The federal indictment of a group of wealthy individuals accused of bribing their offspring’s way into selective colleges “sent a shock wave through higher ed,” wrote a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education. College officials were said to be reeling after dozens of individuals, including famous actresses such as Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, were accused of being part of a scheme to cheat on standardized tests and bribe Division I coaches into admitting academically mediocre non-athletes using university slots set aside for recruited athletes.
Those indicted, said John Bonavolonta, an FBI agent, “had a role in fostering a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for students trying to get into these schools the right way.”
Elite universities openly and unashamedly provide substantial preferential treatment to the children of alumni.
But is the playing field ever really even? In reality, legal forms of bribery and opportunities for influence-peddling have long been standard operating procedure at most elite universities, which openly and unashamedly provide substantial preferential treatment to the children of alumni. On average, research shows, the children of alumni receive the equivalent of a 160-point boost on the SAT (out of a possible 1600 points.) College officials told journalist Daniel Golden for a 2010 Century Foundation study of legacy preferences that the boost provided to alumni who donate is substantially larger than for alumni who do not donate.
To be sure, the offering of bribes to coaches in an effort to deceive both colleges and the NCAA is more tawdry than offering bribes to institutions to do the same thing. “We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter,” the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling declared. “We’re talking about deception and fraud.”
This is a remarkable, if perhaps inadvertently illuminating, statement. Lelling is correct that donating cash to secure admissions for a child is perfectly legal. Indeed, society consistently rewards the exchange by giving donors enormous tax breaks, essentially subsidizing the whole transaction. But is the moral distinction as big as the legal distinction would suggest?
In either case — the athletic bribe or the endowment donation — university officials realize they have something people greatly desire (a spot at a selective university) and seek to capitalize on that fact. According to researcher Peter Sacks’s 2010 analysis for The Century Foundation, the lifetime benefit of attending a selective college compared to a less-selective college is over $300,000. Of course, the students in this scandal came from wealthy and influential households, meaning they already had a leg-up on many of their peers. And many of the bribes paid out were significantly more than $300,000, suggesting the parents may have been after prestige too. “Full House” star Lori Loughlin allegedly paid $500,000 to get her two daughters into the University of Southern California.
The athletic coaches in this case are reminiscent of the disgraced former governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, who realized he had something of value when he had the opportunity to appoint a U.S. senator to replace Barrack Obama. “I’ve got this thing, and it’s f---ing golden. I’m just not giving it up for f---ing nothing,” he declared in 2008.
Singer described the three doors through which students can enter elite colleges: the “front door” of merit; the “back door” of donating to the institution and a “side door."
The college coaches used their golden ticket to cash in personally, which is particularly troubling — and more clearly illegal. But if part of the reason we are bothered by the scheme is the “un-level playing field” identified by the FBI’s Bonavolonta, then the problem of donor preferences does not disappear just because no individual is directly and personally enriched by the scheme. This is not to say school officials aren’t benefitting. University presidents, whose job performance is often tied to alumni donations, can make millions. Meanwhile, regular, unconnected, hard-working students are still being shut out of opportunities through no fault of their own.
Perhaps the clearest explanation of this problem comes from the scam’s alleged ringleader William Rick Singer, who was allegedly paid $25 million to help more than 750 families gain unfair access. As reported in federal court documents, Singer described the three doors through which students can enter elite colleges: the “front door” of merit; the “back door” of donating to the institution and a “side door,” which Singer opened through bribes to athletic coaches and standardized testing officials.
The side door, he said, was a relative bargain compared to the back door. The alleged bribes were often in the $500,000 range, compared with institutional donations, which could cost “ten times as much” to secure admissions.
The crude and explicit nature of the side door approach brings to mind the evolution of the political use of race by some conservatives. For years, right-wing politicians used dog whistles to appeal to the racial resentment of whites, then President Donald Trump brought out a fog horn. Legacy preferences are akin to the dog whistle — a more polite and genteel version of the bribe — which, when made explicit is an embarrassment to elite higher education.
But make no mistake: While the side door may be worse, it is fairly uncommon and illegal. The back door, by contrast is widespread. About three-quarters of the nation’s 100 top national universities (as ranked by U.S. News & World Report) provide legacy preferences, as do virtually all of top 100 liberal arts colleges. Other nations, by contrast, consider the use of legacy preferences distasteful, even shocking. As Daniel Golden notes, legacy preferences are “virtually unknown in the rest of the world” as they are “an almost exclusively American custom.”
This latest scandal should be a wake-up call. Isn’t it time to make everyone go through the front door?