To the surprise of absolutely no one who follows higher education, recently released court documents in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal show the University of Southern California meticulously tracking the applications of the children of donors and potential donors in pursuit of contributions. Unearthed by attorneys defending parents implicated in last spring’s saga, the documents make clear that USC was no innocent victim. Rather, USC was energetically working to squeeze every possible dollar out of the same parents who were all too eager to buy access.
A series of major newspaper accounts last week documented just how shamelessly university officials flagged and then targeted “special interest” applicants with high fundraising potential. The admissions file of one such applicant endorsed by the USC athletic department noted a “25,000 check and more later.” Another listed a $3 million donation to the men’s golf team. Yet another mentioned, “father is surgeon.” Email exchanges point to numerous instances where admissions officers’ qualms about the academic qualifications of “VIP” applicants were dismissed by university officials on account of their parents’ wealth.
Anyone who imagines that the developments at USC are an isolated instance is blissfully removed from the banal reality of how brand-name colleges and universities operate. Documents from the lawsuit alleging bias in admissions at Harvard University, for instance, similarly show Harvard giving preferential treatment to the relatives of wealthy donors. And just last week, The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow reported that MIT’s famed Media Lab engaged in a variety of deceptions and problematic behaviors in order to keep donations flowing from the disgraced Jeffery Epstein. Indeed, just about every major institution you can think of conducts big-dollar “capital campaigns” which rely on tracking, courting, and squeezing wealthy “prospects.” What’s unusual about USC is not what the university did, but how a federal investigation, aggressive attorneys, and subpoenas brought it to the light of day.
The remarkable thing is that, when the Varsity Blues scandal broke last spring, colleges and university leaders were largely given a free pass. Rather than call out campus administrators for their role in allowing or even facilitating the selling of admissions, pundits generally opted to interpret the whole affair as a broader indictment of American society. Take New York Magazine, which took the opportunity to bemoan the fact that the wealthy can afford “the finest tutors” and “all manner of privately provided extracurricular enrichment.” Or the Washington Post, which titled one op-ed, “The college admissions scandal isn’t fair. Nothing about our social mobility system is.”
As I observed in Forbes at the time, this narrative is both misleading and destructive:
“Nobody is forcing colleges to sell access; that’s all on them. Here’s another way to look at this: This isn’t an indictment of America but of the elite college cartel and the pathologies that it has enabled and exploited. It’s an indictment of the way elite colleges sell fast-passes to lucrative jobs on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley . . . When colleges sell access, or are so inept that they make it easy for the rich to buy access, this isn’t an indictment of American parents who pay for tutors or who diligently use their 529s to save for their kids’ tuition. This is an indictment of elite colleges.”
These “non-profit” but decidedly self-interested institutions have leaders who are judged largely on their ability to raise money. It’s no wonder that college leaders are apparently unable to resist the allure of big bucks and deep-pocketed donors.
What might be done about any of this?
The fact that it required only a couple months of legal prospecting to find these documents at USC makes clear that intrepid investigators can indeed get their hands on damning evidence. More investigation and inquiry into these practices are long overdue. While these institutions pocket billions in federal subsidies and tax-exempt donations, mainstream media and industry chroniclers like Inside Higher Ed or The Chronicle of Higher Education have exhibited little interest in surfacing or examining these unsavory admissions and fund-raising practices. Whether the remedy is aggressive investigative journalism or legal activity is an open question.
Moreover, it is clear that boards of trustees should be adopting a far more assertive stance when it comes to holding university leaders responsible for the goings-on at their institutions. At public colleges and universities, it is similarly appropriate for elected officials to provide more oversight and demand more transparency from campus leaders. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has been doing valuable work on this score, such as training trustees in the questions they need to be asking, and deserves to be commended. But much more is needed.
It’s no surprise that USC administrators have been selling access and operating as co-conspirators to the sleaze merchants nailed by the Varsity Blues investigation. The surprise is that unsavory practices by colleges and universities have garnered so little attention. The question, then, is what, if anything, we intend to do about that.