Monday, October 02, 2006

Buy Your Way into College: A New Form of Prostitution

By Richard Vedder

A few years ago, Daniel Golden of the Wall Street Journal, in a stellar example of investigative journalism, revealed how elite private universities sometimes will admit the kids of rich persons who make major contributions to the school. He told the story of Margaret Bass, a Groton School grad with a composite SAT score of 1220 who was admitted to Stanford, while eight of her classmates with higher scores were rejected; Margaret's father, Robert, had given Stanford $25 million. The term "development admits" has been used to describe this practice. Now Golden has a new book detailing this more extensively. I have ordered it, and soon will eagerly be reading it. I suspect it is a compelling read.

I am less incensed by this practice than some. Most of these schools are private institutions, and money has always been a rationing device for determining who gets into school. Moreover, the financial contributions made by the rich benefactors arguably might serve some broader educational purpose. The fact that persons get a tax break for gifts that actually serve a private goal (getting a child into Elite U) raises some questions, but that is part of a broader issue of whether we should even allow tax deductions for gifts to country club-like elite havens that are today's top private universities, gifts that widen the divide between the rich and merely moderately affluent public flagship universities. Why should we subsidize colleges who have as a major institutional principle the DENIAL of admission of many generally bright and worthy students?

What does especially irritate me, however, is the hypocrisy of universities regarding this issue. Many schools claim that admission is determined strictly on the basis of merit, except of course, if you have a favored (non-white) skin complexion, or if you have some special talent (e.g., shooting a ball through a hoop). I would be less irritated by "development admits" if schools admit that they engage in some whoring, particularly if the customer will pay top dollar. I am reminded of the story where George Bernard Shaw reputedly offered some very proper lady one million pounds if she would sleep with him. She agreed. He then said something to the effect that he had reconsidered, and would pay her only one shilling (a few dollars in today's currency). She said, "Mr. Shaw, what to you take me for, a prostitute?" He supposedly replied, "We have already established that; we are merely haggling over the price." For the right price, even the best of schools will become academic hookers. That is fine, but I question whether the taxpayers should be subsidizing academic prostitution.

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