The Old College Try

College was the last four years of the sixties. The times they were a-changing. Jack and Martin and Bobby had been assassinated, and the war in Vietnam got worse and more stupid by the day, and that, and the music and the sex and the drugs, was tearing the country apart. And race was still an issue. The world was falling apart – be were in college – safe from the draft with our student deferments. Life was good. Some of us marched against the war. Others had toga parties at their frat houses. That was fine. We stayed in our lanes. There were the kids from unimpressive families – the first kid in the family to go to college – who worked in the summer and a bit during the year to somehow pay for this all. And there were the kids whose families had money – everything was already paid for. But that was fine too. It didn’t really matter how anyone got there. Staying there, and graduating, was the trick. And then there were the legacy kids – usually dolts whose mothers or fathers, or grandmothers or grandfathers, had graduated from the place long ago. They were there as a courtesy, a “George Bush at Yale” thing. They got their gentleman’s C’s and smirked a lot and everyone ignored them. And then there were those who parents had bought their way in, usually with a big donation. That does happen:

In 1998, according to sources familiar with the gift, the New York University alumnus Charles Kushner pledged $2.5 million to Harvard, to be paid in annual installments of $250,000… At the time of the pledge, Kushner’s older son, Jared, was starting the college admissions process at the Frisch School, a Jewish high school in Paramus, New Jersey. A senior in 1998-99, Jared was not in the school’s highest academic track in all courses, and his test scores were below Ivy League standards. Frisch officials were surprised when he applied to Harvard – and dismayed when he was admitted.

“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,” a former school official said. “His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not”

Yea, well, Harvard took the money and let him in, and they made sure he somehow graduated. A quarter million dollars buys a lot. That happened back in the sixties too. The sums were smaller. But that’s how the world works. Everyone back then knew that. Everyone shrugged. These things happen. The only issue is, when necessary, covering your tracks:

Last week, Michael Cohen revealed that he threatened academic institutions not to release Donald Trump’s school records. Turns out, he might have undersold the effort.

The Post’s Marc Fisher just broke the news that the New York Military Academy, which Trump attended as a boy, moved its Trump files to a more secure location amid pressure from moneyed Trump allies. The school didn’t accede to these allies’ requests that the documents be turned over. But citing financial ailments and worried about legal action, it did help ensure they’d never see the light of day.

The timing of this new revelation is the most notable. Cohen last week submitted a letter he wrote threatening Fordham University with legal action if Trump’s records were released. That was in 2015, when Trump was about to run for president.

But this newest effort is actually from 2011, when Trump was considering challenging Barack Obama in his 2012 reelection race. That actually places it much closer to when Trump was routinely attacking Obama for not releasing his own academic records.

Faking it at the time can be real trouble down the road, but in 2015 W went the other way:

George Bush gave hope to millions of average students everywhere when he reminded graduates at a university in Texas C-grade students can become President too.

Giving the commencement address at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, his wife’s alma mater, the former president offered his congratulations: “To those of you who are graduating this afternoon with high honors, awards and distinctions, I say, ‘Well done’.”

“And as I like to tell the C-students: You too, can be President,” he added to laughter and applause.

That was the alternative for Trump – “Obama is smart, and I’m dumb, but dumb is better.” He could have said that. His angry base, angry at all the smart people running everything and getting everything, would have cheered. He was honest and he was as resentful as every single one of them. But he didn’t go there. He had been the best student at the best schools. And he did that all on his own.

That was nonsense, but that’s been nonsense for the last seventy years, ever since our guys came back from the war and had the GI Bill and all of them actually could get into college. Get to the best of the best schools and be wonderful there – that’s what matters. There’s nothing new in the concept, only in the execution of the concept now:

The Justice Department on Tuesday charged 50 people – including two television stars – with participating in a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme that enabled privileged students with lackluster grades to attend prestigious colleges and universities.

The allegations included cheating on entrance exams and bribing college officials to say certain students were athletic recruits when those students were not in fact athletes, officials said. Numerous schools were targeted, including Georgetown University, Yale University, Stanford University, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California and UCLA, among others.

The juicy details keep pouring in and it’s hard to turn away. The television show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous ran from 1984 to 1995 – feeding the nation’s need for “champagne wishes and caviar dreams” – showing the quite real shallow and totally unaware idle rich, surrounded by gold-plated everything. The show was a hit, and this college admissions scandal will be a big hit too – for the same reason. Look at those stars and rich people!

There more to this. Jennifer Rubin argues that this changes the debate about Affirmative Action:

The incident gives upper middle-class and wealthy whites a full appreciation of what “privilege” and “rigging the system” really mean.

It is human nature to assume whatever you and your offspring have done has been earned while others got “advantages.” However, you simply cannot treat the legal advantages these parents could have provided (e.g., private schools, tutors, sports coaches, essay counselors, alumni gifts) as part of given, earned success and whatever boost an athlete or poor applicant got in the name of diversity as unearned, unfair advantage. Now, rather than accusing every successful nonwhite student from an elite school of getting preferential treatment, appropriate skepticism should be directed at children of the super-rich who managed to get into elite schools despite less-than-sterling-grades.

And a few new court rulings would help too:

In the best-case scenario, the justice system will be a great leveler, handing down stiff sentences for those convicted, although I fear a judge somewhere will declare them to have lived a blameless life previously and go easy on them. We might also compel elite school to look at their egregiously disproportionate admission of the super-rich and their role in widening income inequality. “Diversity” has to include first in the family to go to college and low family income. Maybe it will force universities to make their admissions process more transparent, letting us all know just how many legacy admissions (and children of donors) there are. Maybe we could prevail upon college ranking outlets to take offending schools off the rankings and/or penalize schools that take the vast majority of students from the 1 percent. More radically, the fake student athlete scam is another argument for rethinking the role of college sports.

But it all comes down to this:

It is time to put away the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats myth, recognize real and substantial inequities, understand that inequities feed anti-democratic extremism, and embrace the idea that we are losing out as a country if mediocre elites get opportunities over more talented non-elites.

Elizabeth Bruenig puts that this way:

On Tuesday, federal prosecutors charged dozens of celebrities and lesser-known wealthy parents with counts of bribery and fraud over various alleged schemes to get their underachieving children into elite colleges. The details range from infuriating to bizarre to hilarious: Imposters hired to take standardized tests; a tennis coach bribed to produce a bogus admissions recommendation; hapless children’s faces Photoshopped onto the bodies of real athletes. The indicted parents could face prison if convicted. Their children could face expulsion.

News of the scandal has provoked near-unanimous anger, because what these ultra-rich moms and dads did wasn’t fair. But nothing about the American experience of social mobility is fair, and repairing that will require a much more radical reconsideration of society than smashing a pay-to-go racket.

It makes sense that people are outraged. The prospect of working hard, getting into a good school and building an excellent life atop one’s own hard-won accomplishments is the last, abstract vestige of the American Dream. And all of this undermines it: Apparently, as common sense probably dictated to most people anyway, you can get ahead simply by having rich parents, and elite credentials aren’t strictly the fruit of grit and skill.

Of course everyone knew that already. Not that there’s much that can be done about this mess:

It’s only reasonable to despair over American social immobility. Indicting these parents might have some deterrent effect on egregious cheating, but it won’t make a dent in the widespread and entirely public practices of legacy admissions or donations-for-admissions, which makes college admittance just as unfair as those seedier practices.

So, yes, the college admissions system is unfair on a deep and possibly irreparable level. But perhaps it’s even more unfair, and even less reparable, than this particular scandal and its focus on cash-for-credentials makes it seem. Why are we comfortable with a system that guarantees that some people will wind up much poorer than others for reasons beyond their control – or for any reason at all?

That’s the larger question:

All we want is fair competition, and that rich kids getting spots at the front of the line subverts that. But so does having an unusual talent, even if it arises from genetic instead of financial fortune. Another might be that it’s hard work and commitment that really matter to getting ahead – but each person’s maximum capacity for achievement is still set by unchosen, inborn and external factors.

In short, there’s no way to fix this, because there’s nothing broken.

Molly Roberts continues that thought:

Meritocracy may be a myth, but that means someone is keeping the fiction alive. The multimillion-dollar college admissions scandal the Justice Department announced this week gives us a sense of who – and why.

Prosecutors alleged Tuesday that wealthy parents paid a high-powered consultant pretending to operate a charity for disadvantaged children to help their extraordinarily advantaged children get into top-tier schools including Yale, Stanford and UCLA, among others. Sometimes, that allegedly involved engineering elaborate schemes to cheat on college entrance exams. Other times, it was reportedly bribing coaches to say students were tennis stars when they barely knew their way around the baseline.

Much of this was absurd:

Then there’s the strangeness of the logic behind paying for it at all: Children whose parents can throw around that sort of money as if it’s nothing are going to be okay. They can live off their family’s largesse without a bachelor’s degree, or at least without an Ivy League diploma, and they can capitalize on connections they already have from growing up alongside the powerful. So why college? And why these highly selective schools?

Those are good questions:

Many Americans fetishize the attendance of four-year institutions. Going to college, we think, is what smart and successful people do – especially people like the financiers who made up a sizable chunk of the now-indicted parents. Living a life of luxury looks a lot less questionable if there’s some indication you made it there on merit. A degree is society’s stamp of supposed deservingness.

Sure, there’s a more innocent explanation for our collective appreciation for college, too. College might not be what’s best for everyone, but it’s invaluable for many young people seeking to learn critical thinking and independence and to form friendships they’d have been unlikely to develop anywhere else.

But that’s where the second question comes in. The sorts of children whose parents reportedly sneaked them into Yale already went to private schools, or exemplary public ones. They could go to college somewhere, even if it didn’t show up on the first page of U.S. News and World Report rankings, without the “side door” the architect of the fraud reportedly promised.

So why these colleges? It’s because the societal stamp of deservingness from a place on page one is extra shiny.

And that’s everything, and empty too:

Parents who care whether their children attend one of America’s “best” schools are buying into the idea of being the best. There are material advantages to attending one of these colleges, yes, from plush employment to social connections. But most of the children implicated in this scandal don’t need those advantages. They already have them. What a family gains from sending its scions to those schools is less concrete: the perception that the children are smart and successful, so that they can exist without shame in the high-achieving circles where they were reared – and the parents can, too.

Purchasing a mini-campus with your name on it doesn’t serve that purpose nearly so well, because the corruption is written right there on the portico. It has to look like the beneficiaries of academic cachet at least sort of earned it. Better still if the students, unaware of or unwilling to recognize the advantages they’ve received, believe they’ve earned it, too. Recommendation letters or phone calls from big-shot family friends, standard-size donations, SAT tutoring and more are the same game played on a smaller scale.

This is a tension strung so tight it should snap.

And this did snap:

Parents allegedly committed fraud to send their children to these schools because they believe those schools are superior. That image of superiority depends on the perception of the schools as places for smart and successful people to study. But by allegedly buying admission for students who are neither especially smart nor especially successful, these parents are guaranteeing that the Stanfords of the country aren’t actually only for smart and successful people, after all. They’re for people who can pay. Then, the schools churn out kids positioned to be rich – many of whom were rich to start with – and the cycle continues.

“The way the world works these days is unbelievable,” one parent, a senior executive at a private-equity firm who has advocated ethical investing, said as he arranged to trick admissions officials into thinking his son was a football kicker, according to court documents. But it is people like that who keep it working that way.

It is what it is, which is how it has always been. There’s always that jerk half-asleep in the back of the room, but that guy who will somehow pass the class, and then go on to run the family’s multinational corporation. Yes, he probably cheated, or his family did, or both – and he will be a billionaire soon enough – but let it go. The rich will get their kids into the best schools. Everyone else, do what you can… and wait. They got in to wherever. They won’t get out alive.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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