News & Politics

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.

They let their professors and administrators in on the game by lowering the bar for the children of employees, as a job perk. Despite all of their talk about operating athletics programs to promote sportsmanship, they assure recruited athletes the playing field will be tilted in their favor in the competition for freshman-class seats.

Through such admissions policies, colleges end up giving the nation's high school students crash courses in cynicism. They teach young people that money talks, fairness is for losers, who you know matters more than what you know, and some people are simply entitled to what others may never attain, no matter how hard they work.

Considering how much selective colleges and universities favor applicants who take such lessons to heart, should it surprise anyone that about half of all graduate- and professional-school students admit on surveys to having recently cheated?

Investors take note: MBA candidates have been found to be the biggest cheaters of all, with 56 percent admitting to having cheated in the past year, in a 2006 survey published by the Academy of Management Learning and Education. Many business schools have responded to the latest economic crisis by broadcasting their intent to beef up their ethics classes, but they might as well be promoting sobriety in a bar.

Give George W. Bush credit for this much: He admits to having gotten into Yale through his family connections, and he is quite capable of self-effacing humor. In delivering Yale's 2001 commencement address, he declared: "And to the C students I say, You, too, can be president of the United States."

Although he meant the remark as a joke, he stood as living proof that he was absolutely right, that students who have gotten through the doors of a top college need not perform well there to have other doors opened to them.

Historians of education say the Great Depression shook the nation's faith in its leadership and helped inspire many selective colleges to reform their admissions policies to do more to take in the best students and not just the best-connected.

Our latest economic crisis could inspire similar soul-searching and a renewed emphasis on meritocracy in higher education. But it also could have the opposite effect, prompting selective colleges and universities to even more heavily favor those applicants with cash and connections in an effort to repair their own finances.

If the recent devastation of their endowments should teach such institutions anything, it is that basing their admissions policies on the short-term pursuit of monetary gain is likely to cost them -- and the rest of American society -- dearly down the road.

Peter Schmidt is a senior writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education and the author of Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War Over College Affirmative Action. He blogs about race, class and college access at Color and Money.
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