“Elite” Colleges And Rich Delusions

When the news broke about rich parents buying their children’s admittance to “elite” colleges–falsifying credentials, paying smart kids to take the SATs, and bribing admissions personnel–it reminded me of my mother’s most abiding regret.

My mother was extremely bright, and made excellent grades in high school. She desperately wanted to go to college–but her parents were poor, and could only manage tuition at a local college if she lived at home. Room and board elsewhere were out of reach. My mother wanted a traditional campus social experience (as she said later, she was young and misguided), so she just didn’t go to college. She read voraciously and educated herself, but the local college was very good and she would have benefitted from going.

The lesson–which I never forgot–is that If a good education is really what you want, it is widely available.

There are an estimated 5,300 colleges in the U.S. They vary widely in the breadth and quality of their offerings, but you can get a very good education–I will go so far as to say an excellent education–in the top 500 or so. (Probably more.)

Of course, you need to want an education–not merely a social life, an impressive credential, connections to wealthy classmates, or bragging rights for making it into the most selective institutions.

I’m not knocking the benefits of going to a school with the offspring of the rich and famous; I still remember being a first-year associate in a law firm with a number of Harvard and Yale graduates. If a client needed local counsel in another state, the lawyer involved would frequently pull out his alumni register and hire a classmate practicing in that state. I’m sure that those school ties are equally valuable in a number of other professions.

As the news media has delved into the scandal, what they have discovered is something that most of us who are in academia have always known: the “elite” schools are certainly very good, but they are also selective about their selectivity, routinely favoring the offspring of alumni, especially generous alumni. (Jared Kushner’s father endowed a building at Harvard, and presto! despite mediocre grades, Jared was admitted) They also have special “quotas” for certain kinds of athletes.

You can find plenty of intellectual deadwood in those “groves of academe.”

The parents involved in this particular scandal apparently fall into the “bragging rights” category, but whatever their motivations, ensuring that their children received a superior education was pretty clearly not among them.

What this sordid episode revealed was the utter superficiality of so much of American culture, where appearances are more important than substance, where a college education is seen as a credential rather than an opportunity to explore the store of knowledge that humans have amassed, or an effort to confront the existential questions that loom so large when we are young.

Approaching a college education as if it is a more “elite” form of job training is why many middle-tier struggling institutions are jettisoning courses in the humanities in favor of technical skills and STEM, and why parents try to talk their children out of majoring in “impractical” subjects like philosophy or anthropology or English literature.

People who view all of life as a game of one-upmanship want their children to attend “prestige” universities, whether or not those institutions are the best fit for that child.

People who view life as an adventure to be illuminated by knowledge, who view learning as a life-long task and college as a place where you learn how to engage in that task, are satisfied if their children attend any of the many, many institutions able to nourish their intellectual curiosity and introduce them to the great minds and achievements of human civilization.

If I was still helping my children search for those places, however, I think I’d look askance at the schools that (legally or illegally) traded admissions for money…


  1. ” routinely favoring the offspring of alumni, especially generous alumni. ”
    If that isn’t trading admissions for money, I don’t know what is.

  2. “What this sordid episode revealed was the utter superficiality of so much of American culture, where appearances are more important than substance, where a college education is seen as a credential rather than an opportunity to explore the store of knowledge that humans have amassed, or an effort to confront the existential questions that loom so large when we are young.”

    No one is more in evidence of the above statement than our currently appointed president, Donald Trump, aka “The Donald”, elite draft dodger, totally lacking in reading ability and reading comprehension of the few words he is familiar with. A former TV personality who axed all who were obviously more intelligent than himself (other than their decision to appear on his TV program) to fire them from the position of “The Apprentice”. This is how far money can take ignorance once it finds the surest recipient of “under the table” business deals. Colleges and Universities have joined the corporation status and are as open to graft as medical care and Big Pharma have become.

    I will preface my following remarks by crediting their source; Johannes Epke, Counsel for American Promise, sponsor of the 28th Amendment. “The 1st Amendment right guarantees freedom of speech without fear of punishment.” “Supreme Court justices have interpreted political spending as protected free speech.” Will the attorneys for these “pay to play” college admittance parents and those on the receiving end use this same political protection as their defense and this country will soon move on as if it – or the appointment of Donald Trump to the presidency – is acceptable?

    I will also add that I am an almost 82 year old woman, high school dropout with a GED.

  3. I did not find anything about this scandal surprising.
    Stupid rich folks paying to get their stupid lazy rich kids into schools?
    Nope. No surprise there

  4. Now, who’s the ideologue? 😉

    As a point of interest, Jared’s father was an NYU graduate who wanted more for his dense son, so he bought him an education to go with the money he was leaving him. It’s what makes the Meritocracy churn.

    Marrying up didn’t hurt either. He’s in the news almost daily because we care what Jared has to say.

    If I remember correctly, the person who broke this story stumbled upon it. So, where were all the journalists in Boston and elsewhere??


    Even in local colleges, there is a pecking order. They have been that way for decades. Presidents have been fired for not understanding who deserves more latitude than others.

    The USA is exceptionally classist though the journalists/media in this country aren’t allowed to point this out. The “justice system” points this out daily for anyone paying attention.

    Bankrupt the country; you get your company to pay a fine and then write it off on taxes. Write a bad check, prison for you scumbag!

    Double standards anyone?

    All I can think about is Al Pacino’s performance during the “hearing” in Scent of Woman. The Meritocracy works in grade school, high school, college, and professional life. I’m not sure where our country doesn’t function this way…

  5. Let me add that the parents who cheated to get their kids into big time colleges taught them nothing more than how to keep their privileged positions in life by cheating and lying. Those life lessons will later be used in board rooms, courtrooms, news outlets, and bedrooms. Years from now their parents will beam with false pride; while the rest of us will understand how they produced such shits.

  6. The below copied sentence reminds me of people who raise their children to grow up to be adults who are never really sure of their own abilities or worth. As adults they end up always looking for reassurance from others because they could never measure up to their parents’ expectations as children. If they aren’t looking for reassurance, then they most likely have some false sense of importance in society that was gained by virtue of their family’s wealth and connections.

    “People who view all of life as a game of one-upmanship want their children to attend “prestige” universities, whether or not those institutions are the best fit for that child.”

  7. This scandal is the way America works on so many levels. Bottom line America has a Class Structure and always did. The Electoral College was and is a method to make certain, the proles do not have the final say.

    The Class system was evident during the Vietnam War when we had a draft. Those that could afford to go College received a deferment from the draft. The Class System is also evident in our Health Care System – if you can afford Health Care after all the the premiums, deductibles and co-pays, etc., you will receive health care. Here in the USA higher education is also a function of class. Higher Education is based upon being able to afford it.

    The Universities must have been well aware of how the schemes worked. The Universities are now pleading ignorance of this scam by the wealthy and the connected.

    I suppose the final word is whenever there is money to be made, someone will find a way, to cheat, change the rules, or game the system.

  8. I remember a couple of classes I took when I started my college career… There was a very well-known “name” in the first class, was always there, did very well with the assignments. Next quarter (yeah, Ball State), I heard his name called on the first day roster. I turned around to look, and it was a different guy – the real _____ . Seems the guy in my first class was paid by this guy to take the class. My first brush with this kind of elitism. I still have issues with it, all these years later.

  9. Part of the problem we have is that we don’t appreciate intellectuals. In fact we often demean them. Our children are taught not to appear too smart, or none of their classmates will like them. There has long been too much emphasis on the “created equal” part and too little on the “before the law” part of our Founding Fathers’ philosophy. That’s how we get a jackass like 45 in office and mediocrity on our judicial benches. I might add that’s also how we get sentences of 7 years for rich white guys and 27 years for middle class black mayors for approximately equal offenses.

    If we truly valued education as a way to make us brighter, more interesting people we might not have kids who can’t qualify for good schools, but sadly we would still have kids who couldn’t afford them

  10. A prominent law firm here got to the point where they would not hire recent graduates from Harvard, Yale, and other Ivy League schools. One of the partners told me the firm had too many bad experiences with recent Ivy League grads who felt sooooo entitled; were unwilling to do grunt work of legal research; had poor work ethic; and cut corners in preparation. So the firm ‘got over’ the high priced degrees.

    As a certain graduate from the Wharton school shows, money can’t buy respect or character.

  11. The word commencement means “beginning ” not the end of learning. College is supposed to help one learn how to navigate life and its attendant challenges. It’s not intended as an insurance policy against failure.
    And there are plenty of those who never went to college who are lifelong learners and who are plumbers, carpenters, etc.

  12. Do we really Know For Sure that He graduated from Wharton with an undergraduate degree?

    Has that information on his background be made public and verified, or is it just him saying so?

  13. I’m shocked by your comments and that doesn’t happen often.

    The disparities in the educational system, pre-school forward, are an integral and essential part of racism, class, privilege and inequality in society. They have resulted in a near caste like sorting out of people for opportunities and distribution of wealth.

    I started to create a litany of advantages and disadvantages in the the educational structures and the various economic and social systems supporting them, contrasting the experiences and opportunities of the rural and inner-urban poor with the white, suburban, and ivy league rich. But we all know them.

  14. Our colleges and universities provide a very high quality of education depending on what the student puts into it themselves. This elitist bullshit is, as someone here stated, a symptom of the vapidity of the ruling class and how they will rule vapidly.

    My best friend was a professor at one of the schools in this case. He told me for years that he could pick out the slugs who were being “legacy” students. He bore down on them extra hard in those classes they needed to take and pass to graduate. After a time, most of these bubble-wrapped children either shaped up or dropped out.

  15. I have encountered Ivy League law school graduates on occasion in my practice and found them to be of about the same caliber as alley lawyers from IU like me. After hearing of this massive fraud in getting one’s kids into prestige schools recently (which I already knew), it occurred to me that those who pay millions into endowment funds for such a nefarious purpose doubtless took such bribe as a deduction, which means that you and I had to make up for what they didn’t pay and therefore (albeit involuntarily) helped fund the fraud – which I very much resent. Endowment funds also take such millions (or billions), invest the money in various enterprises, and due to a tax status not enjoyed by other investors in the market, enjoy a higher rate of return on investment.
    Athletes who matriculate to Ivy League schools on “scholarships” with C-average high school grades are there to participate in sports, and in fairness to them and their contributions, I here note that Einstein was not known for his athletic prowess and that all of us should be rewarded for whatever abilities we can bring to the table (a weak argument, but an argument, depending on how we value such diverse abilities).
    Finally, I look at college and grad school not as education but as a preparation for education when lectures become reality, and with AI doing its own thinking, perhaps it’s time to start de-emphasizing STEMs and encouraging degrees in the humanities since we know what we have but don’t know what to do with it in the world of ethics and morality.

  16. If your child has expressed interest and talent in either a humanities, STEM or a vocational, hands-on trade, then they should be encouraged, nurtured and hopefully able to financially attend that institution of higher learning that best prepares them for their focus and talents.

    It may interest Hoosiers to know that a number-one ranked school is in Indiana, Rose Hulman Institute of Technology, located on the east end of Terre Haute.

    They don’t make an issue out of their ranking, nor do they need to; prospective students are well aware of it. RHIT is expensive, but they are generous with merit scholarships. They have a NCAA Division III program in most sports, but like the military academies, they do not give a damn about prioritizing a students athletic talent over academic ability; you either pass or you do not. Obviously a STEM institution, yet their humanity electives are engaging and relevant.

    I type all of this because some comments I’ve read here use a broad brush. Not all parents seek to enhance their own status by buying junior’s way into a top-level school, and for damn sure, not all top schools let anyone in because the parents have a big pocketbook.
    Some schools deserve and have earned their reputation, and those students fortunate enough to attend have earned the right to attempt to learn and earn a degree from the schools.

  17. Back when I was in school, there were institutions of higher learning (Georgia Tech among them)that had “Coop Programs”. Students went to school for a semester, then to work next semester. All usually at the same company. At graduation, the student not only had no looming student loan debt, he/she usually had a good job with the company they had been already working for. Please don’t try to tell me that an enterprising student couldn’t manage the same today.

  18. Suits, as i call them, being im the ignorant class, blue collar,hands scared,blue jeans on dates. i was middle line in school, just didnt have the “wanna do it” but was able to score high in tests and finals. other subjects in life held my attention. when asked by my new step dads family where in life i was going,auto mechanic. they had the keys to get me in most any professional career. suits just didnt seem like a place my hands wanted to do. over the decades, ive lived in the ny/nj metro area, norfolk.va. and southern calif all thru the 70s. i met alot of people, some who are very well known. my job at the time was a occaisional source of who was walking thru the door. most are,very well educated, some actors,some buisness owners, and some lawyers. corprate types,and some politicians in off time, dressed as themselves.. ive always enjoyed casual conversations, and intelligent people,who are human. but i have also been run over by people who havent a care about anyone,but thier wallet. i found the most intelligent minds,didnt go to college. and they see life as something to learn about. i still hold a phrase in my dealings with arrogant bastards like trumps mob,
    “a suit is a uniform that says im above you.”.. ill stick with my jeans…

  19. I believe that Wharton denied having “The Donald” as a student, although he did attend the University of Pennsylvania (where Wharton is lodged). All of Trump’s schools have been warned not to release his records.

  20. Well, the shine is off the star of all of these elite “top tier” universities for sure. Maybe for good. We’ve always known that there have been legacy admissions, sports scholarship admissions, and affirmative action admissions for people who didn’t otherwise meet admissions criteria. Those are the “front door” admissions, which happen with the knowledge and consent of the university. Then there are “back door” admissions for those with connections. Now, we have the “side door” admissions for those who just straight out bought their way in by lying about athletic experience that didn’t exist.

    Despite not qualifying for admissions, many, if not most, of these students go on to graduate, which leads me to wonder just how difficult the curriculum at these “prestigious” schools is. Of course, I doubt many of them sign up for things like chemistry, biology, engineering and other sciences that are challenging, but for the other types of studies, the work can’t be that difficult, unless there is widespread cheating by hiring talented people to take tests and write papers, which no doubt does happen, but how often? I often wonder what percentage of admissions are truly on the basis of superior academics.

    All that said, why does anyone think these “top tier” schools are prestigious any more? I never did, because the people I encountered who attended these schools clearly didn’t have superior skills that I could observe. As Sheila noted, they did have valuable connections and bragging skills. After all, do they get to read books and materials unavailable to the rest of us? If these “top tiers” don’t immediately kick out those who cheated to get in, those who already got approved for admission and cheated, and to revoke the diplomas of those who already graduated, then these schools will have no prestige whatsoever. Ultimately, this will hurt their bottom line, so that will likely be the motivator.

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