First, these bribes only mattered because college itself has become too easy, with a few exceptions. If the bribes allowed for the admission of unqualified students, then those students would find it difficult to finish their degrees. Yet most top schools tolerate rampant grade inflation and gently shepherd their students toward graduation. That’s because they realize that today’s students (and their parents) are future donors (and potential complainers on social media). It is easier for professors and administrators not to rock the boat. What does that say about standards at these august institutions of higher learning?
Alternatively, you might think it is rather arbitrary who is admitted to any given university, and that many of those denied admission could get through the program competently, even if classes and grading were made harder. I agree with you. But what does that say about our understanding of these institutions as meritocracies? Parents pay illegal bribes, in part, because many of these institutions just don’t give enough students a fair chance to get in. It is even worse for the many poorer students whose parents are not in a position to offer either bribes or significant donations.
but this point is even more telling:
My second worry is that the number of bribery cases suggests that many wealthy Americans perceive higher education to be an ethics-free, law-free zone where the only restraint on your behavior is whatever you can get away with.
It ain’t just higher education. It’s business, religious institutions, and politics, too. That is something that should concern us greatly.
In my view that is a consequence of our post-Christian culture. We are making a transition from being a guilt culture in which individuals are motivated to act (or not to act) by internal restraints, i.e. conscience otherwise to be thought of as God knows what you are doing and will punish evil acts, to a shame culture in which the only barrier to bad conduct is the fear of being caught and exposed.
I don’t think that our freeish, relatively lightly-enforced system of laws is compatible with a shame culture. If you think the direction in which we’re heading is benign, imagine China or Ceausescu’s Romania or East Germany in which there were informers on every block. I think that conscience is better.