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Elite Colleges Are Promoting a Culture of Selfish, Cutthroat Behavior and We Are All Paying the Price

The results are campus environments where disregard for society is socially accepted, where misguided students are encouraged to become worse.

Like many of us, the nation's elite colleges and universities have taken a financial beating over the past year.

Among them, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford all watched their endowments shrink by about 20 percent as a result of investment losses.

Despite all their brainpower, such institutions appear to have failed to learn what every simple farmer knows: you reap what you sow. Elite colleges and professional schools bear a share of the blame for the economic crisis that now plagues them, because it is they who educated and bestowed academic credentials upon many of those who got us into this mess.

It should come as no surprise to them that many on Wall Street and in Washington have proven ethically bankrupt and without regard for people of lesser means, because their admissions policies have done much to ensure such a result.

In determining which applicants they will admit and put on the fast track, most elite higher-education institutions systematically favor people from privileged backgrounds who display selfish, cutthroat behavior. The results are campus environments where disregard for society is socially accepted, where bad people are encouraged to become worse.

Consider, for starters, how most such institutions rely on standardized admissions tests such as the SAT, even though they know perfectly well that the nation's massive test-preparation industry has severely compromised the reliability of such instruments, turning them into tools for measuring, as much as anything, wealth and willingness to seek unfair advantage.

Test-preparation programs make people better test-takers not better prospective students. They raise scores mainly by teaching various test-taking tricks, such as how to quickly spot the "sucker" answers to a multiple-choice question to improve the odds of guessing correctly. Yet many are effective enough to offer those families that can afford their fees -- typically, $500 to $1,000 -- a chance to buy their children enough extra points to transform many from also-rans into shoo-ins.

In turning a blind eye to the widespread tainting of admissions test scores, higher-education institutions argue that they lack better mechanisms for efficiently judging applicants from high schools of sharply varying quality. But many education researchers disagree and say some alternatives to such tests, such as admissions systems that give substantial weight to class rank or samples of each applicant's work, are more reliable predictors of applicants' academic performance.

Moreover, selective colleges have ulterior motives for relying on standardized admissions tests that have nothing to do with academic considerations and everything to do with their bottom lines. The more high-scoring students they admit, the higher their "selectivity" ratings in the college-ranking guides that help determine how many applicants knock on their doors each year.

And not only is sifting through applications based on test scores a lot cheaper than hiring enough people to consider each candidate carefully, but relying on such scores helps skew the process in favor of wealthier applicants, who will not need financial assistance and are likely to donate generously down the road.

If young people find that artificially inflating their test scores isn't enough to get them into a choice college, they always have the option of having someone bribe their way in with a big donation.

Selective colleges are so happy to have their palms greased in such a manner that some make little effort to hide how much they lower the bar for applicants connected to generous alumni and other contributors. To improve their odds of having favors done for them by people in positions of power, many selective higher-education institutions also admit mediocre applicants at the request of state and federal officials.

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