Auctioning Off College Admissions Spots

LinkedIn post by employee of Harvard Management Company infuriates many -- and is removed. But is it a sign of the times that people are saying auctions might be fairer than current system?

April 1, 2019
 
iStock

As if elite higher education isn't having enough of an image problem in the wake of the massive admissions scandal …

On Friday, a LinkedIn post -- by an official of the Harvard Management Company (which manages the Harvard University endowment, the largest in the world) -- shared an idea about college admissions.

“Why do we have a system where wealthy parents have to make shady payments to even more shady intermediaries to get their kids into college?” the post said. “Why don’t the colleges just auction off a certain number of spots each year?”

The idea is "an honest question," wrote Michael Cappucci, a senior vice president at the Harvard Management Company. He contrasted the transparency of an auction in which any who could afford to do so could compete with the "charade" of the status quo. The post disappeared, but not before The Boston Globe and others noticed it and shared the quotes.

Cappucci, who did not respond to a request for comment, does work for an outfit that is extremely important to Harvard. But he's not a top official there, and he has nothing to do with Harvard's admissions policies. Still, he drew a lot of online ire, much of it presuming a Harvard connection to his idea.

A spokesman for the university released this statement: "Harvard employs thousands of people, who hold a range of their own personal opinions. The personal views expressed by this individual do not reflect the policies or positions of the university.”

In fairness to Cappucci, it's worth noting that parts of college admissions already are closed off to those not willing to pay. Colleges that are "need aware" reserve some portion of their slots -- typically after committing a defined aid budget to newly admitted students -- for those who don't need financial aid. Essentially, only some applicants are considered for these slots, and wealth is the deciding factor. And that is just one of the many ways that wealthy families have an edge in admissions.

But an auction?

Cappucci isn't the first to propose the idea of auctioning off some slots in the wake of the admissions scandal -- and a common thread in such proposals isn't that they are socially just, but that they may be at least as socially just and more transparent than is the current system.

Robert J. Samuelson, an economics columnist, proposed such a system in The Washington Post. He admitted off the bat that many would be stunned and angered by the concept.

"Most people are bound to react: Are you nuts? We don’t want a system that rewards wealth. True, but that’s what we have now, and human nature being what it is, we won’t eliminate the effects of parental wealth and influence. The best we can do is to force the wealthy to pay more for their good fortune," he wrote.

Samuelson wouldn't let colleges apply the idea to too large a share of the class, and wrote that 10 to 15 percent of the class might work. "Limiting the auction spots suggests there would be little or no erosion in the quality of students," he said, given that he would limit this idea to places with huge pools of qualified applicants. "Just because some students have wealthy parents doesn’t mean they’re stupid -- often an unspoken assumption."

Further, he would require that anyone entering the auction demonstrate ability to "meet the school’s high academic standards." (In some ways that would mirror another radical proposal for college admissions reform. New America has urged Congress to require universities that seek federal research grants to replace admissions systems with ones in which a lottery plays a prominent role among applicants who have made it over some bar.)

Finally, the Samuelson plan would have a provision that would discourage bidding in too many auctions.

"There would be no bargaining," Samuelson wrote. "The award of admissions spots would be strictly determined by the price offered. This would eliminate one potential source of corruption. 'Legacy' admissions preferences for the children of alumni would also be eliminated. All winning bids would be required to pay. Assume that an applicant applies to Yale, Stanford, Harvard and MIT -- and gets into all four. She picks MIT. But Mom and Dad would still have to foot the bill for Yale, Stanford and Harvard. The reason for this requirement is that, without it, the system would be flooded with strategically placed bids that would corrode public confidence. However, students would be free to apply for regular admissions to other schools."

Would this just help the rich? Samuelson wrote that this isn't the case (because of other provisions of his plan).

"If the auction revenue went to scholarships for the poor and the middle class, the result could be more, not less, equality. Every effort should be made to keep the recipients of these auction awards confidential, though this would be difficult. There would also be other problems: some alumni would surely continue to operate outside the process. My system is hardly ideal. To improve matters, colleges and universities would be required to publish information about their auctions -- the number of applicants, the median and average bids, and the distribution of bids. We have the opportunity to replace a corrupt and confusing system with something a little less corrupt and confusing. But of course we won’t take it. The optics are all wrong. It seems to favor the rich when, in reality, it does just the opposite." (The argument about using auction proceeds to help those in need is of course similar to the argument used by many to explain a recruiting focus on "full-pay" students.)

Many of those commenting on the article were outraged, with one calling his plan "as disgusting as cheating." Others seemed to hope it was satire, a sort of Modest Proposal for college admissions.

But many others said that it suggested just how unjust the current system is and pointed to the failings of societal support for higher education. Of the idea of getting more money from the wealthy for higher education, one person wrote, "We used to have a system exactly like that for all, including the most elite, public universities. It was called taxing the rich and adequately supporting the university. We could just do that again."

It may seem unlikely that anything like an auction system would find support in higher education. The ethics code of the National Association for College Admission Counseling states, "We believe our members have a responsibility to treat one another and students in a fundamentally fair and equitable manner. Our institutional and individual members strive to eliminate from the education system bias based on race, ethnicity, creed, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, political affiliation, national origin or disability. We view this as fundamental to our responsibility as educators."

And Harvard was quick to distance itself from the LinkedIn post about the auction concept. But of course Harvard is cited by critics of the influence of wealthy donors in admissions decisions, with a book linking the admission of Jared Kushner (well before he married Ivanka Trump) to a $2.5 million donation from Kushner's father (who denies any relationship between the gift and his son's application). The question being raised by those advocating auctions: Would they be worse than a situation where wealthy donors' children are admitted without any transparency?

Read more by

Back to Top