Ultimate Villain of Varsity Blues? Selfish and Shortsighted Universities

The tendency of America's most famous universities to prioritize elegant campus life over learning has created the cutthroat culture at the core of the admissions scandal, Ryan Craig writes.

February 28, 2020
 
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With progressives on the verge of taking over the Democratic Party, I’d like my woke friends and colleagues to be aware that my progressive roots date back to college, when I led the Progressive Party of the Yale Political Union. Admittedly, our “progressive” was a lot closer to Teddy Roosevelt than Bernie Sanders, but in addition to holding important debates like “Be it Resolved: Elvis Lives!” we completed at least one social action project every semester.

Unlike the Disneyfied gothic parkland Yale students inhabit today, New Haven used to be a much tougher environment, exemplified by the graffiti that dotted its major natural landmark: East Rock. And so one social action project was to clean up the graffiti marring East Rock. When Susan, the party’s social action coordinator, called the New Haven Parks Department and informed them that a crew of 30 or so progs wanted to help restore East Rock to its natural state, it took the Parks Department a few days to respond. When they did, a gravelly voice accepted our offer and told us that we should not try to remove the graffiti, but rather paint over it. “Paint over it?” Susan asked. “With what?” The voice replied, “We have a bunch of rock-color paint.”

We had a great time painting East Rock rock color. While it may have been the highlight of my tenure as chairman, it was undoubtedly a lowlight of environmental social action, even by the primitive standards of the 1990s. Everyone recognized the solution was inconsistent with our social action ethos, which painted the entire day in an ironic tone (not dissimilar to rock color). What we didn’t recognize was that the entire painting-East-Rock-rock-color enterprise reflected a way of thinking that would precipitate the greatest college admissions scandal in American history.

***

Piggish parents and corrupt consultants are the proximate cause of the Varsity Blues admissions scandal. But the cutthroat culture that engendered this fiasco is a direct byproduct of demand stretched to the breaking point relative to an inelastic supply of places at America’s most famous colleges.

In the past 15 years, applications to Ivy League universities have increased 127 percent, while entering class size has grown by a meager 8 percent. Harvard increased its class size less than 1 percent and has only 1,665 places to allocate annually among 8,200 applicants with perfect GPAs, 3,500 applicants with perfect math SATs and 2,700 with perfect verbal SATs (while 43 percent of white admitted students are legacies, athletes or children of faculty and donors). In fact, Harvard College enrollment has remained virtually flat for the past 60 years.

In 2014, facing record low acceptance rates, Yale announced it would increase the number of places in Yale College by 15 percent by adding two new residential colleges at a cost of $500 million. Yale wasn’t the first selective university to spend an outrageous sum on new dorms. Princeton’s Whitman College added 500 seats in 2007 for $136 million, and a few years earlier MIT opened a new $94 million dorm housing 350 students. But at $625,000 per place, Yale would set a new mark for extravagant expansion.

The new colleges opened in the fall of 2017 and, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, met Yale’s stated goal of parity with the previous 12 colleges: “they had to make the spaces feel at once antique, imposing, scholarly, quirky, cozy, and comfortable -- to make them feel as much as possible like buildings from the 1920s and ’30s” including “some 4,000 windows … set off with random arrangements of real and cast stone.” The new colleges required “vast quantities of granite, brick, limestone, and slate for the exterior, oak for interior hardwood floors -- to create a polished look.” “When Yale builds new colleges,” said the dean at the time, “it’s radically expensive … Our residential spaces are rather over-the-top. You name it, each college has it.”

I’ve visited the new colleges and agree wholeheartedly that they provide a “memorable sense of place.” There’s no question that they’re making a difference in the lives of 800 students. But when Yale’s provost explained, “This is about access,” he said it without a hint of irony or recognition that spending $500 million to add 800 places was inconsistent with moving the needle on “access” or Yale’s stated mission of “improving the world today and for future generations.”

Why have the number of places at America’s top colleges and universities remained static while demand has soared? Because conventional wisdom states they cannot expand unless the entire college experience remains unchanged. The focus is on campus life, which is understandable; who wouldn’t want every student to have the same rich, immersive experience? But it overindexes things that are easy to measure, like buildings, singing and improv groups, intramural sports and theatrical productions (yielding “butteries … courtyards … performance spaces … and squash courts”), while underindexing the essential elements of higher education that are much harder to measure: learning and skills.

I know what you’re thinking: butteries, courtyards, performance spaces and squash courts contribute to relationships, experiences and therefore skills. But the conventional wisdom exaggerates the extent to which costly infrastructure produces skills. The truth is that young people with the talent and motivation to attend these schools don’t need a Hogwarts-like campus to build skills; they’re likely to establish their own organizations and activities regardless of amenities. Moreover, spending more time in the real world among muggles -- including gaining work experience in jobs more relevant for future employment than Harvard’s cleaning crews -- is likely to be more productive for soft skills. Because the relevant A/B test for expansion isn’t four years at Hogwarts vs. nothing. It’s hanging out in butteries at Hogwarts vs. selling butterbeer in Hogsmeade.

***

The big problem with overindexing campus life and underindexing learning and skills is that campus life cannot scale while learning and skills can, and I don’t mean online. As Jeff Selingo has adroitly pointed out, our conventional wisdom has been proven wrong north of the border. Canada’s top university -- the University of Toronto -- is the country’s largest, with 65,000 undergraduates, while two other top schools, the Universities of British Columbia and Waterloo, rank No. 3 and No. 4 in terms of enrollment. As Jeff notes, U of T, UBC and McGill -- arguably Canada’s three most prominent universities -- enroll 110,000 undergraduates, which is “more students than the top 17 U.S. universities in the U.S. News rankings.” As Canada’s population is approximately one-tenth of the U.S.'s, Canadian students are 10 times more likely to gain admission to a top university. So even if you could find a single Canadian parent as greedy as any of the Varsity Blues defendants, he or she wouldn’t feel pressure to cheat.

U of T, UBC and McGill aren’t without their charms. But Canadian universities don’t subscribe to the view that fulfilling their educational missions necessitates a squash court in every residence hall. These universities have invested in classrooms and faculty and typically provide an immersive residential experience for first-year students.

Canada’s top universities are a triumph of smart expansion over extravagant expansion. Why don’t America’s top 17 or 20 or 50 universities expand capacity by a factor of four by turning all current colleges and houses into residences for first-year students while simultaneously investing billions from their endowments to dramatically expand teaching faculty (thereby providing new career pathways for legions of graduate students); add new classroom buildings, libraries and study spaces; and develop new (nonluxurious) off-campus housing and study abroad programs actually connected to programs of study? The reasons aren’t financial. Their endowments make it possible to make a real difference in terms of increased access. America’s elite colleges and universities are limited only by the conventional wisdom -- that is to say, by lack of foresight and imagination.

Conventional wisdom won’t change unless and until our top schools get serious about measuring learning and skills. Demonstrating that Canadian-style expansion doesn’t result in any dilution of learning and skills is the precondition for a paradigm shift. But no elite university even attempts to deploy assessments like the CLA+ to ascertain value added in analysis, problem solving, quantitative reasoning and critical reading. Our leading educational institutions should care about these things. If they did, they’d begin focusing on what matters most and stumble their way to the right answer: establish an appropriate balance between learning/skills and campus life and dramatically increase the number of available seats. Elite schools’ conventional wisdom concerning growth is like exclusionary zoning that raises real estate values for selfish homeowners while keeping most aspiring owners out.

I understand why Yale’s provost talked about increasing access without irony: it’s really hard to spend $500 million ironically. But there can be no question that in being far too precious about expansion, America’s top universities are failing at their missions and doing their country a disservice.

While the Ivies and their brethren could change course by infusing expensive (and extremely limited) expansion with irony, there is a better solution. It begins by recognizing that the current approach of overindexing campus life as a rationale for constricting supply has given rise not only to Varsity Blues, but also contributed to a sense of runaway inequality, rage against elites (including essential research and expertise proffered by top schools), and the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. If America’s most famous universities don’t make progress on changing their paradigm for access and growth, one populist or another may do it for them.

Bio

Ryan Craig is author of A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College and managing director at University Ventures.

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