The College Admissions Scandals

A few weeks ago, Ito and I went to “Admissions,” the very well performed and thought provoking play by Joshua Harmon about affirmative action, at Studio Theater. Several friends had independently attended the play and suggested that we get together for one of Ito’s superb dinners and discuss it.  So we enjoyed an evening discussing the pros and cons of “affirmative action,” the “temporary” suspension of nondiscrimination legislation meant to repair and make up for discrimination against blacks that made them less prepared for college. It is a complex issue without obvious solutions. The play did an excellent job of fairly presenting all perspectives on this issue.

My opinion is that suspending, even temporarily, equal treatment (merit-based college admissions) of applicants to universities and colleges, as is done with affirmative action, is not the best approach to achieving equal treatment of all. It attempts to treat the symptoms of racial discrimination rather than the disease. First of all, private universities (unlike state schools using tax payers’ money) should be free to establish whatever admission policy they want.  Any school I would want to attend will want to include an element of diversity in its student body as an important element of the education they offer and will build that into its admission policy in whatever way it considered sensible.

And now we are confronted with the revelation that some of the rich and famous paid bribes to get their underperforming children into top schools. As stated in the Washington Post: “the scope and sheer shamelessness of an elaborate scheme in which some of the country’s richest people allegedly paid bribes to get their children into top U.S. universities is truly mind-boggling.”

This is shocking and unacceptable for the same reason I oppose affirmative action. It violates the principle and standard of merit in hiring people or admitting them to college. Our country is one of the wealthiest and most respected in the world because firms and organizations allocate jobs, positions, and resources in general on their merits (i.e. qualifications for the job, etc.). In short, people and other resources are put to their most productive use.  Obviously, this is not always the case. But firms that fall short of this standard suffer lower profits than if they had adhered to it. In short, in the private sector there is an economic incentive to employ the resources (including people) that best fit the needs being filled. Companies that employ their under-qualified relatives suffer lower profits as a result. Hiring or admitting people on the basis of merit is also our standard of fairness that is widely admired throughout the world.

Affirmative action is a deliberate departure from this standard as are the recently revealed bribes and test score cheating for college admission. In the first case it is an effort to overcome the damage of earlier discrimination against a once enslaved people. In the second case it is an effort to overcome the deficiencies of intelligence or character in our own children. A world in which we acquiesce to standards other than merit will always favor the already well off. We will never fully achieve the high standards of merit based appointments we have set, but we should never stop trying. A powerful strength of the private sector in a competitive free market economy is that the economic incentives are in the right direction.

American universities may never achieve a perfect admissions system completely based on merit and devoid of personal bias, but we should encourage them aim for it. The world outside of the academic environment is unfair enough when it comes to race, gender, sexual orientation and religion to name a few. Let us try to instill in the younger generation the understanding that hard work and smarts are what gets you ahead– not money, influence and certainly not the color one’s skin. And let’s promote attitudes and policies that encourage and reward such a reality.