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© Brian A. Jackson

Calculating the Price of College Admission in the US

The college admissions scandal is beginning to reveal some of the obvious flaws in the educational marketplace in the US. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary reports. 

Suddenly Americans are discovering that money plays an important role in their society, that in fact it makes it possible to buy anything and, possibly, everything. Along with numerous other publications, Vogue expresses its outrage at the scandal involving rich Hollywood parents buying admission for their children into elite colleges.

“The blatant fraud that some of the parents who were taken into custody on Tuesday engaged in (paying proctors to doctor tests, staging photoshoots of their children playing sports) may be ‘a big leap’ from making a donation, but it has clearly helped to call attention to technically legal methods that skirt ethics—and remain tax-deductible,” Vogue reports.

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Technically legal:

Immoral and unethical, applying to acts that usually involve serious expense, which are permitted since only the small minority with the means to carry them out will be tempted to do so

Contextual note

Vanity Fair notes that this scandal has “has gripped news readers eager to learn its every absurd detail.” Vogue focuses its critique and its irony on the case of Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, rather than the kids of the celebrities who have been accused in the scandal. This has the titillating advantage of transforming a cautionary tale about the perverse role of money and privilege in society into another “look what Trump has been up to” story.

Interviewed by Vogue, ProPublica editor Daniel Golden provides the juicy details concerning Kushner’s utterly unmerited admission to Harvard, confirming what everyone would have expected: that Kushner’s ticket to success — a diploma from a prestigious university — was paid for in hard cash by his rich father (also a convicted criminal). But, as Golden points out, it was done in a “technically legal” way.

The media in general have exulted in reporting a story that contains lurid details concerning practices that clearly cross ethical lines, such as photoshopping pictures of athletes with the faces of the candidates in order to benefit from the more “acceptable” privilege of lower admission standards for athletes.

On that score, The Washington Post offered a very “serious” comparison of the admissions scam with a parallel scandal, unfolding at the same time, that concerned illegal payments to the families of college athletes, which violates the rules of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The Post sees the latter as a mere violation of arbitrary rules (therefore “technically legal”), justified in principle by the fact that the athletes are providing something that has monetary value (as commercially exploited entertainers). In contrast, The Post see the admissions scandal as serious fraud that “merits prosecution.”

Historical note

This scandal owes its prominence in the news cycle to the troubling question of the status of money and celebrity in US culture. Inequality and privilege based on wealth have long been taken for granted in a society founded on the belief in individual assertiveness and upward mobility. In their “pursuit of happiness” (as recommended in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson), Americans have learned to define what will make them happy and then work out the cost of achieving it. People still adhere to the notion that cost has something to do with hard work, a heritage of the Puritan tradition. But, in parallel, they have come to understand that the notion of cost correlates with price.

Consequently, if you know the price and have the means to purchase your key to happiness, you will naturally seek the most efficient way of achieving your goal. As Vogue points out, the traditional and technically legal way is the one Kushner’s father chose: making a significant donation to build a library, for example. This has the added advantage of perpetuating the family brand as the library will be known by the name of the donor.

At the same time, this case illustrates the sacred principle of creative entrepreneurship. College counselor William “Rick” Singer, clearly aware of the state of supply and demand, realized that, like everything else in life, you could put a price on the value to a family of college entrance for one of their children. Singer understood there are easily implementable and ultimately profitable means of delivering the merchandise. He cleverly identified those means and successfully pitched his target market segment. The only problem is that, in desperate cases, his means involved misrepresentation of the truth, otherwise known as “lying,” the most serious cardinal sin in US culture.

Vanity Fair describes in detail the professional services Singer provided, which were not all about cheating and lying. Singer positioned himself as what might be called a “success builder,” who understood, just as his clients did, that education wasn’t about learning and the growth of wisdom but about assertiveness, individuality, competitive edge and a ticket to a prosperous future. This included developing a “‘personal brand’ for teenagers that would help them stand out among the throngs of other applicants.”

Alas, Singer couldn’t guarantee a success that depended on the child’s performance. But his entrepreneurial spirit told him to seek the means to make sure his customers were satisfied. And in a world in which what you may have learned has far less value than the diploma that says you may have learned something, it seemed like a natural extension of Singer’s business to use his knowledge of the system for the benefit of his customers.

In a nation that elected as president a man who epitomizes every aspect of privilege and wealth — including paying his way into college, paying a doctor to “technically” avoid the draft, using the legal technicalities of bankruptcy to prosper and grow, and manipulating the media to get elected — should anyone be surprised that money accomplishes things that aren’t always “equitable”? Could this new awareness be an indication that Bernie Sanders has changed something in the prevailing value system at the core of US culture? Those who are most upset with this scandal see it as a symptom of the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest of humanity, the consequence of a system that is designed to exacerbate that gap and punish or humiliate those who can’t pay for privilege.

Concerning education, Sanders has highlighted a much bigger problem and a greater injustice: the actual price you pay once you are admitted to a college. It’s a price only the rich can afford, leaving most aspiring students either on the outside looking in or struggling for decades to pay back their accumulated debt in exchange for an often useless diploma and a perfunctory education.

Have we reached a point with regard to education at which people are ready to stop worshipping and trusting the brutal laws of the marketplace, even when what is done is “technically legal”?

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.] 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.