Magazine | April 8, 2019, Issue

The College-Bribery Scandal Shows the Limits of Progressive Beliefs about Inequality

Students walk on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., November 12, 2015. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
There is a credential, it turns out, that money cannot buy

The American class system, which of course does not exist, went into convulsions, fits, and terrors at the news that a bunch of dirty celebrities and moneyed nobodies had paid bribes to seedy fixers to have their children admitted to elite universities ranging from Yale to Stanford to the University of Texas. Criminal charges have been filed, arrests have been made, and — inevitably — a class-action lawsuit is in the works.

And all the best people are in hysterics.

America’s elite institutions of higher education are the pride of the nation (its K–12 education system is its shame), enriching Americans’ intellectual and cultural life and — we’re not above noticing! — enriching Americans in the old-fashioned way, too, playing a crucial economic role in connecting the best and the brightest from home and around the world with positions at our most productive and innovative firms from Silicon Valley to WallStreet.

But nobody really cares very much about any of that right now.

Harvard and Yale and Stanford (and, apparently, my alma mater down there in Austin, whose admissions standards I had thought no one but gormless Texas lawyer-politicians with idiot children would bother to corrupt) are social totems — the ultimate status symbols. Anybody with money can buy a Rolex or a Lamborghini, but Harvard doesn’t let in just anybody. An A-list celebrity such as Natalie Portman? Sure. They aren’t made of stone. But the daughter of Aunt Becky on Full House — and that lo these many years later? That kind of stale, fading, second-hand celebrity doesn’t get you into Harvard — it doesn’t even get you into USC. That’s the kind of diminished celebrity that means you have to pay somebody to pretend you’re part of the rowing team — the admission of lightly qualified “student” athletes being one of the old, respectable kinds of collegiate corruption.

“Here’s $500,000 — let me in.”

“What do you think we are, cheap hookers?”

“Ooh-eee, ooh, ah-ah, me play lacrosse real good!”

“Why didn’t you say so?”

Ours is a relatively corrupt society, by most measures. The United States scores 71 out of 100 on the Transparency International Index — and an average score of 71 won’t even get you into Lehigh or Texas Tech. We don’t have anything like your familiar Caribbean levels of corruption — we don’t have the kind of corruption you’d find in, say, Venezuela or other countries deeply admired by congressional Democrats. But we aren’t exactly Switzerland, either. When you read about the Obama administration’s using the IRS to target political enemies, or when Hillary Clinton makes a load of money with dodgy futures trading, or when President Trump pays hush money to a porn star who is prone to making fun of the presidential unit, nobody says: “That doesn’t sound like the America I know!” Why? Because that sounds exactly like the America we know.

“Oh, but that’s just Washington!” you’ll say. But who elected those fools and miscreants?

But college is supposed to be different. It isn’t actually different — but it is supposed to be.

Some of that is old-fart nostalgia, senescent and declining and decrepit members of the ruling class — which is to say, the people who decide on a day-to-day basis what goes on the front page of the New York Times — emotionally retrofitting the kinds of ideals and high principles they imagine they should have had back in their college days into their fading memory matrices. But nostalgia alone does not begin to describe the outrage and anxiety occasioned by the discovery of a pretty familiar form of corruption in institutions we already knew to be pretty corrupt.

(What, do you really think a Malia Smith — or Lee, or Goldberg — gets the same look from Harvard as a Malia Obama? Sure, buddy. Sure.)

No, the college-bribery scandal is a humiliating kick to the crotch of the great myth of American meritocracy, the progressive version of which goes approximately like this: “Your family had 17 percent more money than mine did, which makes your success in life the result of privilege; I went to Bryn Mawr, which makes my success in life the result of virtue.”

That’s a flexible kind of virtue, of course: Giving a rich Nigerian kid with two Ivy League–educated parents a nudge through the door at Princeton because he’s black is not only A-okay but a practice progressives are prepared to defend all the way to the Supreme Court. But when the son of some beer-drinking Lexus dealer in Houston gets an edge from years of tutoring and preparation — a.k.a. studying his ass off for every test with the encouragement and assistance of a supportive family — then the New York Times will argue at some length (it really did; this is not a hypothetical) that this is morally equivalent to paying a bribe. The unspoken corollary there is that the young people in their own orbits somewhere between dead average and waste of space would, if only they had had certain financial advantages, have at least had the opportunity to become Ivy Leaguers.

The real competition at the gates of Harvard is between those in the 98th percentile and those in the 99.5th percentile. That’s where the action is, and no amount of expensive SAT coaching is going to bring Joe Average from the 49th percentile all the way up there. The advantages of highly coached top-performing kids from well-off families are relevant mainly in their competition with other top-performing kids. Spare me your half-digested anecdotes — the evidence is pretty clear that average students stay average, even with extensive support: The National Association for College Admission Counseling has gone well into the weeds on this stuff, and they find a typical improvement of 10 to 20 points on the SAT math and 5 to 10 points on reading. It’s a tough thing to swallow in a competitive, status-obsessed society such as ours, but: Mediocrity stays mediocre. Smart is already smart.

My friend and colleague Jonah Goldberg writes: “Defenders of affirmative action are rightly livid about this effort, by mostly rich white people who already have every advantage imaginable, to game the system.” But they don’t have every advantage, and the advantage they don’t have — the one that matters most in the long run — is the one they can’t buy, borrow, or get comped on the strength of their mama’s once-famous name. Olivia Jade is as smart as she’s likely to get. In fact, the advantages she has may hurt her when it comes to elite schools: Surely they would be more impressed with her social-media career if it had been achieved by somebody without wealth and adjacent fame. But when it comes to raw, SAT-crushing brainpower: Mediocrity stays mediocre, no matter how many Instagram followers she has.

That’s one of the reasons there was such a hysterical reaction to Charles Murray and The Bell Curve all those years ago: If being born smart is a lot like being born with rich parents — if you don’t earn those IQ points and if there’s really nothing that intellectually average students can do to earn their way into the academic 1 percent — then where’s the meritocracy?

The American ruling class — which comprises a lot more than the so-called 1 percent — has it pretty good. Real good. A man with a college president’s income can afford the best of everything short of a house on the water in Malibu and a private jet. A couple of married Harvard-educated lawyers (increasingly, class solidarity in marriage is a more significant driver of inequality in the United States than is the composition of corporate compensation committees) have lives that in most areas of consumption look a lot more like Warren Buffett’s than like those of the average earners who are only a few hundred thousand dollars a year down the curve. There are differences at the edges, sure. And of course they work hard — Americans work hard in general. The guy who cuts their grass works pretty hard, too, and you never run into him in the Concorde Room at Heathrow.

A whole lot of hardworking people can’t afford Whole Foods and an Audi and a house in a neighborhood with really good schools. The nice progressive people are open to the idea that heirs and heiresses such as Alice Walton didn’t earn their lifestyles — but what if the dean of students for community affairs didn’t really earn it, either?

It isn’t enough for celebrities to be rich and famous and beautiful and beloved — they want to be taken seriously as intellectuals, too, and for their children to enjoy that kind of status, no matter how thick, ordinary, and uninspired they are. That’s why Hollywood doofuses making gazillions of dollars starring in superhero movies go and do artistic penance in theater — Ibsen off Broadway, something at BAM, whatever.

And it isn’t enough for the ruling class to rule — it wants to feel good about itself, too: Its members want to feel like they deserve to rule, by virtue of their own . . . virtue. The actual facts of the case are a bit more complicated than that.

Cost of getting your idiot children into Yale? $1.2 million. Cost of watching the beautiful people eat each other? Priceless.

This article appears as “Unnatural Selection” in the April 8, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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