Puncturing the myth of the elite college

As an old college professor, I have a few secrets to reveal to you.

There is no such thing as an elite college. That’s something that rich colleges like to call themselves, and when other colleges claim that, all they’re really saying is that they aspire to be rich. Harvard isn’t a better educational institution than your local community college — in a lot of ways, CCs are better because the teachers are just as dedicated (they have to be, they’re getting paid a lot less) and the students may be more focused on actually learning something.

College is worth exactly as much as the student puts into it. I’ve had slacker students, and I’ve had enthusiastic, interested students. I’ve taught them both exactly the same things. Guess which one actually learns more?

The amount of learning isn’t at all correlated with tuition. It’s a funny thing, but paying more money to a school does not mean your experience will be upgraded. It may actually be the reverse. Big Fancy College will do most of their instruction with grad student TAs; Small Cheap College will expect the faculty to spend more time working with students.

What you’re paying for at an “elite” college is social status. That’s it. Not a better education, not better teachers, not esoteric knowledge you can get nowhere else. You get to hang out and make connections with other students from a socioeconomic background that can afford this overpriced place. That may be a valuable asset, but let’s not pretend that the school’s primary purpose is education, then.

Admission is rigged. Ever hear of “legacy” admissions? If a parent is an alumnus of a school, their children get preferential admission. It’s kind of the opposite of merit — you get in by accident of birth. Walk around some of the “elite” college campuses, and you’ll see all these buildings named after people. Sometimes they’re named to honor distinguished faculty, but more often it’s because some rich person dropped a few million dollars on the school. Do you think if the offspring of said rich fat cat applied, they wouldn’t be ushered in the door?

Well now, thanks to a major sting operation by the federal law enforcement, another layer of corruption has been exposed.

Federal officials have charged dozens of well-heeled parents, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, in what the Justice Department says was a multimillion-dollar scheme to cheat college admissions standards. The parents allegedly paid a consultant who then fabricated academic and athletic credentials and arranged bribes to help get their children into prestigious universities.

“We’re talking about deception and fraud — fake test scores, fake credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials,” said Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts.

Lelling said 33 parents “paid enormous sums” to ensure their children got into schools such as Stanford and Yale, sending money to entities controlled by a man named William Rick Singer in return for falsifying records and obtaining false scores on important tests such as the SAT and ACT.

Singer was the middle man, but he facilitated parents who lied and cheated, and school officials who collaborated. A bunch of coaches have been arrested — they would lie and say the sweet little darling prospective student was being recruited for an athletic program, even if they weren’t, to give them an edge in admissions. (That’s another big problem: athletics is a fertile ground for bringing in inappropriately qualified students.)

Describing how Singer worked to present his clients’ children as elite athletes, Lelling said, “In many instances, Singer helped parents take staged photographs of their children engaged in particular sports. Other times, Singer and his associates used stock photos that they pulled off the Internet — sometimes Photoshopping the face of the child onto the picture of the athlete” and submitting it to desirable schools.

“Singer’s clients paid him anywhere between $200,000 and $6.5 million for this service,” Lelling said.

Rotten through and through. Athletics should not be a factor at all in getting into college.

And then there was widespread cheating on the standardized tests required to get in, with paid proxies taking the exams for the kids, or sitting right there with them in the testing room, feeding them the answers.

Other defendants in the case include university athletic coaches and college exam administrators — some of whom are accused of accepting bribes. Court documents state that the scheme targeted these schools as part of a “student-athlete recruitment scam”: Yale University, the University of Southern California, Georgetown University, UCLA, Wake Forest University, Stanford University, University of San Diego and the University of Texas, Austin.

“There will not be a separate admissions system for the wealthy,” Lelling said. “And there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”

Yeah, right. There has always been privileged admissions for the wealthy. Does anyone want to break the news to him about our criminal justice system? It’s funny how the color of one’s skin is a major factor in admission to our prisons.

By the way — next time someone whines about affirmative action and how it lets in unqualified black students over superior white students, just haul off and punch them in the mouth. The system is set up to favor unqualified rich students over intelligent poor students.

“These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege,” said U.S. Atty. Andrew Lelling. He said they “knowingly conspired … to help their children cheat or buy their children admission to elite schools through fraud.”

Prosecutors allege that Singer instructed parents to donate funds to a fake charity he had established as part of the scheme. Most of the parents paid at least $200,000, but some spent up to $6.5 million to guarantee their children admission to top universities, authorities said. The parents were then able to deduct the donation off their income taxes, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

They can afford to drop a million dollars to smuggle their kid into school, and then write it off their taxes? Oh, America.

I was all prepared to cut the kids some slack — they may not have known what their parents were doing. But then I read about Olivia Jade Giannulli, daughter of Lori Loughlin (an actor?), who paid half a million dollars to get her into USC. Olivia Jade’s interests are fashion, beauty, instagram, and YouTube, where she has acquired almost 2 million subscribers who listen to her prattle while she puts on her makeup.

Juggling school, a personal brand, and a YouTube channel isn’t easy. In her first week, for example, Olivia Jade had to travel to Fiji for a work shoot. “I don’t know how much of school I’m going to attend, but I’m gonna go in and talk to my deans and everyone, and hope that I can try and balance it all,” she said in a vlog beforehand. “But I do want the experience of game days, partying…” She paused. “I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.”

She doesn’t care about school. She’s there for football games and parties.


You know USC is a very good school, right? (They’re all good schools.) But apparently they are rather indiscriminate in the riff-raff they allow in. And this cheesy, shallow twit is taking up space that someone who could really use the educational opportunity would find productive.

And she has 2 million subscribers to her vapid channel? I’ve been experimenting with YouTube myself, you know, and I guess I’ve been doing it wrong. I’m gonna start recording my daily beauty routine — trimming my nose hairs, scrubbing the callouses on my feet, taking my Old Person Heart pills, while mumbling in a rheumy voice about getting off my lawn. It’ll be a hit!

Recall what I said about “College is worth exactly as much as the student puts into it“? That’s one of the biggest crimes here, that the system is rigged to allow rich students to waste the resources and opportunities of our educational system. And nothing is going to change because of this one-shot criminal proceeding.

More stories of the “students” who profited from this scheme are emerging — here’s Isabelle Henriquez, who gloated about how her parents had an expert flown in to hold her hand during the SATs, so she could get into Georgetown. Now her false pretenses are making expulsion possible.

Advice to children of rich parents who bought their way into college: shut the fuck up. Nothing you can say will help you, and everything you say is going to make others despise you. Lie low. Study hard. Prove you earned your education.


  1. says

    The parents who spent millions probably could have donated the money to the university the usual way, and their kids would have gotten in on patronage. Once your family name is on a building you’re a much more attractive candidate. It’s distasteful but it’s not distasteful and a felony.

    It’s going to be great for those kids’ self-confidence to know their parents were so confident in their aptitude that they felt they had to cheat.

  2. Matt G says

    Does anyone remember the Michigan (?) Law School case from the Bush the Lesser era? Turns out W himself got more of a leg up at Yale because of his, uh, pedigree than any minority student was getting through the Michigan admissions process.

  3. jd142 says

    This is akin to your ‘social status’ point.

    You also pay for networking opportunities. Your moron classmate at Harvard is Orange Julius Jr? Need to find some Russians to back your latest money making scheme? Just call him up: ‘Hey, Julius Jr., remember me from the math class we both skipped? Man those keggers were worth waaay more than knowing the answer to 1 + 1. Anyway, I need to find some Russian backers for my latest scheme. Oh, you know some and they’ll be in touch? Great! See you at the reunion kegger.’

    No matter how good it is, Orange Julius Jr isn’t going to go to the local community college. His daddy is paying to get him into Harvard.

  4. garnetstar says

    PZ is right on all points. You really have to go to those fancy colleges to truly understand how much the name means nothing. Nothing at all.

    The students there run the gamut: from about 5% who are really intelligent and interesting, 5% who are just too stupid for the academics and whom you would cross the street to avoid talking to for even five minutes, and the rest the great middle class. It’s exactly the same distribution as the five other universities (some fancy, some not) I’ve been around.

    Legacy students and “athletes” are spread evenly across that distribution. Legacy students weren’t even ashamed: they freely admitted how much their parents had given to get them in.

    Some departments have good professors and good classes, and some don’t. You can get just as good, and sometimes better, a college experience at many, many other places. Their undergrad program in chemistry, at a place that’s now $60,000 a year, was certainly under par, and I would have gotten learning at many less-famous colleges. I had to try to make up the deficiencies in grad school.

    I’ve told people this for years, but they just don’t believe it. If the name is famous, it must be the best. Nope. But I haven’t disabused people, especially adults, of that notion.

    The place I got my Ph.D. is one of the most famous institutions in the world, but fully half the grad students who got Ph.Ds there were the most uneducated people, in their own discipline, that I’ve ever met. The name means NOTHING AT ALL.

  5. garnetstar says

    I meant, I haven’t been able to get people to get rid of their notion that a fancy name = better place. It’s a persistent delusion.

    I actually originally turned down the place where I got my Ph.D. and went elsewhere: I’d learned from my undergrad experience that the name means nothing. Then, two years in, my research professor got hired by that school that I’d purposely avoided, and it was either start over at the beginning or move there with him. I had to hold my nose and go, but again, it was sub-par.

  6. hemidactylus says

    Harvard elite? Ernst Mayr…nuff said…but…Stephen Gould, Richard Lewontin, EO Wilson, Walter Gilbert and numerous students such as “the Donald” Hebb, Eric Kandel, Leda Cosmides & John Tooby (raw meat), Ruth Hubbard, Alfred Kinsey, Marvin Minsky. OK they did produce Zuck and the Unabomber so not perfect. Harvard has had a huge impact on the field of evolutionary biology. Not so much in sports. Who would pass up a chance to go there by the honorable route?

    USC elite: Pete Carroll, Al Davis, Wayne Fontes, Joe Gibbs, John McKay (except Bucs), John Robinson, Ricky Bell (especially Bucs), OJ Simpson (ummm…), Carson Palmer, Lynn Swann, Marcus Allen, Ronnie Lott, Anthony Munoz… USC probably has decent academics but I know them for sports.

    So based on reputation if you want to excel at behavioral and biological science Harvard wouldn’t be a shabby choice. Aspiring football players might go for USC. But Clemson and Bama are the tops (or “elite”) for now.

    Not that other schools don’t compete, but success and prestige comes with some merit and is quite magnetic. Unfortunately people game the system to get in or institutions do dirty deeds to enhance their status. Remember the SMU death penalty?

  7. says

    Humans are suckers for the expensive=good fallacy. It is a clinically demonstrated factor in the placebo effect for medications. Study participants reliably say they feel better on a sugar pill they are told costs $250 a dose vs. a sugar pill they are told costs $5 a dose. It is pernicious.

  8. says

    Loughlin is apparently a Born Again who missed that whole false witness commandment.

    Huffman’s husband is actor William H. Macy, and there’s some head shaking at why he hasn’t been charged, since he apparently knew about and agreed to the scam. Allegedly they only paid 15 grand, versus Loughlin and kid’s fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli, who paid out 500 grand.

  9. garnetstar says

    hemidactylus @7, I would pass up the chance to go to Harvard, even legitimately.

    Knew a lot of Harvard undergrads, they’re no different than anywhere else (most of them are the great middle class), nor is the undergrad education. For all the famous names, there is a very good chance that you’ll never even meet them, or that they consider teaching beneath them and so are lousy at it or biased or even sadistic. They won’t contribute to your education any more than anyone else would. I knew a lot of completely uneducated students who graduated from Harvard.

    Now, a student could consider Harvard as one choice among many, but not as a place that’s “better” than many. It might fit that particular student’s personality, etc., and end up being that student’s choice. But no, the name, the prestige, and the fame, mean nothing at all. And, there are many drawbacks that come with those.

  10. Kevin Karplus says

    There is another difference at the “elite” schools—they have the money for up-to-date equipment that many public colleges lack. That can make some difference in science and engineering education. The networking opportunities for getting internships may be better (depending on the college—some public universities do a good job there, and some do not). Many of the elite colleges can also afford smaller class sizes than public universities (thanks to the disinvestment in public colleges).

    I would have been glad to send my son to an elite college like Harvey Mudd, though he has gotten a perfectly fine education at UCSB (thanks in part to the College of Creative Studies, which provides a small-college atmosphere with faculty mentorship and increased research opportunities for honors students within the larger university).

  11. mastmaker says

    And a HUGE number of these private ‘elite’ universities are owned by that cesspool called roman catholic church. Do they even have anything in common with (real proper) education?

  12. says

    Yeah, you can name a lot of famous people at famous colleges, but if you go there, you won’t be taught by them. They have far lighter teaching loads (one course a year, at most; many teach only a few lectures in one course each year) than I do, so it’s kind of irrelevant.

    In fact, being good at teaching, rather than at grant-getting, is often, not always, a strike against a faculty member at those places.

    I would not turn up my nose at a student who earned admission at those places — like I said, they’re all good colleges — but the attitude that they’re somehow superior to colleges that are less well endowed or have a smaller student body or have a less elitist perspective is unwarranted.

  13. hemidactylus says

    And for a positive spin on things there are people who were gifted at sports and academics who got into schools such as Stanford on merit, like Richard Sherman.

    @10- garnetstar- Lewontin spawned Felsenstein and C*yne.

    As for Gould: https://www.the-scientist.com/opinion-old/love-him-or-hate-him-stephen-jay-gould-made-a-difference-53204

    “The word around Harvard Yard, at least among some students, was that Gould was arrogant. Still, his classes filled. In a touching letter to the New York Times on May 22, a student in Gould’s history of life class paid tribute, calling Gould’s teaching: “a tour de force that Harvard students may not see the likes of any time soon.”

    EO Wilson has been an advisor: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._O._Wilson

  14. garnetstar says

    Kevin Karplus @11, that the school has more money for equipment, etc., doesn’t mean that the undergrads will ever see that equipment or use it. It’s for the research faculty, not the undergrads.

    And, smaller classes are not automatically better. No matter what the class size, nearly everything the student gets out of it is what s/he puts into it. The rest is the professor taking their teaching seriously and trying, which is hit or miss anywhere.

  15. garnetstar says

    hemidactylus @14, but you can get such talented mentors and professors who spawn famous students at many, many schools. Harvard is not unique in that, nor is any other college.

    Every professor has been an advisor: some are brilliant at it, some are terrible, and most are in between. That someone was an advisor doesn’t mean he was good at it.

    As I say, I can never, never manage to disabuse people of the notion that these places are somehow better. They are like every other college.

  16. says

    Something I learned this morning is there are companies that will only hire graduates of nine schools and toss the resumes of anyone who went anywhere else. Of course, these are garbage financial companies, but depending on what someone wants to do with their education it sadly means having to get into an “elite” school.

  17. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    If your goal is to come away with the best technical education you can, select the school based on who teaches and does research there. Even as an undergrad, you can often get work in the labs, sometimes even paid. Ivy League schools and names like MIT and Caltech mainly impress people who don’t understand shit about your field of study. If you want to impress people in your field, do work for a universally respected prof/researcher–particularly one who isn’t a complete jerk.

    One thing I have seen wrt graduates of Ivy League schools–they know people…people who are influential and who may be willing to help out a fellow Harvard/Yale/Princeton alum. Great if you want to succeed on your connections rather than your merits.

  18. says

    College sports should probably just be decoupled from colleges entirely and just be some kind of starting league or something. Oh… but then they might have to pay the athletes…

  19. ck, the Irate Lump says

    I feel like the lede is being buried on these stories, though. The crime isn’t that they bought their way into the college, but that they did it the wrong way. Not only is there the legacy admissions already mentioned, but there’s also things like the “Dean’s Interest List” or the “Director’s List” where large donors can donate huge sums of money (or facilities) to the college to get preferential treatment. Famously, this is how Jared Kushner got into Harvard after his father donated $2.5 million to the school.

    As rich as these people were, they weren’t rich enough to buy their way in the right way. Still, they’re likely to see punishments far less severe (relative to their means) than this black woman who tried to get his children into a nicer school district. They’ll be wealthy enough and connected enough to get some leniency.

  20. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    Court documents state that the scheme targeted these schools as part of a “student-athlete recruitment scam”: Yale University, the University of Southern California, Georgetown University, UCLA, Wake Forest University, Stanford University, University of San Diego and the University of Texas, Austin

    ….how the hell is Davis not on this list?

  21. ck, the Irate Lump says

    Oops. I missed the fact the donor admissions were already mentioned. Still, those outraged by this story ought to be more angry at the system that deemed there are right ways of buying admission than the fact these people bought their way in the wrong way.

  22. vucodlak says

    I’m having a hard time getting more upset about this than I’d get about any of the other rich assholes who buy their way into the “upper echelons” of society. Which is, like, all of them. I’ve heard the word “merit” bandied about a lot in relation to these stories, but are you honestly going to tell me someone like Brett Kavanaugh got into Yale on merit? That Bush the Lesser did? That “merit” in this (or any, at least in the US) usage is, and has ever been, meaningfully different from “privilege?”

    It’s especially telling to me that the people we’re seeing most demonized here are famous women and their daughters. Yes, they did shitty things. Yes, they’re shitty people. No worse than any bit of scummy behavior that I expect from the rich though, and… at least they didn’t rape anyone? I mean, that’s a pathetically low bar, but it’s what I’ve come to expect from the hyper-privileged making the news. I suspect this will get a lot more coverage than things like Robert Kraft’s arrest, however, and that’s fucked up.

    I have to agree with Fred Clark over on Slacktivist about this: the greater crime here is that college admissions are often set up as a zero-sum game, in which these assholes’ actions cost someone else a slot. Everyone should have access to high quality secondary education, not just the people who can afford the ever-rising price of admission. Everyone but the 1% loses in the current system, even without blatant cheating like this.

    Just as an aside, I did NOT get into the university I attended on merit. My grades were abysmal, my ACT score was merely ok, and my only motivation was “all my other plans have fallen through and I have no idea what to do with my life.” I basically got in because there was no competition for a smallish (around 10,000 students) no-big-name state school, which is pretty much how it should be. Also, because I had a college fund and could pay tuition up front, which is not how it should be.

    Everyone should have the opportunity, regardless of their means, to go to college. Making it a competition only encourages malfeasance like this latest scandal.

  23. lumipuna says

    I don’t understand. These cheats are getting in because their families spend large amounts of money on bribes (in lieu of spending even larger amounts of money as donors for the same effect), and that’s supposedly unfair to the less wealthy applicants. But if you can’t afford the bribes, how could you afford the wildly overpriced tuition?

    And if you’re a smart kid from a not-so-wealthy background who wants into an “elite” college, is it likely because you want to infiltrate the Rich People Network? Or more likely because you were conned into believing the promise about better education?

  24. vucodlak says

    @ lumipuna, #24

    And if you’re a smart kid from a not-so-wealthy background who wants into an “elite” college, is it likely because you want to infiltrate the Rich People Network? Or more likely because you were conned into believing the promise about better education?

    It’s likely a little bit of both, but another big reason is that having “Harvard” on your resume is catnip to potential employers.

  25. says

    Yes, even the legal stuff is corrupt.

    One student whose family donated $1.1 million got a special campus tour from the former head tennis coach — “we rolled out the red carpet,” he said, according to the Harvard Crimson. It’s not clear if the student was eventually admitted, but students on the donor list have a 42 percent acceptance rate. Harvard overall accepted 4.6 percent of students in 2018.

    All legal.

  26. schweinhundt says

    “The amount of learning isn’t at all correlated with tuition.” That’s very much my experience. I went to a state school that was fairly large but was reasonably priced and had available scholarships/financial aid. Plus, as I started taking core classes (as an undergrad), they were typically taught by a Ph.D. who had graduated from an “elite” university instead of a local TA.

  27. says

    Right. I’m familiar with biology, for instance — do you think the curriculum is radically different between UMM, Minneapolis Community College, and Harvard? It’s not. There’s little differences between each, I’m sure, but we all have to teach cell & molecular biology, advanced electives, ecology, etc., and we’re also all using generally the same textbooks.

    There is more grade inflation at the Ivies, though.

  28. numerobis says

    a_ray_in_dilbert_space: I doubt an aspiring undergrad is best served by looking for top researchers. What you need at that level of development is good teachers and mentors.

    Those take time. Rare are profs who can be good at those and publishing top research. And departments that have top researchers tend to be expecting almost all their faculty to be top researchers even at the expense of teaching and mentorship.

  29. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    It is not really that uncommon to have a prof who is a good teacher as well as a good researcher–particularly when they succeed by working to develop the talents of students as well.

  30. Allison says

    Well, one difference is that, because they only admit a tiny percentage of the applicants, they can select the ones who have shown that they are likely to be at least successful at school and might turn out to be more successful than most after they graduate. The actual education doesn’t have to be all that much better to be sure of turning out people who will make them look good, if you only admit people who are already pretty successful.

    And, yes, another reason for trying to get into an exclusive college is that you have a good chance of making contacts with the people who will (regardless of what they learn there) be running and ruining the world. That is, of course, if you can stand hanging around with them.

    For me, one of the biggest benefits to going to an Ivy is that I learned not to be impressed with credentials or reputation. The big shots make stupid mistakes and live by their prejudices (cf. James Watson) just like the rest of us, so it pays to critically examine the claims that even the “best” feed you, and I found that my judgement was actually a lot better than what people told me when I was growing up. To paraphrase Peter Schickele, “if it sounds stupid, it is stupid.” I got to see the “best” that the US and the world had to offer, and saw that it wasn’t really much better than everybody else.

  31. =8)-DX says

    I actually never thought of it that way, but over here in CZ we have public (free) universities and private (paid) universities and schools and its universally accepted that private schools are mainly for rich parents who want their kids to breeze through without actually learning much, as well as getting to play with the newest toys.

    I mean we’ve had various bribery scandals here as well, usually politicians or businesspeople getting “fast-track” degrees, and the leftover mentality from communist rule is that to get into some schools (the art schools for instance, who will accept a few percent of the applicants) you need to hand in a nice thick envelope.

    But in general the universities considered highest quality are the largely free public schools and these being paid by the head will often take in plenty of first year students only to weed out the wheat from the chaff in the first year based on merit.

    Education should be free at every level.

  32. says

    I wonder how and if places like MIT fit into all this. Their brand is being meat-grindingly hard huge-brain-or-die rather than the basic ‘prestigious’ that anything with money can claim.

    Does MIT (or CalTech, etc.) have these kinds of admissions? Do they have anything in place to help the bribe-students trundle along like the Ivy Leagues do? That would be terrible for the brand… except Stanford trades on something similar, and it does.

  33. chrislawson says

    Tabby Lavalamp@17–

    I suspect those companies that would only contemplate employing Ivy League grads are actually financial scam houses that need the cover of superficially impressive credentials to ply their con.