The Mind-Blowing Hypocrisy of Elite College Admissions

Varsity Blues has exposed just how bad it is, writes Ryan Craig.

November 25, 2019

In the 1960s, Harvard University graduate Norman Mailer and Yale University's William F. Buckley were among America's leading public intellectuals on the left and right, respectively. They had a complicated relationship. Of Buckley, Mailer wrote, “No other actor on earth can project simultaneous hints that he is in the act of playing Commodore of the Yacht Club, Joseph Goebbels, the nice pre-school kid next door, and the snows of yesteryear.”

Mailer and Buckley did have one thing in common: overwhelming egos. One time Buckley sent a new book -- a collection of his columns -- to Mailer without a clear indication of the sender. Buckley knew that the first thing his rival would do was search for “Norman Mailer” in the index. Mailer did so, and that’s exactly where Buckley had inscribed “Hi Norman -- Bill Buckley.”

Immense egotism is only manageable with self-awareness, which can disarm it into humorous eccentricity. Without self-awareness, massive egos are often debilitating and lead to mind-blowing hypocrisy. Our current president aside, there’s no better example of this than elite college admissions.

To my mind, the most interesting parents caught up in the Varsity Blues admissions scandal aren’t the wealthiest (e.g., former CEO of PIMCO) or most famous (e.g., TV star Lori Loughlin, who will almost certainly go to jail for six months or longer). The perpetrators worth focusing on are those who broke the law while holding themselves out as model parents, complete with parenting books and blogs.

Perhaps because I’m from Canada (where we either don’t need help, or we ask the government), I marvel at America’s self-help industry in general, and the parenting expert industry in particular. Browsing the current titles on offer, literally anyone who’s had a child (or a parent) can and does claim this mantle -- not unlike the millions of self-styled experts on diet (we all eat) or education (we’ve all been to school, so join the club and start your own education blog!). And you’re more likely to get your book on the shelf and your face on Good Morning America if you’re wealthy and can afford to hire a small army of ghostwriters and publicists to build your franchise.

This is why the archetypal Varsity Blues parent is Jane Buckingham. The wealthy founder of a market research firm (Trendera) who married a motivational speaker/author of rousing titles like Now, Discover Your Strengths, Go Put Your Strengths to Work and The Groundbreaking New Strengths Assessment From the Leader of the Strengths Revolution, Buckingham also wrote a book, The Modern Girl’s Guide to Motherhood, which was widely panned long before Varsity Blues. (My favorite review: “The best thing about this book is the very first page. It contains a disclaimer that the author is not to be held accountable for any injury or damage resulting from using the information and advice within the book.”)

A few years later, Buckingham put her strengths to work by launching a parenting blog, which included these pearls of parenting wisdom that indicate it would be a bad idea to pay a “test expert” $50,000 to take your son’s ACT (while submitting samples of his handwriting so the test taker could forge her son’s signature): “At the end of the day, all we really want to know is how do we raise confident, self-reliant kids” and “every working mom comes to me and says, ‘How do I do it all?’ Well guess what, you can't. No one is superwoman, so don’t try to be … Also, don’t let guilt be your guide.”

A second Varsity Blues defendant also had a parenting blog. Actress Felicity Huffman used her blog to tell the story of “the wilderness of mothering,” with a focus on the virtues of hard work and letting children make their own mistakes. On her blog, Huffman sold T-shirts and mugs with phrases like “Mom Knows Best” and “Good Enough Mom.” Prosecutors cited Huffman’s blog ahead of her sentencing, reminding the judge of her “brazen hypocrisy” -- depicting herself as a “trustworthy purveyor of parenting wisdom” while planning to rig her daughter’s SAT.

Finally there’s the parent who didn’t feel the need to sneak her child in the side door because she had the money to march boldly through the back door. In September, New York magazine published a profile of hedge fund billionaire David E. Shaw and his wife, Beth Kobliner, who, from the time their eldest child was two years away from applying until after their youngest had been accepted, donated $1 million annually to Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford Universities. Oh, and don’t forget at least $500,000 each to Columbia and Brown Universities (safety schools).

This “philanthropy” ensured each child would have his or her choice of Ivy. So you won’t be surprised to learn that Kobliner is also a self-help author with a parenting blog, the gist of which was “don’t worry about getting caught up in the whole admissions thing.” In one blog post Kobliner wrote, “Getting into your ninth-choice school might not feel as good as opening an envelope -- or a DM -- from the exclusive private college of your fantasies. But no matter where your kid goes, she’ll have experiences, make friends, and learn things that will change her life. And that makes for an amazing picture, even if it’s not one you can post on the ’gram.”

So many things to talk about … not least of which is the obnoxious reference to “the ’gram.” But let’s start with hypocrisy. All these parents have a lack of self-awareness befitting their wealth. But in the college admissions context, it runs deeper than run-of-the-mill “let them eat cake.” Hypocrisy in elite college admissions seems sanctioned because the process itself is hypocritical.

Admissions statements from our most prestigious colleges and universities are a paean to diversity and meritocracy. Harvard seeks “to enroll students of all backgrounds and beliefs.” “We want to bring the best people to Harvard, regardless of their ability to pay.” Yale is committed to creating a community “with a variety of backgrounds and beliefs” and has launched a major new effort called Belonging at Yale to increase diversity. Princeton dean Jill Dolan says “diversity is more than a catchphrase. It’s a way of life … We work hard to ensure our community is diverse [in terms of] race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status.”

But the disconnect between these stated goals and reality is jarring. At 38 of our most selective colleges and universities, including five in the Ivy League (Yale, Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth and Penn), there are more students from the top 1 percent than the entire bottom 60 percent. According to Raj Chetty, more than two-thirds of students at Ivy League schools come from families in the top 20 percent, while fewer than 4 percent come from the bottom 20 percent, and children from the top 1 percent are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League school than those from the bottom 20 percent.

The reasons our most famous colleges spout the virtues of meritocracy and diversity while continuing to fill themselves to the brim with sons and daughters of the rich and famous are well documented. First, they continue to put a thumb (or hand, or entire limb) on the scale for children of legacies. Second, they provide an advantage to athletes, and the sports in which elite colleges and universities excel are Varsity Blues “rich sports” i.e., water polo, rowing, sailing, squash and other sundry country club pursuits. As The Harvard Crimson reported last month, 43 percent of white admits to Harvard are legacies, athletes or children of faculty and donors; in the Class of 2022 alone, 36 percent are legacies. In a high-wire act of breathtaking hypocrisy, these advantages have grown proportionally with the increased “commitment” to diversity. For the Class of 2000, admit rates of legacies and athletes were four times higher than their peers. For the Class of 2017, the advantage was nine times.

Harvard and its brethren try to explain away these preferences, but legacies and athletes have received a ton of attention recently, and signs are pointing in the direction of phasing them out -- at least at the colleges that will continue to have long lines out the gate no matter what they do. I’d give them five years, tops, in their current form.

Another explanation for the chasm between admissions ideal and practice is the continued focus on “holistic admissions,” which -- in the absence of a quantified “distance traveled” metric demonstrating how far an applicant has come relative to background and challenges -- provides a clear advantage for students with superior numerical metrics like test scores, AP classes and grades. (Notably, the College Board’s recent effort to provide a quantified adversity score was abandoned after pushback; the Environmental Context Dashboard will provide nothing more than additional data schools may consider as they merrily progress with “holistic admissions.”) But everyone now militating against legacy and rich sport preferences and fuming about distance traveled should ponder the most insidious and inexplicable admissions hypocrisy: the fact that the top colleges are filling nearly half their classes with candidates applying at the early-decision deadline.

Keen observers like Paul Tough have noted that early decision benefits wealthy students more attuned to the college admissions process, who can afford the test prep and counseling resources they’ll need to get applications in early. Moreover, as Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, noted earlier this month in the Chronicle, “colleges are looking to lock in as much revenue during the early-decision process as possible and therefore are likely to favor the applicants who bring in the most tuition” i.e., wealthy, full-pay applicants. Further complicating early decision for applicants who are merely bourgeois or below: since most early-decision acceptances are binding, students aren’t able to compare financial aid packages; they’re committing to take what they get -- a dicey proposition for all but the wealthiest families. As a result, while about 50 percent of students using the Common Application apply to at least one college early, the rate for applicants who receive fee waivers was only 23 percent.

To see early decision taken to its logical extreme, look no further than High Point University, the North Carolina college that pioneered the director of “WOW” position to please students by keeping track of their favorite movies, sodas and candy. High Point is now offering early applicants “first choice of dormitory rooms, early move-in, first priority in class section, and a guaranteed parking space for your entire freshman year!”

With the same approach to college admissions as so many “parenting experts,” elite universities are perpetuating a “do as I say, not as I do” con. We know that they know better: Harvard and Princeton eliminated early decision in 2006 exactly because “such programs put low-income and minority applicants at a distinct disadvantage in the competition to get into selective universities.” But when other Ivies failed to follow their lead and continued filling their classes early, Harvard and Princeton retreated.

Despite some progress in the past few years in the face of these structural impediments (Yale has nearly doubled its percentage of Pell-eligible freshmen), the fact remains that in their admissions processes, elite colleges pay lip service to socioeconomic mobility like Jane Buckingham, Felicity Huffman and Beth Kobliner paid lip service to letting their children find their own path and not getting hot and bothered about college admissions. Perhaps America’s wealthiest parents and colleges are also alike in that both believe their success is autochthonous, and neither feels any sincere obligation to the society and country that allowed them to thrive. Their massive egos blind them to their hypocrisy.

I’m not against an early-decision process, but it’s time for action on elite college admissions; to date, there have been no consequences for colleges and universities implicated in Varsity Blues. As legacy and athletic preferences melt away, if Title IV-eligible institutions are going to keep early decision, it should be for Pell-eligible applicants only. All other applicants should be considered in the main pool. America’s most elite colleges and universities have extremely long lines of qualified applicants. They must stop thinking about admissions in the context of brand and yield and focus genuinely on mission. Doing so would reduce the resentment many Americans now feel to higher education generally, and specifically to the elite institutions that are representative of higher education for far too many. And by building classes around those most in need of a leg up rather than children of wealthy families, it could go some ways to increasing socioeconomic mobility and reducing institutional hypocrisy.

With the November early-decision deadlines behind us and Thanksgiving around the corner, let us pray that wealthy families and universities will one day develop sufficient self-awareness to either change their behavior or at least joke about their hypocrisy. And I’d personally be thankful for more authors like Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley -- no one would have done a better job skewering these parents and institutions -- and for fewer self-help books and parenting blogs.

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Ryan Craig is the author of College Disrupted (2015) and A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College (2018). He is a managing director at University Ventures, which is reimagining the future of higher education and creating new pathways from education to employment.


Ryan Craig

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