Free Minds & Free Markets

Universities Play the Victim in Admissions Scandal, but They’re Far From Blameless: New at Reason

Higher education is a moral mess.

Darren4155/Dreamstime.comDarren4155/Dreamstime.comUniversities say they are the victims of college admissions fraud scandals. At first glance, they're right. But digging a bit deeper, the schools are far from blameless. The most recent college admissions scandal involving celebrities and other elites reveals a number of unflattering things about academic business ethics.

It's no real surprise this sort of thing happens. Universities suffer from a principal-agent problem. Employees are supposed to serve the institution's interest, but often professors, administrators, staff, and students can serve themselves at the expense of everyone else. For example, the more financially needy a department is, the more frequently its classes appear as gen-ed requirements. There's little evidence these gen-ed classes teach the skills they're supposed to, so the best explanation is they exist to inflate departmental budgets at the expense of students.

Elite universities present their admissions standards as a screening mechanism to ensure that students can cut it an intellectually challenging classroom environment. Yet evidence showing that students study and learn little, engage in a pervasive culture of cheating, and a decline in scholarly rigor among faculty provide reasons to doubt this claim. Despite the relative ease of coursework, admissions remains an extremely scarce commodity at elite schools. We should expect the universities implicated in the most recent bribery scandal to play the victim, even when their own discretionary admissions policies and corrupt officials helped to make it possible, write Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness in their latest for Reason.

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