Thursday, 13 June 2019

Higher Education in The USA: Rigged from inside and outside?

Edward Luce in The FT

“Nothing is fun until you are good at it,” said Amy Chua in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Eight years later the Yale professor continues to display her prowess. 


This week Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, Ms Chua’s daughter, was hired as a Supreme Court clerk by Brett Kavanaugh — the judge for whom her mother vouched during his stormy Senate hearings last autumn. 

Ms Chua is a shrewd string-puller. A Supreme Court clerkship sets up a young lawyer for life. Whether she is enjoying the publicity is another matter. Overnight the Chuas have turned into emblems of what Americans distrust about their meritocracy. 

There is much more where that came from. What Ms Chua did was brazen. The liberal academic offered a very public endorsement of the conservative Mr Kavanaugh. As the head of the Yale committee that steers graduates into highly-coveted clerkships, Ms Chua boosted his credibility with her endorsement. 

But the apparent quid pro quo was legal. Actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, on the other hand, are accused of having broken the law. 

The first is alleged to have paid $500,000 to fake athletics records that would help her two daughters enter the University of Southern California. The second has pleaded guilty to paying $15,000 to cheat on her daughter’s standardised admission test. Both Hollywood actresses, and one of their husbands, face likely jail in the “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal. 

Americans would be forgiven for blurring the moral of these tales. 

On pure arithmetic, the average American’s chances of entering a top university are tiny if they are born into the wrong home. Studies show that an eighth grade (14-year-old) child from a lower income bracket who achieves maths results in the top quarter is less likely to graduate than a kid in the upper income bracket scored in the bottom quarter. This is the reverse of how meritocracy should work. Children from the wealthiest 1 per cent take more Ivy League places than the bottom 60 per cent combined. Being born under a roof like Ms Chua’s — with two high-achieving parents obsessed with your success — is almost impossible to match. 

That is how most of the world works. The US has erected three additional barriers. The first is legacy places. In contrast to most other democracies, America’s top universities credit an applicant if a parent, or grandparent, went to the school. A better name for this would be “hereditary preference”, which is antithetical to America’s creed. Roughly one in six Ivy League places are taken by children of alumni. This sharply reduces the places available to children of talent from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

The second is affirmative action. The courts will soon rule on an Asian-American class action suit alleging that Harvard University discriminated against them. A significant — though artfully selected — share of places are reserved for children of Hispanic and African-American backgrounds. The fact that some of those are also legacy applicants adds a layer of irony. Whichever way it goes, the case is likely to end up in the Supreme Court. Mr Kavanaugh, who is a legacy graduate of Yale, could prove the decisive vote on whether affirmative action will survive. That prospect, too, is rich in irony. 

The third barrier is brute wealth. If you endow a library, or a medical lab, the university will bend over backwards to admit your child. A prime example is Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, whose poor SAT scores critics perceive may have been outweighed by his father’s $2.5m donation to Harvard. The US tax system even rewards such palm-greasing by making it tax-deductible. The fact that the best universities are richer than some countries (Harvard’s $38bn endowment is larger than the GDPs of El Salvador and Nicaragua combined) is no check on their ambitions. They always want more. 

The most egregious figure in the college admissions scandal is William McGlashan, a former partner at TPG, the private equity firm. He allegedly offered a bribe of $250,000 to get his son into a top university. His job was to head TPG’s social impact unit — capitalism’s virtue signalling arm. 

You do well by doing good, goes the saying. Which brings us back to Ms Chua. The best restraint on any elite is its sense of shame. Without that code, anything is possible. Everyone in America seems to know the system is rigged. The real distinction is whether you rig things from inside the law or outside.

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