Responding to the Elite College Admissions Scandal

Why aren't obvious responses being voiced?

March 25, 2019

Yale, you'll recall, spent $500 million to house 800 students in its two new residential colleges, which adds up to $625,000 per student.  USC spent a whopping $700 million on its residential village, which houses 2,500 students.  That's inexpensive by Yale standards, at just $280,000 per student, in a neighborhood where the average annual income is just one-tenth that amount.

Of course, the champion was Harvard, which budgeted $1.4 billion to renovate its undergraduate residences.

Expenditures like those require lots and lots of money, and, as we have been reminded in recent days, some of the money that elite institutions raise arrives in unsavory ways, for example, in return for special treatment in admissions.  This, in turn, has encouraged other wealthy people to seek their own side doors into elite colleges and universities.

What, we might ask, will be the response to this scandal?

Sometimes, silence is deafening.

Why is it that not one of the elite colleges has suggested ending legacy admissions or special treatment for athletes or (God forbid) donors and the politically connected?  

Or devoting a portion of their resources to a concerted effort to expand opportunity for under-privileged students, for example, by opening institutions like Bard's early college high schools or even community colleges to prepare students to transfer to highly selective institutions?  

Or creating a repository of instructional tools and resources openly and freely available to high school teachers and postsecondary instructors? 

Or dramatically increasing enrollment, perhaps by launching truly high quality, well-supported online learning opportunities?

All of these ideas have been raised by politicians, pundits, and the general public ... without an institutional response.

Of course, my questions are rhetorical and the answers self-evident.

  • Because these institutions are more concerned with providing an elite-quality education to a small number of students than risking the dilution of their brand.
  • Because even the wealthiest institutions crave new revenue streams.
  • Because of an unwillingness to shift current spending priorities and a conviction that outreach initiatives are not aligned with their mission or responsibility.
  • Because these colleges and universities do not truly recognize that as the best resourced players in the postsecondary educational ecosystem, and recipients of an enormous amount of public funds, they have a responsibility to serve the public.

The professoriate holds some of the most liberal views within U.S. society. But higher education is among this nation's most status-conscious and stratified sectors, with resources distributed in inverse proportion to student needs.  

Is there any hope for change?

At the K-12 level, many states have adopted "Robin Hood" policies that redistribute tax revenue from wealthier to poorer school districts.  Meanwhile, Title I provides targeted assistance to schools with students from low-income backgrounds.

Perhaps this country might consider similar policies at the college level.

Wouldn't it be fairer for states to guarantee equal per student funding for instruction and student support services at all of their public institutions?

The objections are obvious:

  • That resource inequities serve a larger public good:  Providing the best qualified students with a fantastic education and indirectly funding the research that drives economic growth.
  • That the highly competitive nature of American higher education marketplace drives institutions to improve their status and quality.
  • That the stratification of higher education reflects an underlying reality: That students' talents, preparation, and aspirations vary widely.
  • That reducing spending on flagships and land grant universities will only weaken some of the strongest higher educational institutions.

The admissions scandal is eroding the much diminished public faith in higher education as an engine of social mobility and contributor to the greater good.  It has reinforced a widespread impression that the elite colleges and universities are bastions of privilege and bubble for a wealthy, connected, or hand-picked elite.  And it is bolstering the voices of those already hostile to higher education and intensifying anger at institutions that the public considers overpriced, hostile toward free speech, and poorly aligned with the needs of the economy.

Alongside the calls for free college, perhaps there should be calls for a more equitable system of higher higher education.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin

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