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May 26, 2019

In college admissions, the real scandal is what’s legal

March 12, 2019
Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin (AP)

The most shocking aspect of the allegations against Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin and 48 others isn’t that they cheated to get their kids into college — it’s the inelegance with which they went about it. While buying an admissions ticket to a top university may be grossly unethical, it isn’t a crime. In fact, it’s called legacy admissions, and elite colleges openly practice it with impunity.

The quid pro quo may not be as explicit as charged in today’s federal indictment, but one can be fairly confident of results. At Harvard, for example, the overall admissions rate for an applicant is about 5%. For kids whose parents attended the college, the rate is around 34%. For alumni who made significant financial contributions, the rate is higher still.

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And one doesn’t need to have graduated from a college to make a contribution that earns the notice of its admissions office. The super-rich defendants charged by the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s could simply have endowed a library or a professorship and gotten their kids even more of a leg up than they did. Huffman and her co-defendants were duped by “college coaches.” What excuse do Ivy League schools have?

I’ve seen both sides of this story: for seven years as an undergraduate and law student at Harvard, and for the past nineteen as a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. These universes could not be more different. At Harvard, the median family income of an entering freshman is $168,800. At CUNY, about 54% of our students come from families making less than $30,000 per year. Thirty-eight percent make less than $20,000 annually.

Legacy isn’t incidental to the problem; it is the heart of the problem and a root cause of growing social equality in America. Colleges are the engines of social mobility, but private universities don’t do their bit. CUNY gets by on a shoestring budget, yet we welcome anyone who wants to learn. The Ivies, by contrast, reserve spots from the super-rich and hoard endowments. Harvard’s is $39.2 billion.

About 13 years ago, I met a student named Abdoulaye Djiba Diallo. Five years earlier, he’d arrived in the U.S. from Guinea and taught himself English while working as a bicycle messenger. To this day, he’s the hardest working student I’ve ever met and overcame more obstacles than anyone I know. The proudest moment of my career was watching him graduate from Fordham Law School last June.

But something gnawed at me. Abdoulaye had been waitlisted at Columbia Law School, and narrowly missed securing one of the final spots in the entering class. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the parents of a less-qualified student in that 1L class had contributed generously to the law school.

And there are thousands of Abdoulayes.

Every time a rich person buys their kid into college — whether it’s clumsily and criminally as in today’s news, or elegantly through a quiet but significant contribution to a development officer — children are victimized. Legacy admissions tarnishes the reputation of qualified rich children in the same way many argue that affirmative action programs stigmatize qualified minority students. (Legacy admissions also eviscerate Harvard’s defense against a lawsuit brought by Asian-American applicants that it needs to do affirmative action — legacy is affirmative action for the rich.) More importantly, legacy admissions deprive genuinely deserving children of their seats in college classes.

It will be for a jury to determine whether the facts alleged in today’s indictment are true. But one hardly needs a jury to determine that elite colleges long have been perpetrating a crime in plain sight: a pay-to-play scheme that undermines the integrity of the very institutions that most embody and engineer the American dream.

Mandery is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

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