a fine public university.