Merit Is a Lie

Since so many people have commented on the story that broke yesterday of indictments and arrests of various people in connection with a college admissions bribery case, I may as well get into the act and put in my two cents. I have two points to make.

First, I’ve read the FBI affidavit. It’s remarkably vague on precisely what federal laws have been broken. As far as I can tell the actual violations involved are tax fraud and wire fraud. Practically nothing in the actual material of the case may be against federal law. As usual the real scandal is what’s legal.

Second, the dozens of people involved in this case are probably only the tip of the iceberg. “Legacies”, individuals who are admitted to elite institutions of higher learning on the basis of family connections, and rich kids who are admitted based on Daddy’s contributions have been around for generations. Former Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was an example of the former; President John F. Kennedy of the latter.

Justice is frequently represented in art as being blind. When who you are matters more than what you have done, there can be no justice and that’s as true in college admissions as in a court of law.

We do not have a meritocracy. We have a plutocracy. As long as “elite” institutions exist, their admissions policies are private, and they are known to admit people for reasons other than merit, any notion of meritocracy will be a lie and it is a lie that injures all of us.


In case you’re curious, when I took the SATs and ACTs the industry of tutors, etc. was in its infancy. I didn’t receive any tutoring. Whatever scores I got, I got on my own. I attended an elite high school but I was admitted purely on the basis of merit and received a full scholarship. Admission to the school was by competitive examination and I learned, after graduating, that I had the highest score on the admissions test in my year. My dad wouldn’t have paid for me to attend a high school on philosophical grounds. I was admitted to an elite college based on scores, grades, and notable extracurricular activites, which I worked for. It was paid for partly based on an academic scholarship and partly because I worked a 40 hour week all the way through college.

21 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    More charges might be on the way. Its not unusual to file the easy charges first, in particular if you want the activity to stop while further investigation continues (i.e., before the next school year starts). Also, its a conspiracy, some of the investigation is just beginning.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I think this scandal substantiates my view that test preparation is overvalued. Studies have shown it potentially improves SAT scores by 20 to 40 points, but the primary beneficiaries appear to be lower-income, non-whites. Test prep might mainly serve as remedying educational inequalities.

    That said, a lot of people believe otherwise, and spend on test prep, but if at the end of the day, the test scores don’t reflect the magic promised, an obvious secondary market emerges when the parents are shuffled into the backroom for another simple trick.

  • I would think the greatest likelihood is that the more room there is for improvement in scores the greater the improvement as a result of test prep is likely to be. In other words it’s more likely to help people who would otherwise have a combined score of 800 than it is to help people who have a combined score of 1200.

    My view is that major reform is necessary in higher education. Just as one small example, if we are to draw all of our Supreme Court justices from Harvard or Yale Law Schools, the public has a right to know the admissions criteria used by those schools.

  • Guarneri Link

    I think I pissed off James over at OTB by noting his selective disapproval of the wealthy and using the noted paragons of academic excellence – the Alabama football team – , more completely, the college sports business, as the foil.

    The wealthy and powerful use their influence (and the colleges play along) improperly. So do the athletes. So do the affirmative action recipients. It’s all wrong.

    Admissions should be based on academic merit, and the more amorphous character, extracurricular activities judgments. So for example, if you are musically inclined, apply to Juilliard, or the very well regarded school of music at Indiana University. That’s fine. But people would laugh if a great violinist took a spot in the physics school because, well, music. Somehow they don’t worry about a dumbass but star middle linebacker taking a spot. He might win us a national championship!!

    Even worse, and we are talking basketball and football, these characters don’t go to class, have horrid graduation rates, leave early for the NBA or a very few make it in the NFL. The rest are cast off to go get jobs cooking chicken fried stakes. Meanwhile real spots at the school are lost to the deserving.

    Even worse yet, let’s get real. The College basketball and football systems are nothing more than the taxpayer subsidized farm teams for rich NFL and NBA team owners. At least baseball or hockey teams fund their own development leagues. Very, very few college programs approach the proverbial student-athlete ideal. My old school, Purdue, does a reasonable job. Vanderbilt. Northwestern. Villanova. The SEC? Alabama, LSU?? Florida or FSU? Don’t make me laugh.

    I don’t condone for a second entertainment stars or Wall Street tycoons buying their kids into Stanford, USC, Yale or Harvard. But let’s have a comprehensive view of the admission issues in the country.

  • My point, probably not stated properly, is that corruption in a few elite college admissions programs is only the tip of the iceberg. The admissions standards are opaque—that makes corruption possible. We don’t have standards for what a college degree means. That’s why getting into an elite school is important if you’re planning on being a lawyer or pursuing an MBA. For docs it’s less important.

    We don’t have standards for what graduating from high school means. That’s unlikely to change because our tax laws, educational systems, patterns fo residence, politics, and economy are so intertwined.

    If we genuinely wanted to be a meritocracy we would prohibit employers from asking what college you graduated from or even whether you’d graduated from college or grad school. Colleges should be prohibited from asking what high school you graduated from. But we don’t really want a meritocracy. We want to be able to claim being a meritocracy while still being a plutocracy.

  • Guarneri Link

    I doubt it’s a few, but whatever. Your comment on opaque-corrupt is spot on. Worse: people don’t even question the system when it comes to, say, sports. Gotta fill out your brackets you know.

    I don’t know if prohibiting employers from asking is correct. It’s an imperfect, but directional, indicator. But oh can it be imperfect. You suppose Malia Obama got into Harvard purely on merit. Did Chelsea Clinton deserve that NBC gig? No need to answer.

    The real value in the top schools is playing to the level of your competition, rubbing elbows with top flight profs, and learning how to process information and concepts at a very rapid rate. It’s like working in New York. It is a different animal than working in Des Moines.

  • Andy Link

    I think it’s universally understood that there are different (ie. lower) admission requirements for athletes. It appears that absent that, this scam would not have worked.

    One wonders why people didn’t just give money directly to the schools instead. Maybe they aren’t rich enough to buy their way in.

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    If you make stakes of a college entrance exam really high — then the return on those last 10 points from test prep or going the legacy route is worth it.

    Ironically, at the workplaces I have been to, what school you came from is never even looked at for industry hires (what might matter is if you had a research background which a post grad would be evidence of). For college hires it is one sentence question (and doesn’t factor into the hiring decision).

  • It matters in some sectors (law, finance) more than in others. Ironically, after working for a half century my present employer is the first one where I have actually been able to trade on what school I attended. That’s in the last five years.

  • The real value in the top schools is playing to the level of your competition, rubbing elbows with top flight profs, and learning how to process information and concepts at a very rapid rate.

    Within a few weeks of arriving at my presumably elite undergraduate college I was very disappointed to learn that other than a few of my profs I was the only one there who had received an education. I was functioning like a grad student which is what I had been trained to do at my high school. Everyone else was functioning like a high school kid.

  • Andy Link

    I’d guess getting into a good school for these rich kid’s parents is as much about status as job prospects. I mean, if your family can lay down $500k on a scam like this, it’s not like the kid probably isn’t set for life.

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    I know my field and the companies I work for is not the general rule.

    It starts from the very top. If you want to be President, my advice is to attend Harvard or Yale, at the very least an Ivy. For the last 30 years, the President came from an Ivy, for 28 of the 30, Harvard or Yale.

    Of the 2020 Democratic candidates, Booker, O’Rourke, Castro, and Gillibrand are Ivy alumni. Warren worked at an Ivy. In a change the leading contenders Biden, Sanders, Harris, and Klobuchar are non-Ivy alumni. You have to go back to Walter Mondale for a Democratic nominee who was not an Ivy alumni.

  • It’s definitely about status. Note that is practically the definition of oligarchy/aristocracy.

    However, what is exposes is that the parents weren’t worried about being found out. That should concern us more than the scandal itself.

  • For the last 30 years, the President came from an Ivy, for 28 of the 30, Harvard or Yale.

    Law school not undergraduate. Clinton went to Geogetown; Obama to Occidental (later to Columbia). Note that both Bushes (H. W. and W.) were legacies and the only Harvard/Yale undergrads. Trump attended Fordham and later Penn.

    IIRC the last president to have attended either Harvard or Yale as an undergrad other than the legacy Bushes was John Kennedy and he only by virtue of his father being the richest man in the world. All of this is just another way of saying that we’re a plutocracy.

  • steve Link

    In medicine, there is a correlation between the quality of program they attend and the quality of doc you hire. Not 100%, but it is pretty good. It does mean that you need to understand who has the good programs. U of Michigan has great programs (in the specialties I hire). Brown and Yale are Ivy schools, but do not have great programs in my areas.

    “My point, probably not stated properly, is that corruption in a few elite college admissions programs is only the tip of the iceberg. The admissions standards are opaque—that makes corruption possible. ”

    Agreed. So those 20-40 points PD mentioned might matter a lot. People think they do. A 760 will get you into a mediocre school like Purdue, but maybe not MIT. Of note, it is not just the test prep programs but also taking the tests over and over. If you take the tests 4 times you get to use the best score out of those 4. So if you are really a 700 math student, but get lucky on one of them and score a 760, you get to go to Purdue.


  • PD Shaw Link

    Full disclosure: I took a test prep course offered by my high school. What I think I got out of it, primarily through taking practice tests in a testing environment, was comfort with the types of questions, learning time-management, and a few tricks like ‘when in doubt pick C.’ I can’t say these count for nothing; and I’ve heard plenty of stories of people who run out of time. I have offered to pay for my eldest to take a similar course, but she wasn’t interested. She bought a prep book and did whatever she did on her own.

    I also don’t think taking the test multiple times was something done in my day, and as steve points out, colleges have policies that incentivise taking the test multiple times (though I don’t they all have the same policies). But to me that simply reduces the value of preparation.

  • Guarneri Link

    Let’s cut through the bull, Dave. Admittedly based only on the interactions here, you are one of the 5-10 smartest people I’ve come across. An outlier. So I’m not sure that your experience should be held up as the model.

    That said, I’ve attended three schools, of varying caliber. Purdue was as solid a program with an industrial bent as you would want. ( If you wanted materials science and to go into research you probably went to a Northwestern or MIT. ) The program was reputed to be a top 5 Chem E/ Met E program at the time. Who knows. Illinois Institute of Technology was a standard issue, industrial oriented program. Good school. Not elite. And then there was Chicago. The point is that the caliber of students and the pace of the classes reflect my comments. The professors as well. Not everyone gets to be abused by Gene Fama and Ken Fisher.

    I have no idea where you went to high school, undergrad and grad. (If all were in Chicago I have my suspicions). But I suspect you didn’t go to, and are better off for, not attending Western IL and then DePaul.

  • An outlier. So I’m not sure that your experience should be held up as the model.

    I’m aware of that. That’s why I mention my experience. I don’t think the graduates of my elite college were particularly elite. We all received the same BAs and BSs. Few of my college contemporaries were as bright as the guys I attended high school with.

    I grew up in St. Louis and went to St. Louis University High School. Founded in 1818 it’s one of the oldest educational institutions west of the Mississippi. It’s an elite high school. When I applied it had about 1,500 applicants for 200 positions. I don’t know what it is now.

    I was in the honors program there. I don’t even know if that exists any more. We were expected to learn Latin, Greek, and a modern foreign language (in my case Russian), and take Advanced Placement English, Chemistry, Physics, and Math.

    Graduates of the honors program at SLUH could enter St. Louis University as a junior with full credit and graduate in two years. If you majored in theology, you’d graduate in two years with a BA and an MA in theology.

    I have no gripes about Purdue (that was steve). My understanding is it’s a decent engine school.

  • Guarneri Link

    As I’ve noted before, a couple years out of school, and who cares. And there is a lot more than academics. I did, however, find that studying under a Manhattan Project level scientist was beneficial.

    I hadn’t even seen Steve’s comment until your comment, preceding. I tend not to read many of his comments, or just do a cursory skim, a practice I find warranted.

  • As I’ve noted before, a couple years out of school, and who cares.

    Nearly 50 years out of school and recently for the first time I’ve been able to trade on where I went to school. I interpret that as suggesting that people care more now than ever before. Indeed, my point is that they shouldn’t care but they apparently do. Maybe that’s because of the automation of the HR process.

  • Guarneri Link

    You may be correct. I simply don’t see it. In our recruiting for, say, CFO’s or CEO’s, a keen appreciation for thin staff, sense of urgency and cash flow are far more important than a ChicWhartVardFord MBA earned 25 years ago, and certainly more than 25 years at BigBadCo. Its a nice to have, but just a directional indicator.

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