My parents sent me to a prep school in the Northeast. They were academics. They believed devoutly in education and wanted me to get the best education possible. And I did. Along with reading Thucydides, I learned about the existence of “the back door.”
“The back door” is how “Cooperating Witness-1” in Operation Varsity Blues describes the admissions process to elite universities: “There’s a front door, which means you get in on your own. The back door is through institutional advancement, which is 10 times as much money. And I’ve created this side door in.”
The back door means you endow a building or several professorships on campus. But, as CW-1 noted, the trouble with the back door is that it doesn’t guarantee that your child will get in. There’s no explicit quid pro quo.
Elite universities are quite proud of the fact that they have campus buildings named after people whose children were then rejected. Angry large donors keep the whole system from looking too much like straight-up bribery.
Rick Singer, who’s accused of running the giant college admissions scam, didn’t want to work with angry large donors. He wanted satisfied customers. “My families want a guarantee.”
So creating a side doo — gaming or outright faking standardized test scores while bribing coaches in mainly country club sports, which notoriously advantage wealthy families — seemed like a better bet.
Even the side door turned out not to be a guarantee. Try this little role-playing exercise. You pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to bribe the Stanford sailing coach to lie to the admissions office that your kid is a champion sailor. Does your kid get into Stanford? No.
Why not? Because….your kid never completed the application. (The other sailing bribery applicant apparently got rejected.) And now you are facing a federal indictment. You think you have problems with your teenager?
But when the back door works, it really, really works. My senior year at the prep school, a number of students applied early decision to the Ivies. The academic superstars — the very top students and student-athletes in the class — all did very well.
And then there was a kid I’ll call Bill. Bill drank and drugged his way through high school. He was drunk in class and drunk all night. He was a supercilious jerk and personally quite cruel. He was also tall and handsome in a dissipated preppy hangdog way. Think Prince William with a little dash of Elvis.
His grades hovered in the D range. He had briefly been on the crew team but had dropped out because of drunkenness. When the early decision acceptances came through — surprise! Bill got in. I later realized Bill’s last name was on a prominent group of campus buildings. I could almost feel the scales dropping from my eyes: Oh, this is how the world works. Now I get it!
Many years later I had the occasion to ask the admissions officer at Bill’s college about the case. She blushed.
“This is never your proudest moment as an admissions officer.” (long pause)
“But” (chin jutting proudly) “we do it so that the school can provide financial aid to disadvantaged youth.” (She actually used the phrase disadvantaged youth.)
The place where Bill went to college is one of the wealthiest universities on the planet. Not many of its students could be described as “disadvantaged youth.” But the ones who are genuinely disadvantaged are often subject to abuse: So many minority alumni tell of being hassled about how they got in.
I love working as a professor, work I owe in large part to the high floor my parents put under me by stressing education and sending me to that private high school. Somewhere along the way, I too came to believe devoutly in education and learning as the highest human goods, grand ideals not commodities. And I’m so incredibly lucky to be able to teach students of the caliber that I do. The elite universities are genuinely outstanding. The programs are incredibly well-designed. The professors are highly trained and often wildly interesting and brilliant.
The high-end amenities would make a luxury cruise ship look bleak. The people who work in them — from the staff to the faculty to the administrators — are talented, upstanding, caring people.
But they are also the pinnacle of a vast, unequal school system by which the elites replicate themselves. These schools are a sorting mechanism: Graduate from Princeton, plug into the alumni network, and doors will magically open that will remain closed otherwise.
And below the very top (so the fear goes) there is no safety net, no social compact, nothing but precariousness, gig economy jobs and debt. No wonder parents are freaked out, panicky and mildly deranged with anxiety that their kids might fall out of the 1%.
These colleges are also expensive to operate. They have intense capital needs and are locked in an arms race with other elites. Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, joked about various outlandish schemes to solve Harvard’s fundraising needs, including selling the last hundred places in the freshman class.
The fundraising apparatus has created a system of legalized corruption through which the wealthy practice their nepotism. I went to high school in the 1980s. Nowadays, it is true: Even Bill might not get in. The admissions criteria for the rich have tightened up: admitting Bill would not be considered a “best practice.”
But the truly weird thing is that the system has always floated along on a pink cloud of egalitarianism: “Yes, our admissions practices are corrupt, but we are corrupt because we actually care so deeply about equality.”
The wealthy schools will trumpet their financial aid policies. They will tell you for days about how many first-generation and low-income college students they enroll. What they won’t tell you — because such information is deeply guarded — is how many members of their entering class benefited from the “donor relations” end of the operation. If you question the rationale behind the system or challenge it, as I have done ever since I saw my classmate entering through the back door, you will be told that you are “naive” and that “this is the way the world works” and that “money is power.” Yes I know all about it, actually. From Thucydides.
The hypocrisy is sometimes quite explicit: I have heard tales that the president of one storied East Coast university says one thing to mega-donors about the diversity initiatives on campus and another entirely to administrators, faculty and parents. To the top donors, the president says that the lavish financial aid programs are partly designed to keep lawmakers from asking too many questions about the un- or lightly taxed endowment.
All the same, the elite pretense that the system is egalitarian runs deep and is hard to challenge. I once disgraced myself by standing up at a fancy dinner party and making a little speech to the effect that I thought the array of (let’s call them) “disadvantaged youth” initiatives as practiced by places like Harvard are (at this point, not early on in their history but now) a guilt tax so that the elites can avoid doing what they desperately do not want to do, which is to give up any of their wealth. Call them pitchfork insurance.
The looks I got from around the table were, you’ll pardon the pun, priceless. But egalitarianism also evaporates like a fine mist the moment it actually threatens to disadvantage someone’s child. You see this at every level of education.
If you ever want to amuse yourself, find a group of rich, white, politically liberal parents of college applicants and start talking about underrepresented minorities who are applying to the Ivy Leagues. Watch how quickly the smiles get tight and insincere. Watch how the fangs come out, even if they’re disguised as ordinary canines.
What happens when the children of the elite come to campus? Do they magically shed the culture of Mammon-obsession in which they were raised? Alas, no. The new measure of success becomes who can get the highest starting salary.
I talk all the time to undergraduates who tell me they yearn to work as children’s librarians or elementary school teachers but who feel obscurely ashamed to admit these career aspirations to other students.
And then there was the time an eminent professor I know wore a colorful jacket to an advising meeting with an entering student, a scion of a great industrial fortune. At the end of the meeting, the young man, who was all of 18 years old, pointed at the jacket and barked: “And next time we meet you’ll wear something more appropriate.”
But back to Bill. A few years ago, I heard that he was a changed man. He seems to have become an exemplary father and husband. He is devoutly religious. He spends his time on philanthropy.
I didn’t ask where his kids were going to college. I didn’t want to know. No parent with Bill’s vast means would fail to use them on behalf of his children. The ruthless, pitiless, terrifying American caste system demands it, and the elite universities play right along. There are no atheists in foxholes.