I didn’t attend my first choice university when I graduated from high school. I was accepted by the U of Chicago, and even offered a National Merit Scholarship, but there was a $3000 gap between the financial aid package I was offered and the cost of attendance, and in 1983, three grand might as well have been three million, because my family couldn’t come up with either amount. We were in that middle-class trap — ineligible for need-based aid, but without the funds the charts and tables assumed we must have had. So I went to the school that offered to pick up my entire tab with an academic scholarship.
I kept that scholarship for two years, before my grades fell below the 3.5 I needed to maintain my eligibility for that money. At that point, I was told that I’d still get a half-ride, and I can recall the Dean casually saying to me, “Well, with the money your parents saved from the first two years, they should be able to get you through these.” I told him he was proceeding from a mistaken assumption — my folks were good people, but they had done well to get me thirty dollars a month my sophomore year. But I had lost my ride fair and square; my GPA was around a 3.2 or 3.3. So I wound up going back home and earning my B.A. in a rather unorthodox fashion.
During all this, I knew there were folks getting into the schools they wanted and getting through their degrees, not always on their own merits, but because they came from situations that allowed them margins for error that I didn’t have. At some schools, I knew there were kids attending on athletic scholarships. At others, I knew there were kids whose families were more than capable of taking up the financial slack in a situation like mine. Still other kids were able to receive need-based aid for which I was ineligible.
Was it fair? I didn’t really feel that way at the time, but as the years passed, I came to terms with the fact that different people have different advantages and disadvantages. In my case, my advantages weren’t enough to overcome my difficulties, both external (a father who was expected to die from cancer, a mother with MS who was exacerbating because she was stressed over the thought of losing her husband, a dying grandmother, getting dumped by a girl who had decided she preferred women, and a weak family financial situation due to the accumulated debts of trying to lead a middle-class life before Dad started pulling down a middle-class salary) and internal (my poor choices of majors, my loss of focus, and what I would recognize years later as a full-on depressive episode). And what I came to decide was that given that variety of advantages and disadvantages that each person brought to his or her life, there probably wasn’t any way to make it fair. All I could do is play the hand I was dealt and ante up for the next one.
This was a lesson that graduate school reinforced for me. Because I wound up graduating from a non-traditional degree program, I didn’t meet the checklist for a lot of M.A. programs in English. For example, I didn’t have a GPA in English, even though that was my major; I had tested out of 38 hours of English classes, so I had the credits, but no grades to accompany them. (All told, I tested out of somewhere between 50-60 hours of undergrad credit.) I didn’t have any papers from other classes — my “classroom work” had been in courses like physics, differential equations, and computer architecture. Consequently, the only two grad programs willing to take a chance on me were a couple of in-state universities, and again, I went to the one that footed more of the bill.
I went through a similar process when I decided to do the Ph.D. six years after finishing the M.A.. I only applied to two programs, and I went to the one that accepted me (deferring my matriculation until they could come up with funding.) I knew that getting the Phud from a non-elite school was going to put me out of the running for a lot of positions down the line; typically schools hire graduates from programs higher on the food chain. And in some respects, I guess that’s right — Mondoville isn’t mistaken for Keble College, Oxford. But I have played the hand I was dealt and kept showing up for the next round, and I think I’ve made things better both for myself and I hope for Mondoville as well. I didn’t particularly have the advantages of social or financial capital, but I parlayed the ones I did and do have into my current situation.
So where am I going with this? Well, in some respects, I guess I’m saying that I can sympathize with the Lori Laughlins and Felicity Huffmans, the tycoons and zillionaires who try to game the system to pass any advantages they have to their kids. The problem (insofar as there is one) is not that the parents are willing to do what parents have likely always done. The problem is that the institutions in questions have actual criteria that don’t necessarily match their espoused criteria. When I hear representatives of Southern Cal claim that they are the actual victims here, I’m reminded of the old saw that you can’t cheat an honest man. If USC or Yale or Mondoville is interested purely in admitting students on the strength of academic aptitude, nothing is preventing that.
The fact is that few-to-no colleges work that way. Lots of different thumbs (Athletics! Legacies! Diversity!) go on the scales of admission. Refusing to acknowledge it is willful blindness, and pretending that there is some external, immutable, “fair” standard of desert is somewhere between naivete and disingenuousness.
Ultimately, I can’t help thinking that the pearl clutching we’re seeing stems not from the fact that these soi-disant scammers are putting thumbs on the scale, but that the thumbs aren’t the ones that people claim to favor these days, and that someone outside the usual racket went into the scale-thumbing business. So there’s all that.
Observation: If there are institutions whose coaches can sell roster spots to kids who wouldn’t get admitted as non-athletes, then those institutions have too many roster spots. (Side note: Many teams over-recruit in order to get paying bodies in the door, but they do at least give the kids a shot, even if it’s a long one. The events described in the current scandal seem to cross the line between cynicism and fraud.)
Observation: One of the things that most disheartens me about the whole business is that despite the evident corruption at these elite institutions (nearly $6 million was paid to — let’s face it — bribe college employees), donors will continue to add to the endowments at schools like Yale ($29.4 billion) and Wake Forest ($1.2 billion). Meanwhile, schools like mine — which isn’t elite, but gives opportunities to a lot of kids who might otherwise be trapped in South Carolina’s cycle of rural poverty — will go begging. Heck, the bribe money in this scam is enough to cover a third of our endowment ($16.5 million as of 2017.)
I’m not saying that donors should punish the UCLAs and Wakes of the world, but I wish they’d be willing to put some dollars in a school that educates kids whose parents can’t afford bribes.
Doubtless I’ll have more to say about this stuff as the weeks go on, but I think that’ll do for now. But here’s a little number I’d like to dedicate to the Stanford sailing team(!), which figures prominently in the indictment.
See you soon!