College Admissions

Time to Put the College Admissions System on a Rocket and Shoot It Into the Sun

Cheating scandal should have taxpayers asking whether it's right to subsidize the campus party lifestyles of celebrity scions who fake water polo careers.


Olivia Jade / Screenshot via Youtube

"I don't know how much of school I'm gonna attend," Olivia Jade, a YouTube star and daughter of Full House actress Lori Loughlin, told her fans just before she moved to the University of Southern California (USC) to begin freshman year. "But I'm gonna go in and talk to my deans and everyone, and hope that I can try and balance it all. But I do want the experience of like game days, partying….I don't really care about school, as you guys all know."

With that attitude, one might have hoped Jade could not earn admission to USC. But her parents paid half a million dollars to a man named William Singer, and Singer bribed all the necessary officials so that Jade's dream of going to college for the partying could come true.

Now Loughlin is one of 50 people facing federal fraud charges for participating in Singer's schemes to trick various colleges and universities into admitting wealthy but underqualified applicants. The perpetrators—which include another actress, Desperate Housewives' Felicity Huffman—gave Singer millions of dollars to guarantee their kids would be admitted to first-choice schools like Yale, Stanford, University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Texas at Austin.

Singer's scheme was stunningly deceitful. His two main strategies were bribing test-taking officials so that they would give his clients more time to take the SAT or ACT—or even supply the correct answers directly—and bribing athletic officials to falsely claim the client was a high-value recruit for a certain sport. This often involved sending fake photos of the kids engaged in athletic activities—pole-vaulting, swimming, etc.—for sports they didn't play. Jade, for instance, gained admission after submitting a photo implying she was a talented coxswain on the crew team. She was not. But a $50,000 payment to a USC senior athletic director was all it took to facilitate the lie.

Indeed, athletic administrative bloat appears to be a significant contributing factor to the success of this scam. Many of the bribe-takers were coaches, and it's fairly worrying they have so much sway over the admissions process. One downside of forcing universities to hire a bunch of administrators—something federal guidance has encouraged for decades—is that there are more potential targets for Singer's schemes.

Unfortunately, colleges and universities routinely prioritize factors other than academic ability when making admissions decisions. Athletic considerations matter far too much, as do legacy connections. And of course, donating a new wing to the university's hospital or library is a good way to make sure your kid gets a second look. Singer took things much further, but it's a difference of degrees. As Frank Bruni wrote in The New York Times, "It may be legal to pledge $2.5 million to Harvard just as your son is applying—which is what Jared Kushner's father did for him—and illegal to bribe a coach to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars,but how much of a difference is there, really? Both elevate money over accomplishment. Both are ways of cutting in line."

The best remedy to this problem might be to admit that college is, to some degree, a scam. Note that these parents were evidently unconcerned that their kids—who were often coached to fake learning disabilities so they could get more time on the ACT and SAT—might struggle with their course loads. It's because college is a joke, and it's easy enough for an academically disinclined grifter—an Olivia Jade, if you will—to get by studying nonsense subjects. They're paying for the experience and the diploma, not the actual education.

This is a point that Bryan Caplan raises in his excellent book The Case Against Education. Caplan argues that most of the value of a college education is signaling rather than skills. Students don't learn very much that will be useful to them in the job world, and even if they do, they quickly forget it. But a diploma signals to employers that the diploma-holder is competent in some abstract way—they jumped through a bunch of impressive-looking hoops, and are thus more worthy of a job than people who didn't. The implication of Caplan's research is that public funding of higher education is therefore a waste: It doesn't actually benefit society to subsidize a signaling mechanism if there's little relevant skill-gaining along the way. It just punishes everybody who, for whatever reason, doesn't have access to the right hoops.

If we are going to continue to publicly fund higher education, taxpayers might rightly ask whether institutions that receive federal dollars should be permitted to privilege the wealthy, the donor class, the athletes (both faux and actual), and certain racial groups (resulting in abject discrimination against Asians) over applicants who might actually be interested in checking a book out of the library. But if higher education is really just about celebrity scions pretending to play water polo in order to gain admittance to an exclusive partying club, maybe it's long past time to hit the defund button.