“There is a front door, there is a back door, and I’ve created a side door.” William Singer may have been thinking outside the box, but I suspect he’s soon going to be in a different (and much less metaphorical) sort of box — one well-suited for lots and lots of thinking.
Anyhow, I’d like to mention a few related points.
First is that while only the “side door” is illegal, the “back door” (i.e. endowing a building in exchange for admission) is, let’s just say, worth our while to re-examine, as a society. (Plenty more to say here, but I’m sure others will make this point better than I can in the coming days.)
(UPDATE: Sure enough, here’s The Guardian’s take.)
The other points I want to make involve my experience as a test-prep professional and student coach.
Some years ago, I had the exquisitely horrible experience of preparing a student for an admissions test so well than the student got in despite what had been impossible odds… and yet I prepared the student in such a narrow way that the student wound up dropping out of that college later due to lack of ability to keep up with the demanding pace. (Since then, I’ve focused my test-prep on becoming a brighter student rather than on becoming a better test-taker.) My point here is that on balance, the system still more or less works to reward merit and to discourage cheating. It just doesn’t do it as well or as strongly as it should. This can be fixed.
Also, please indulge me as I run some numbers. Median lifetime earnings for a college graduate is in the $3.5MM to $4.0MM range. A standard deviation’s worth of admissions score increase correlates with a 3% to 7% increase in lifetime earnings, which is in the ballpark of $200,000. One standard deviation’s increase, while no mean feat, is well within the capability of a skilled and experienced coach to catalyze. And presumably these numbers are even higher in certain predictable circumstances. What these folks have tried to buy is more closely equivalent to three standard deviations’ change in prospects, so worth over half a million (present-day) dollars. My point here is that the expenditures made by these families, while both illegal and unethical, are otherwise arguably economically rational. So it should be no great surprise that this sort of thing goes on, because it’s a good return on investment if you don’t get caught (and if you frame your kids as an investment). There will always be a taker for this sort of thing.
To be clear: I’m not condoning it; I’m not aware of it in my circle; and I actually do scout for it in order to protect the integrity of the related professions in my area. I’m just saying that part of the current function of the higher education system is to lock in class privilege, and it has become more efficient in this respect than is probably a good idea.