It was astonishing how quickly people moved from outrage over the latest college admissions bribery scandal to a kind of grim recognition.
Sure, coaches allegedly taking bribes to ensure underqualified rich kids were accepted to USC and Georgetown is different than, say, Harvard allegedly taking $2.5 million to admit Jared Kushner. But a lot of people were not making that distinction.
Here’s why: The U.S. college admissions process is corrupt. And the way that parents from every corner of society are reflexively acknowledging that as fact should strike fear in the hearts of university administrators at elite institutions everywhere. It’s widely understood now that kids from affluent families have a massive advantage over middle-class and poor kids when it comes to gaining admission to top-ranked schools.
So how to restore integrity to the process? Here’s my modest proposal: Elite colleges should hold a worldwide public auction for 10 percent of the seats in every incoming class. Never mind forcing your 16-year-old to build homes in Costa Rica, hiring a tutor for $500 an hour, or urging your child to join another traveling soccer team. Sought-after schools should announce a worldwide auction and simply sell admission to the highest bidders. Everyone else would be accepted on merit — based on GPAs and teacher recommendations.
Of course, that 10 percent of the super rich who buy their ways in might not be “qualified” to attend. Their grades and test scores would likely be somewhat less stellar than their less affluent, more studious peers. Some of the students from super-rich families might not even have the language skills or cultural competencies to take part in campus life. But that hasn’t stopped elite colleges from admitting rich kids with similar deficits before. And if we allow market forces to cleanse this shadowy and corrupt admission process, everyone wins. The children of oligarchs, aristocrats and potentates would pay $10 million, $20 million — even $50 million — for a seat at Georgetown or USC. Everyone else could go for what it costs to attend a public community college.
True, this would make it slightly more difficult to gain admission to elite colleges — but we’re talking fractions here. Acceptance rates at top schools are already in the single digits and falling. And an open auction would have the secondary social benefit of reducing the cottage industry of tutors, consultants, essay writers, life coaches and brand packagers that affluent families pay to help get their kids into the most prestigious colleges they can.
And just like soliciting a donation for a new library, such a system would improve the college experience for everyone. Administrators could trim their marketing budgets and development staff. Colleges could reinvest in quality education by hiring more full-time professors to teach classes instead of underpaid adjuncts.
They could even give raises to graduate-student teaching assistants. And think of how the free-market system would work: Auctioning a portion of the seats would create a built-in incentive for colleges to better source and support the other 90 percent of admitted students — the ones who get in on merit alone. If those students don’t go on to earn fancy accolades — Ph.D.s, Fulbrights or MacArthur “genius” grants — the fair-market value of the seats for sale will fall.
Does this sound crazy? Maybe. But what are the alternatives? If these cases go to trial, we will likely be listening to audiotapes of parents arranging to have other people take the SAT for their children. It’s hard to make the case that there is anything like a level playing field. Or that poor kids just need a little more “grit” to succeed at elite schools. Short of a worldwide auction, we could look at the colleges and universities where middle-class and poor kids end up, and examine ways to improve the educations offered there.
We could vote out elected officials who starve those systems to the point where public colleges are slashing humanities programs and closing campuses. We could transfer some of our outrage from celebrity moms to the governors who allow top public universities in their states to reject qualified homegrown students in favor of out-of-state and international students who are willing and able to pay premiums.
Or, looking at this problem through a smaller lens, we could commit to changing hiring practices in our own businesses. Instead of seeking out those with Ivy League degrees, we could scout for candidates who began their postsecondary educations at community colleges before transferring to four-year schools to earn bachelor’s degrees. Their college careers might not have had fancy starts — but at least they will have come by their degrees honestly.
This story about a college admissions scandal was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Peg Tyre is a journalist and author.