Seattle's Child

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College admission scandal reveals elite schools' dirty little secrets

Have you heard about the recent college admissions scandal? It turns out that rich and powerful parents are working hard to get their kids get into schools like Stanford, Harvard and Yale. And by “working hard” I mean bribing, cheating, scamming and committing felonies.

One in particular, actress Felicity Huffman of "Desperate Housewives," has become the public face of the scandal — in part because she started a parenting website for hip, upscale moms. Now every blog post that ever appeared there has become a retweeted knife in her back.

For instance, there was the post that included photos of her husband and daughter as they visited college campuses. Then there was the one about letting kids fail, and how hard it is to stand back and let them learn from their mistakes. And who could forget the one about how teenagers try to get away with being sneaky but always get caught in the end? Some kinds of sneakiness get you grounded, and some land you in federal prison. Actions, as they say, have consequences.

What Huffman did was stupid, unethical and probably illegal. Still, it’s hard for me to take part in her public stoning, because my own house has more than a little glass. I may not have bribed college officials or doctored admissions tests, but I gave my kids advantages that many could never hope to have. I used my doctor’s income to pay for sports teams and summer camps and educational programs abroad. I used my 23 years of formal education to help with homework and science fair projects and admissions essays. I used every resource at my disposal to give my kids an advantage, because I loved them — and because I could.

So when rich, famous parents use their considerable resources to bulldoze a path for their kids, I can judge their methods, but not their intent. The problem is not just the desperate, over-the-top actions of the parents, but also the system that goads them on. Corruption is rarely the product of moral failure alone. More often, it’s a combination of a system that can be gamed and people who’ve figured out how to game it.

Here’s the dirty little secret that Stanford, Harvard and Yale don’t want you to know: Most of the students who go there are no smarter than at any other college. How can I say that? Well, first of all, I went to two of those schools, and I can assure you that you’ll find just as many idiots there as anywhere else. The SAT scores are a little higher, but those don’t even correspond to success in school, much less in life. The average GPA of a student accepted to the University of Washington is 3.8. What’s the real difference between 3.8 and 4.0? For any given student, that’s within the range of statistical error.

But wait, you say, don’t the people who graduate from those schools end up being more successful? Perhaps, if you equate money with success (a dubious claim at best) — but on average, they had more money before they ever set foot on campus. And don’t forget, people who win the lottery have more money, too. They must be really smart.

Americans like to believe that this is the land of equal opportunity. We have no caste system, no aristocracy, no dukes or earls or lords. You can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, or so we tell ourselves. Undoubtedly, that’s more true here than in most countries. My father went from immigrant child to teenage laundry worker to naval petty officer to successful dentist in a single lifetime. He used that success to put four sons through college and graduate school. Still, his chances of going to Harvard were about the same as mine of going to the moon.

The truth is, elite college admissions are a strange hybrid of meritocracy and class preservation. A few students get there through brilliance and determination. Others get there through power and connections. Many get there by leveraging wealth into privilege in ways that inflate test scores, boost grades and make résumés shine. Once admitted, few students are failed, because the school’s reputation now depends on their success. And once they graduate, the fancy name on their diplomas and their insider connections make success a self-fulfilling prophecy. Getting in is like winning the lottery, but there are only a few tickets — and they’re expensive.

If college admissions were a true meritocracy, there would be no point in gaming the system. Only the most worthy applicants would be admitted. Likewise, if it were simply a caste system, no one could cheat. You’d either belong to the club or you wouldn’t. But because the system purports to be based on merit while rewarding power and wealth, it can be manipulated.

Here’s a test: You have a pile of money which you can use to try and give your child a better future. Unanswered questions will be scored as incorrect. No. 2 pencil mandatory. Checkbook optional.

Jeff Lee does the occasional sneaky thing in Seattle.