They Had It Coming

A long, but interesting and insightful essay from Caitlin Flanagan, on the college-admissions scandal, which is really a sign of much deeper societal rot. It’s based not just an a reading of the cases, but her own horrible experience as a college-guidance counselor at a private school.

There’s a lot to unpack here.

First, note that these selfish parents who wanted the status among their peers of being able to say that their daughter was a student at USC, essentially ruined her life:

The couple paid $500,000 to get both of their daughters into USC on the preposterous claim that they rowed crew. Their daughter Olivia has become a particularly ridiculed character in the saga, because there are pre-indictment videos in which she describes both her lack of desire to attend college and how rarely she attended high school during her senior year. But I have sympathy for her. She knew higher education wasn’t where she belonged, but her parents insisted that she go. Up until the scandal, the girl had a thriving cosmetics line, was a popular YouTuber, and was clearly making the best of what Hillary Clinton would call her God-given potential. Now she’s a punch line, and Sephora has pulled her products off the shelves.

Let it be stipulated that much of her Youtube success was due to the fact that she was her mother’s daughter. Not to take anything away from her talent, but there is an overabundance of talent in Hollywood, and much of success, unfortunately, comes from your ability to get it in front of the right people. Nonetheless, she was making a successful life from the accident of her birth, and could have been allowed to continue to do so without the corruption and pressure from the parents.

But the other irony is that all of this wasn’t done to get her into Harvard, but USC. Now USC is a good school, and in fact I have two nieces who have degrees from it, and I’m pretty confident that they got in (including scholarships) legitimately. I haven’t asked them, but I would imagine they would be rightly infuriated, because this revelation denigrates and raises unjustified suspicions about their own accomplishments both in getting in, and being successful there.

But as she points out, there are implications about the ethics and corruption of the “elites” who fancy themselves our betters, far beyond academia:

Much of the discussion of this scandal has centered on the corruption in the college-admissions process. But think about the kinds of jobs that the indicted parents held. Four of them worked in private equity, a fifth in the field of “investments,” others in real-estate development and the most senior management of huge corporations. Together, they have handled billions of dollars’ worth of assets within heavily regulated fields—yet look how easily and how eagerly they allegedly embrace a crooked scheme, as quoted in the court documents.

Here is Bill McGlashan, then a senior executive at a global private-equity fund, reacting to Singer’s plan to get his son (who does not play football) admitted to USC via the football team: “That’s just totally hilarious.”

Here is Robert Zangrillo, the founder and CEO of a private investment firm, talking with one of Singer’s employees who is planning to bring up his daughter’s grades by taking online classes in her name: “Just makes [sic] sure it gets done as quickly as possible.”

Here is John B. Wilson, the founder and CEO of a private-equity and real-estate-development firm, on getting his son into USC using a fake record of playing water polo: “Thanks again for making this happen!” And, “What are the options for the payment? Can we make it for consulting or whatever … so that I can pay it from the corporate account?” He can. “Awesome!”

Here is Douglas Hodge, the former CEO of a large investment-management company, learning from Singer that his son will be admitted to USC via a bribery scheme, and that it’s time to send a check: “Fanstatic [sic]!! Will do.”

The word entitlement—even in its full, splendid range of meanings—doesn’t begin to cover the attitudes on display. Devin Sloane is the CEO of a Los Angeles company that deals in wastewater management. Through Singer, he allegedly bribed USC to get his son admitted as a water-polo player. But a guidance counselor at his school learned of the scheme and contacted USC—the boy did not play the sport; something was clearly awry. Singer smoothed it over, but the whole incident enraged Sloane: “The more I think about this, it is outrageous! They have no business or legal right considering all the students privacy issues to be calling and challenging/question [my son’s] application,” he wrote to Singer.

I’m happy that there will be legal consequences for all this, but I have a feeling that, rather than re-examine their own lives, values , and ethics, I suspect that their peers will probably just think “How could they be so stupid?” And go on with the corruption in their own lives, thinking themselves smarter, and able to continue to beat the system. And of course, what has been on display with the (so far) asymmetric investigations at the highest levels of our nation’s government, they might be justified in thinking so.

But to get back to the proximate issue, the corruption of academia itself, it will require a change in societal thinking about the value of a college degree (this may already be happening). But first and foremost, we have to reform the loan program, and a key part of that would be removing government from the equation.

39 thoughts on “They Had It Coming”

  1. I would say it’s the opposite of entitlement. People confident of their wealth and status don’t need to chase the dubious glory of academia. But, to quote from a movie, families are always rising and falling in America.

  2. I’ll confess a certain ambivalence about this whole affair. On the one hand, the attitudes and behavior on display here are seriously off-putting if sadly apparently normative among the reference groups involved.

    On the other hand, these parents seem to be entirely drawn from the ranks of what I think we can fairly call the self-made petit riche, if I may coin a phrase. By ordinary standards, they are rich, but by the standards of Bezos, Bloomberg, Ellison and Zuckerberg, their fortunes would barely constitute rounding errors. And they are first-generation rich, not scions of inherited wealth.

    The super-rich can always get their offspring into a “top school” by the simple expedient of writing a 7-, 8- or even 9-figure check for a new campus edifice of some sort or as a contribution to already bulging endowments. The less stratospherically wealthy, or even merely well-to-do, parents who, themselves, attended a “top school” can often – and routinely do – get their offspring into their own former dorm rooms as legacies. The hereditary wealthy nearly universally fall into this category. The self-made petit riche have no such well-worn and traditional path to academically undeserved entry for their offspring and are, therefore, more open to still less savory approaches.

    I can even sympathize a bit because we who are far from wealthy have been known to indulge in “arranging ourselves” in the Italian turn of phrase, not to get our progeny into so-called elite institutions, but simply to keep them out of wretched ones at the public elementary, middle and high school levels.

  3. I funniest comment I’ve seen went something like this:

    “You know, at Caltech we always thought that people who went to USC were rich kids who weren’t smart enough to get into Stanford. Now I realize the people who went to USC were rich kids who weren’t smart enough to get into USC.”

    I may have Caltech and Stanford reversed because it was the punch line that grabbed me.

    Anyway, the scandal has reached Harvard, where a Chinese man bought the fencing coach’s house for an extra $300 or $400K above market, and got his kid in as a fencer. I’ve read that about 40% of the white students there are on some kind of athletic something or other. If more Asians figure out that trick, Harvard and the rest of the Ivy Leagues are doomed. Maybe that’s why colleges don’t have NCAA Asian martial arts teams.

    1. A fencing coach? An institution of higher learning has a fencing coach?

      I thought fencing was a trade taught through a union apprenticeship program, how to cut the boards to the correct length for a wooden fence, how to work the tensioning tools for a chain-link fence? (ba-doom boom!)

      1. The oldest institutions in the Ivy League were established in the early 17th century, a time when young gentlemen were certainly expected to know the logic of steel for practical reasons.

        Swordsmanship remained a practical pursuit until the late 19th century at which point repeating firearms had rendered it obsolete as a practical military specialty and changing social mores had ended dueling as a routine way of addressing real and perceived insults to one’s honor, etc.

        Around this same time, the movement to resurrect the Olympic Games in a modern form began. Pretty much the entire list of elite university-level sports became part of the baggage of the new Olympics because its creators had these sorts of backgrounds. The cult of the “amateur” anent the Olympics was another part of its initial baked-in elitism.

        Much younger institutions of higher learning simply aped their older and more prestigious predecessors, and the Olympic Games, anent the roster of competitive sports. Even such plebian places as the midwestern “aggie” I attended had – and probably still have – fencing teams, or at least a fencing phys-ed elective.

        College fencing is one of those vestigial campus organs that originally served one purpose in academe and which has adapted and survived by serving successive others – including, it would seem, corrupt admissions practices.

  4. Interesting article, and for the most part I enjoyed her schadenfreude, but I think she reached way too far in her very simplistic just-so-story relating this scandal to Trump. The spoiled brat parents here are not closely related to those who elected Trump – IMHO the latter (the people around whom I grew up and still understand quite well) are tired of politicians who, in the Trump campaign’s words, care more about the plight of non-US-citizens than that of citizens.

    There’s also an interesting dichotomy between fields of study in the scandal. In my experience, in engineering fields, a degree holder from, say, MIT, is distinguished from a degree holder from, say, Montana State, in two ways: one, there is no doubt that the median mechanical engineering student from MIT has more raw mental horsepower than the median ME student from MSU; two, the MIT student likely gets more opportunities for cutting edge research projects and internships than the MIT student. This generally makes the median MIT just-graduated engineer somewhat more employable right out of school than the median MSU just-graduated engineer, but it’s not an order-of-magnitude difference. And after 3-5 years in industry…alma mater doesn’t really matter, what matters is your work experience and success.

    But these scandal participants…seems like it’s all about who you know, not what you know. Ghastly. At my job, I have my pick of projects because I have a proven track record of solving hard problems, not because of where I went to school or what fraternity I belonged to. These purely-status-driven people and careers would drive me crazy…

    1. That’s my understanding as well. Pedigree helps for initial offers, and time value of money suggests that is important. But overtime, true talent is measured in the performance of labor, and nobody cares about your pedigree by your second job. Same with GPA.

      The amazing thing here is that the pedigree value is completely washed or by the bride money spent. Invest the bribe money and get the kid a degree from an online university. They’ll make more in the end and never have to get a critical skill job.

  5. I’ve said it before, but:

    In the 1970 Griggs vs. Duke Power case, the SCOTUS ruled it was illegal for employers to require a high school diploma if that had the (statistical) effect of discriminating against minorities, unless a direct job requirement could be demonstrated.

    If the same reasoning were to be applied to college degrees, it could gut the value of the credentials. Why doesn’t someone file this lawsuit?

  6. The mindsets on display is one of the reasons that I have zero interest in working in the financial industry again. I’m just not willing to be an enabler any more of the looting and pillaging of this nation.

  7. I’m ashamed to admit it, but my Dad took similar measures to get me into university back in 1972. I’ll never forget it. He paper clipped a note reading: “Dear Dean of Admissions, I know you will give my son’s application the attention it deserves” — along with a $5 dollar bill.

    And with that, despite having no technical or mathematical aptitude whatsoever, I was admitted to the prestigious ITT Technical Institute, which launched my career into heading many of the largest projects in the post-Apollo space world (on the industry side), and have me now a leader in government policy development over the regulation of commercial space transportation.

    It’s a damn good thing no one ever asked me a hard technical question…

      1. According to the inflation calculator, $30.24.

        But if we instead go by the growth of the cost of a university education from a College education pro con link

        In 1971 the tuition, fees, room, and board per year for a public 4-year college was $8,734 in Dec. 2017 dollars ($1,410 unadjusted). By 2016 the cost had risen to $20,967 per year in Dec. 2017 dollars ($20,150 unadjusted), a 140.1% increase.

        Inflation from ’71 to ’72 would up the old cost to $1,455, and inflation from 2017 to 2019 would up the new cost to $21,621.88, for an inflation factor of 14.86. So to equal the $5 bill it would now take $74.30.

  8. But think about the kinds of jobs that the indicted parents held. Four of them worked in private equity, a fifth in the field of “investments,” others in real-estate development and the most senior management of huge corporations.

    I haven’t read the whole article yet, but in the quoted excerpt, I note that none of the parents invented, manufactured, mined, or grew anything. All they did was move money around. Yes, there is a place for that in an advanced society, but wealth must be created first before it can be moved around. The sense of entitlement seems to be where the money movers think they should rule over the wealth creators.

  9. Now I have read the whole article and it is mostly excellent.

    I am more convinced than ever that the Americans with Disabilities Act ranks right up there with the Dred Scott decision and the 17th Amendment as among the worst atrocities ever perpetrated against the American form of government.

    It’s a great article, but she went off the rails in the last few paragraphs when she had to drag Trump into it. How on Earth can you conflate upper middle class parents running scams to get their children into elite colleges with middle and working class people who have had their livelihoods and standard of living purposely destroyed by deliberate government policies?

      1. No, she didn’t blame Trump, but I note the subhead to the article:

        The parents indicted in the college-admissions scandal were responding to a changing America, with rage at being robbed of what they believed was rightfully theirs.

        That is the typical media portrayal of Angry White Men who can’t cope with America turning brown and socialist, as if it was an inevitable fact of nature rather than deliberate government policy.

        Like I said, there is a lot of conflating going on.

  10. CBS 60 Minutes ran a story last night about NYU’s School of Medicine is now tuition free. Because a key trustee (co-founder of The Home Depot) and the Dean of the Medical School got together and worked out an endowment system to provide the funding in perpetuity. Now NYU may be a bastion of Socialist group-think but if this sets a precedent that forces all major colleges to compete in this way, I’m all for it….

    1. A patient walks into the doctors office and the doctor gives him an uncomfortable diagnosis. The irate patient says “Oh, and how much did your medical degree cost?” The doctor says “It was free! I didn’t have to pay anything. The guy at Home Depot was just handing ’em out!” The patient gets up bruskly and heads for the door. The doctor says “Where are you going?” “To Lowe’s. I want a second opinion.”

      1. To wit the doctor replied, “It won’t matter the Lowe’s boards have the same knotholes and are just as green as ours.”

  11. All kidding aside if this keeps us supplied with family practice and rural doctors in place of being overrun with neurosurgeons and dermatologists, I’m also all for it….

  12. So many think a prestigious school confers authority and credibility.

    Sometimes academia rewards competence. But often money or charisma is more important. It also helps if you toe the party line when it comes to fashionable opinions.

    Neil deGrasse Tyson is an example. He was calling out the rotating space station in 2001 A Space Odyssey. According to Tysion it rotates three times too fast so someone would weigh triple what they do on earth. A freshman physics student should know that spin gravity scales with the square of angular velocity. So tripling the RPMs would give you nine times as much weight. Also do the math for a 150 meter radius making a revolution each 61 seconds and you get 1/6 g. Which is exactly what Clarke and Kubrick intended since the station was a stop on the way to the moon.

    This flub wasn’t an isolated incident. Tyson says lots of wrong stuff in the fields of math and physics as well as history. It makes you wonder how he got a bachelor’s much less a doctorate.

    Another example is Phil Plait. On his TV show he was saying it’s hard to get to space because it’s hard to endure high g forces for days, months and years at a time. The guy has multiple degrees and is regarded as an authority. But it seems he doesn’t grasp basic Newtonian physics.

      1. There’s always the career upgrade of attaching the prefix “xeno” to your job description, such as xenobiologist. They don’t have anything to study until someone finds some extraterrestrial microbes, so I guess there’s that.

        As a suggestion, you can become a xeno-accountant just by explaining that the ‘$’ signs in your spreadsheets represents a barred spiral galaxy and is the universal symbol for Galactic Credits.

        1. If you’re frightened by those extraterrestrial microbes, then you’re a xenophobe – not a career boost, these days.

      1. “No, he was saying it was hard to get to the stars for the reason. That’s very slightly less wrong.”

        As I recall Phil Plait said it’d take 3 days at 2 gees to get to the moon and that it’d take nearly a year at 2 gees to get to Mars. But it seems like the YouTube clips of that debacle have been taken down so I can’t be sure.

        1. A year at 1 gee gets you to the speed of light.

          Just multiply 9.807 m/s^2 by 31,500,000 s/yr. Not much controversy here…

          1. Hey, one G for me is 9.81215 m/s^2!

            Wolfram local gravity widget that uses your location and a 12-order model to determine your local gravitational acceleration, and its vector.

            Last year I ran thousands of kids on an educational roller coaster called “G Force”. Each group gets an introductory lecture that asks questions like “What is a G?” Well, the repetition for the instructors does get kind of boring, so a couple times I pointed out that we were actually feeling 1.00056 G’s.

  13. If people were actually allowed to fail inside college, like it used to be, this would happen a lot less.

    I am also surprised they don’t actually demand you prove your sports record. Like you would at least expect them to require you participated in public tournaments.

  14. Last but not least this showed serious flaws in how SATs are performed. So they should reconsider how those are done.

  15. “the whole incident enraged Sloane: “The more I think about this, it is outrageous! They have no business or legal right considering all the students privacy issues to be calling and challenging/question [my son’s] application,” he wrote to Singer.”

    Yes how dare they check out a supposed factual statement!

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