Desperate parents and smiling administrators

By Mark Bauerlein – – Thursday, March 14, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The college admissions cheating scandal is an embarrassment for everyone except in one spot: The marketing office of elite schools. Yes, the admissions office feels chagrin over being duped, but if parents will go to these lengths to get their kids into the school, the publicists and recruiters have done their job well.

The deans like to see parents and high schoolers lining up for those campus tours led by bright-eyed, backward-walking seniors. They cheer when they climb two notches in Forbes’ rankings or find a bunch of pleasing comments at College Confidential. The admissions office loves to be super-choosy. The more desperate the parents, the happier to administrators.

Selectivity is crucial. Institutions are rated on it. College leaders talk about “inclusivity” all the time — don’t believe a word. They want more exclusivity than Augusta Country Club. Yale takes only 6 percent of its applicants, and it wants to take less. It admits the same number of kids each year, but if Yale can make 200 more high schoolers apply for admission, the admitted ones appear more precious. U.S. News & World Report will take note and boost Yale in its all-important college rankings (“student selectivity” is one of its main criteria).

The top schools are hyper-competitive about this. If my institution, Emory, finds applications fall while Vanderbilt’s and Duke’s rise, the admissions dean frets. That’s his job — to outdo rivals in the admissions race. We hear a lot about the stress college applicants suffer in acceptance season, but the admissions office is a boiler room all year long.

And so the marketers at each Tier 1 school broadcast the message: There is no place like Princeton, or Williams, or Stanford your child will thrive at our life-transforming, future-ensuring haven, you must come here They send out brochures showing happy sophomores on the quad, in the lab with goggles and white coat, on the basketball court The One Percent parents believe it. Their child’s admission to a Top Ten college keeps the family in the elite. Evidence is everywhere. President Trump went to Penn, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is at Harvard, Judge Brett Kavanaugh taught at Harvard, Samuel Alito went to Princeton, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, too. President Obama went to Columbia, Michelle Obama to Princeton, Sen. Cory Booker to Stanford How is a Wall Street manager to tell his colleagues that his son’s going to SUNY-Buffalo, same as Harvey Weinstein?

The actresses in on the dodge knew, perhaps, that Meryl Streep went to Vassar and Yale, Lady Gaga attended NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts, 2019 Oscar winner Olivia Coleman went to Cambridge and 2018 Oscar winner Frances McDormand to Yale. Lori Laughlin didn’t, having taken up acting full-time as a teen-ager, but getting her daughters into USC was worth $500,000.

All of the fraudsters have heard over and over that college is the gateway to success, and elite college the road to elite success. The Obama administration said so, and its “College Scorecard” project rated colleges heavily on the salaries graduates earn 10 years after entering the school. That dollar figure urged parents right up front to align the schools with the paycheck that will follow. USC students earn $74,000, the Scorecard reports, while UC-Santa Cruz kids only reach $47,000, a $27,000 difference. That makes the $500,000 that Ms. Laughlin shelled out for her two daughters pay for itself in less than 10 years.

These parents love their kids, and they’re anxious for them to do well. Ensuring their children’s admission to a top school is like providing them with nice clothes, enriching vacations, music lessons and sports camps. Those things they can supply on their own. Why should such an important threshold as college be any different?

I had to laugh when UCLA appeared on the list of colleges. I applied there in 1977 by walking into the counselor’s office, filling out a two-page form listing UCLA as my first choice and telling her I’d taken the SAT the year before. No campus visit, no test prep, no tutors, no AP courses (I wasn’t a great student). My parents barely noticed.

The actions these parents took began with moral distortions, yes, but also with their vulnerability to the propaganda that issues from government and media — and, of course, the colleges themselves. The whole thing is nauseating. It gives a fresh savor to a statement of Candidate Trump’s in Nevada in February 2016, perhaps the most offensive one in the eyes of the liberal elite: “I love the poorly educated!”

• Mark Bauerlein is an English professor at Emory University.

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