Category Archives: Economics

A Thought on the College Admissions Scandal

The world of US university education experienced an earthquake recently when a federal indictment exposed wealthy parents paying to get their underperforming kids accepted into universities.  I’d like to share my personal take on this, channeling my inner Milton Friedman.

Instead of trying to ferret out and prosecute what we currently consider corruption, why not make it legal and visible?  This will surely sound weird at first, but hear me out.

Each university would produce a ranked list of applicants, each with an associated score derived from metrics indicating their likelihood of success — AND NOTHING ELSE — and then let parents sweeten the pot.  If you really want your mathematically mediocre kid in Caltech’s physics department, you can pay extra according to some published schedule to bump their score.

All above board.  By definition it’s not cheating.  The base score is STRICTLY about potential and is subject to review and challenge.  The base score is never bumped because your parents went to the school, or because of your race or religion or anything else.  The only way to bump the score is with money.

Wait — isn’t that bad?  Don’t we want to force colleges to accept the applicants we think are most deserving?

I’m strongly in favor of getting those students with “the right stuff” intellectually a good education so that they are more productive (and pay more taxes).  So given that there is not enough education to go around, how do we get more of it?

Money.  Note that by accepting that bump money from parents whose kids wouldn’t otherwise rank high enough, we are obviously getting that one kid into school who wouldn’t otherwise go, at least not there.  Sure, some of them will fail — at least one of the kids identified in the scandal didn’t even want to go to college — but the more likely the kid is to fail, the more money the parents have to give the school in order to let them try.  And you use that money to provide more/better education the next year.  This isn’t a zero-sum game; more money means that more kids can get educated.  (And even those rich kids who fail will probably learn *something* from the attempt.)

Want to give a break to a particular kid you believe deserves it?  Fine, there’s a way — the same way open to everyone else.  Want to give an entire class of people a break, like poor inner-city kids?  Fine, there’s a way.  It’s all right there in the open, and it works the same for everyone.  Get some money allocated to the project and you’re off to the races.  The costs of the program are obvious.  No crooks getting rich off of bribes.  No encouraging parents who want the best opportunities for their kids to cheat.  No more spending money to investigate that crap.  Who would bribe a crook to cook their kid’s SAT results, knowing that they could be convicted of a felony (and publicly humiliated) for doing so, when they could just pay the university directly to let their kid in, knowing that the money would be used to educate more kids?

OK, I’ll bet now you’re worried that the school will just keep all of the money instead of using it to educate more students.  But that would be tremendously stupid of the school, since they only get the money for the kids they admit and educate.  More kids admitted, more money.  More money, more slots for more kids.  Any school that decided to take only rich parents’ kids would simply be giving up the opportunity to serve the rest, along with the associated revenue.  Some other school will gladly step up and take the money.

And universities would be required to be transparent about the average score of the kids they admitted, the bump money that they accepted, etc.  If a university accepts so much bump money that it drags down the average scores, then maybe you don’t want to go there.  Every university would strike its own balance, not accepting so much bump money that it would significantly degrade the school’s reputation.  Students could see where various universities land on this spectrum and decide whether they want to pay more in order to get a more “elite” experience.

In short, let rich people pay extra to get their kids in — more kids get educated that way.

If right now you’re thinking that people shouldn’t be able to buy *preferential* access to a university education, you’re still thinking that it’s a zero-sum game, that for some reason having more money does not allow us to educate more students.

I actually think we need far more radical reforms to our education system than this, but I don’t have any problem at all with rich people buying their kids an education that they couldn’t get on intellectual promise alone.  And I would argue that you don’t mind either if you think that it’s OK that star athletes are given preference in admissions — you know that schools do that because people donate more to schools with competitive athletic programs, right?  Not to mention ticket sales.  It has nothing to do with the sport being important in any educational sense; in fact you could easily argue that reifying athletes is anti-educational.  Those athletic kids are accepted ahead of others who are intellectually more promising because of the money they bring with them.  The only difference from the current scandal is that the money is not coming from their parents.  If that difference somehow makes it OK in your mind, I can’t relate to your thought process.

So let’s turn this education scandal around, explicitly making a place for money to influence admissions rather than forcing it underground, where it would continue anyway but with the money going to unsavory folks.  Accept the money in broad daylight and use it to educate more kids.  Let’s be completely up front about it with students and parents — the more you look like a good bet academically, the less you pay, but anyone can come here to study.  Once in, you earn your grades on merit, and *that* is where we will be looking for corruption.