Anik Joshi: The upside of the college admissions scam
Whatever happened to predictability? No, seriously — what happened to it? Because there is no universe in which any of us predicted Aunt Becky would be charged with felonies, but life is funny that way. After everyone finished cracking jokes about the developments of the past week, it looked pretty bad for a lot of people and schools (thankfully, not this one. Go Blue).
There was a lot to be surprised and upset about — that parents were buying their students' by paying someone else to take their tests, that schools were letting their athletic directors work without almost any oversight and most importantly that someone would pay $500,000 to be admitted into the University of Southern California when they could light the money on fire instead.
However, there was one silver lining and it’s something important of which we cannot afford to lose sight (and it’s not because we spent our last half million at USC). It is that those schools are, to an extent, overrated. Having an Ivy League degree is no guarantor of success, but that idea is implanted in so many minds in high school, middle school and even elementary school.
I have heard from past middle school teachers of mine that sixth grade students were crying about a B because it might hurt their chance to get into Harvard. Whatever else that is, it is also wrong beyond words. This much stress only exists for one reason: It is because we have all lied to ourselves. We are the ones who decided that a Harvard degree is worth what it is — not Harvard. And the same is true for Stanford, Yale and this school too. Part of what makes these degrees so valuable is that the supply is so low.
According to Bloomberg, in 1999, Harvard’s full-time undergraduate enrollment was roughly 6,816 students. Turn the clock forward to 2017 and it was a grand total of 6,699 students. For the sake of comparison, in 1999 there were around 6 billion people in the world and in 2017 there were 7.5 billion. The population of the world grew by more than a billion and Harvard’s enrollment actually shrunk by about a hundred. Another way of looking at this is that the population of the world grew by 25 percent and the Harvard undergraduate enrollment dropped about 2 percent.
In addition to this, the number of students who applied to college grew as well. All of this is a polite way of saying we value these degrees so much because they’re so hard to get, and they’re so hard to get because so many apply for them. So many apply for them because of how much we value them. This is a self-perpetuating cycle and will always be, unless, for some reason, we as a society begin to value these elite degrees a whole lot less.
I believe, after many years, we have found that reason. There’s an idea that not all fraud is caught. This may mean that, in some cases, scams could go on for years until it eventually blows up in someone’s face (see this college scam for one example — for another, look at Bernie Madoff). It also might not blow up at all — which is to say we have no idea what kind of fraud is being committed and we will not have any idea of this until it comes out in the paper. This is a clear example of Donald Rumsfeld's "unknown unknown" — we assume there is fraud going on but we aren’t positive about it or about what it looks like until it’s staring us in the face.
However, once fraud of some type is revealed, there does tend to be more suspicion of those who let it happen. One example of this is how hated much of Wall Street was after the 2008 stock market crash. That wasn’t fraud as much as it was shady business practices, but the point stands. After the crash, a good number wanted to burn the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers and the like at the stake. I think we have found a reason to value these elite degrees a lot less because we do not know which students had their entrance and admission paid for and which students actually earned theirs.
There will be more suspicion of those degrees in years to come, and that is good. This is because having a Harvard degree doesn’t mean you’re a decent person or you’re super smart. What it does mean, though, is you got lucky. Whether it be lucky enough to have parents who could buy your way into the university (albeit unartfully), or be it the luck of getting your application read by someone on the admissions board sympathetic to you, it had a lot to do with luck. This is because there is really no academic difference between all the 4.0/36 kids who got the thin envelope and those who got the fat one.
There is nothing wrong with that, but now that this admissions scandal has forced us to examine how people got into these schools, maybe we’ll value those schools less since all it took was luck and money, and no one can be faulted for not having those. That devaluation is an unrequited positive good that has come from this mess. In other words, mission accomplished, ladies and gentlemen.
Anik Joshi can be reached at email@example.com.