Saturday, March 23, 2019

Bribing the Wrong People - the College Admissions Scandal

If you want to get your stupid kid into a good school, bribe the school directly.  Paying money to some middleman is just dumb - and a waste of money.

Two readers have asked me what I thought about the college admissions scandal.   I thought it was pretty stupid.  These parents are wasting their money hiring middle-men to bribe officials to get their kids into college.   You are better off just paying the money to the school - they will take it - and get your kid in the old-fashioned way.

There are different types of schools and different types of students.   In Engineering schools, it is rare that someone bribes their way in - the course material is too hard for someone to "fake it" and even if you could, the Engineering profession easily spots and doesn't tolerate fakers for very long.

One reader noted that in his class of 45 students, only about 17 graduated, which is a pretty low rate.  When I was at GMI, during freshman orientation, they told us, "look to the left of you, look to to the right of you, one of you won't be here in five years" and we all thought that person was the other guy, but in my case it turned out to be me.  The person to the left of me is now President of that company.

I recounted before about annoying girl at Syracuse University, who tried to cheat her way through Engineering school by studying old tests rather than the coursework.  When a professor changed the questions on the test, she complained it wasn't fair, to the Dean.   She tried to have one Arab teaching assistant canned as being "antisemitic" when in reality, he was just anti-stupidity.   Nevertheless, I wasn't too surprised to read in the alumni newsletter that her burgeoning career with a computer company ground to a halt only a few years after graduation.  You can't fake Engineering, even if a lot of people in Silicon Valley keep trying to do it.

But other schools are different, and let's face it, you can fake your way through an undergraduate degree in sociology, psychology, communications, history, and a host of other subjects, which require only that you need to know how to read and write - and not even much of that.   In the good old days, of course, the very rich didn't even need to do that - their kids were admitted to school based on "legacy" status (their parents went there) or the mere fact of being very rich.   Franklin Roosevelt did this, getting into Harvard and then not doing much of consequence while in school.  Studying hard and getting good grades was something only the children of tradesmen did.  The rich made connections and joined secret societies and often got blind drunk most of the time.

That time-honored tradition still exists, to some extant.   I transferred to Syracuse University after going to work for Carrier.  They paid for my tuition at SU's night school and eventually I was admitted as a full-time student.   Since so many people drop out of college, they do need butts in the seats in the upper-level classes, and they were happy to take my (and Carrier's) tuition money as a result.

But once I started getting good grades, they started tossing me small scholarships and whatnot.   As one of the school Deans explained to me, "We need students with good grades to keep up our accreditation.   We need the students with bad grades, whose parents pay full tuition, to keep the lights on!"  And of course, many of these "full-price" students were foreign ones - a big source of income for American colleges and universities.

You see, college tuition is the ultimate "sliding scale" pricing scheme.  From an economist's point of view, it is a perfect pricing scheme - where everyone pays the most they can afford to.  If you have great grades, they want you, again, to keep up appearance of academia.  So you get a reduced rate in tuition or even, in some rare instances, an entirely free ride.   Others have to pay.   Syracuse had a reputation as being a sort of second-tier ivy league school for kids who couldn't get into the real ivys, but whose parents had enough money to afford the staggering tuition.  A lot of kids from "downstate" would go there, pay full boat, and party their asses off.  Mom and Dad would buy them a spanking-new '81 Trans-Am to go off to school in.   Those were heady days.

And if their kids were falling-down dumb and couldn't even get some reasonable SAT scores to get in, they could always sponsor a scholarship or otherwise donate money to the school.   I was on the receiving end of such a scholarship - not a large one, but one nevertheless.    Likely some other kid got into "communications" school as a result of their parents' largess.   One hand washes the other.

Which is why I say this entire "scandal" is a the height of stupidity.  In some instances, these parents paid this middleman hundreds of thousands of dollars, of which less than half went to actually bribing the school officials.   A better approach (and a more efficient one, from an economic perspective) would be to donate the money directly to the school with a quid pro quo understanding that your kid will get in, despite his horrible high school record and poor SAT scores.

But of course, if you are really super-rich, does it really matter that your kid gets into a name school or even goes to college at all?   If you can afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on bribes, maybe you would be better off just putting that money into a trust fund and sending the kid to community college.  As an heir or heiress, what they really need to learn is how to handle all this money, deal with trusts and estates, and of course, lawyers.   Hmmmm..... maybe some enterprising college could come up with a major for this - "Inherited Wealth 101" or something like that.   Would probably do better than Party-Till-You-Puke U.

Now, of course, some folks are outraged by this all - or feigning outrage.  Outrage is the new currency in America, part and parcel of the damning and shaming which have replaced public discourse in recent years.  Rich people have unfair advantages in this world!  (this is news to you?)  We need to take away their money and make everything "fair" again!  (you think this will happen?).   Of course, as I noted before, relying on massive social change as the blueprint for your life is a short-sighted proposition.   While you should support social changes you think are worthwhile, in the meantime, you should concentrate on how to improve your personal life the best you can in the existing social structure.

Was I pissed-off that there were students at SU who were "coasting" and that annoying girl was trying to work the system?   Yea.  But that wouldn't take me from lab tech at Carrier to Engineer and later Lawyer.   Not smoking pot and drinking beer all day long just might, though.   And as I noted, the karmic wheel turns fairly fast.  The people trying to "work the system" often failed badly, and had no "Plan B" in place when their schemes didn't work out.

While the system may be unfair, I think it is far more fair than it was in the not-too-distant past.   Like I said, Franklin Roosevelt could count on family connections and wealth to get into Harvard, and then coast and have a good time (and he was a good guy, too!).  Today, this is harder to do - but not impossible - and even if you can do this, it is harder in our more merit-based economy to get anywhere with a useless degree and poor grades (although our President seems to have overcome this handicap).

Today, the chances of a minority student succeeding are still below average. but at least it is possible to get into most universities as a minority student, if you have good grades - something that in the not-too-distant past was not only unlikely, but impossible or even illegal.   The deck is still stacked against the poor and un-empowered.   That doesn't mean it is impossible to play the game or improve your hand.

It is hard to "fake it 'til you make it" as they say in silicon valley, in the fields of Engineering and Medicine.  Many have tried, and some succeed.  But most fail.   And the few that succeed only succeed because suckers like you and me decide that "investing" in their ill-conceived ventures and IPOs is the way to get ahead.   You can blame people for being crooked, of course.  But you can also blame yourself for being greedy if you keep giving crooked people your money.

One of the kids caught up in this cheating scandal is the daughter of a "celebrity" who makes a ton of dough being an "influencer".   This is all horribly unfair, of course!  But then again, who makes a celebrity a celebrity?   We do, by mindlessly adoring these folks.  And who makes an influencer an influencer?  We do, by purchasing the crap they hawk on their social media pages.

And, yes, at one time I thought these things were outrages.  I would hang out with like-minded people, and we would opine, between bong hits, how "unfair" things were, that some people appear to coast through life, while we got the shitty end of the stick.   But then I realized that this was just loser-talk and that having a "justice boner" wasn't really helping my own bottom line.  It was just an excuse to cover up my own failures in life.

I put down the bong and started trying harder.   And my life improved.  Am I now a billionaire?  Hardly - and few are and few can be.  But I realize that in the greater scheme of things, I am well within the top 5% of wealth for this country and top 1% of the planet.   All things considered, it would be obscene for me to complain about "fairness".   Yes, it is unfair I have to drink inexpensive champagne.   Weep for me.

So no, I am not "outraged" by the college admissions scandal.  I am only amused that these folks caught up in it were dumb enough to give their money to the wrong guy - some middleman instead of the Dean of Students.    If you are going to bribe a college or university to get your kid in, do it the legal way.  Donate enough money to the school, and anything is possible.

That's how the system works.   Act shocked.