College bribery scandal is evidence of social mobility?

Frequent U.S. media theme: social mobility in the U.S. is low. If your parents aren’t rich and/or famous, you’re never going to get anywhere (unless you vote for Elizabeth Warren and AOC so that they can grab what is rightfully yours!). If, on the other hand, your parents were rich, you can coast into an elite adult slot. (Exhibit A: Donald Trump!)

Recent U.S. media theme: rich and famous people bribing college officials to get their children into selective universities.

Apparent contradiction: If social mobility is, in fact, low, why are rich and famous people bothering to bribe college officials?


8 thoughts on “College bribery scandal is evidence of social mobility?

  1. Philip, are you aware of the show Gossip Girl which ran from 2007-2012 on the CW network? It’s currently on Netflix if you are curious. In the show most (but not all) of the Upper East Side parents are frantic to get their kids into the “right” Ivy League School (typically one of the “Holy Trinity” of Harvard, Princeton or Yale) They and their children bribe, cheat and connive endlessly to that end. It doesn’t seem to be related to the material benefits, they are mostly very wealthy and living off their trust funds. It’s a question of status in their world. Many people are motivated by status relative to their peers, rather than absolute levels of material abundance, don’t you think?

  2. I am amazed that universities and colleges are able to keep this scam going.

    I have a friend who is a college humanities professor, she is on social media posting on average, every hour, not to mention all her professor friends joining in to chat as well. Always complaining that she is so busy grading all the time, preparing lectures putting up with inadequate students, and needing to write papers. And that just what I see on social media – who knows how much time she wastes amazon shopping and doing other non-work activities.

    I don’t know, but is sounds like a pretty sweet job to me having so much time on social media.

  3. This same person, btw – constantly posts articles about the patriarchy / manplaining / whitemen professors, etc (but married an older white man – and apparently doesn’t put her energies to proving female workers are better), complains about the difficulties of motherhood (yet voluntarily got pregnant and gave birth to two kids while employed and got maternity leave), complains about USA hegemony, inequality, rich USA bastards, and Trump (yet chose to marry an American, got an academic job in the USA, was educated in the USA – with scholarship). Comes from a poor South Asian with enormous inequality and a caste system from thousands of years ago, yet expects a 200+ year old country to solve all of its problems by just voting socialist/democrat.

  4. Hmmm. This may be a trick question from one of those exam prep. courses, but what you’re asking is counter intuitive enough to spend my lunchtime taking a crack at it, so here goes.

    My first and best answer is: “This is about status, not educational achievement or the attainment of knowledge, per se.”

    Let’s assume that everyone involved in this scandal is already well above average in socioeconomic terms, in other words, upper-middle class to stratospheric wealth. The only place the kids of those at the highest levels have to go, socially speaking, is down. After thinking about this whole thing for a few days, I believe a large component of the motivation to participate in this scheme was the social networking component. In other words, to help their parents feel better about questions like:

    “When my friends with kids ask me about Brandon and Elyse’s college plans, what am I going to tell them? That they’re going to State U.? Will they ask me about their SAT scores and why Elyse only got a 1280 when her friend Rhonda managed a 1560?”
    “Who are they going to meet at parties while they’re there?”
    “I know marriage is optional now, but if it’s going to happen for Lizbeth, I want her to have the chance to meet someone really fascinating. Maybe an ivy league professor!”
    “I want my daughter to start her career graduating with honors from Yale as the top line on her CV, period. She’s interested in comparative literature and journalism. At least if she goes to Yale she’ll have a better chance of getting into law school after she graduates.”
    “Everyone who graduates from [good but not elite New England school] in Biology winds up being a biotech slave. I want my kid to start the next biotech company, not work in the lab at one.”
    “Shane is an underachiever but he’s brighter than his test scores show. I know it and so does his mother. He smokes a little too much weed. I’ll have to call her to talk after all this is settled and he’s in, because if he goes to USC, he’ll have the best chance to shake off his angst, get interested in something other than World of Warcraft and bleep-bloop music, and they won’t let him flunk out easily unless he does something truly criminal. Which he won’t, because he’s really a good boy. And he’s such a great friend to have I’m sure he’ll be popular there.”

    So I’m guessing they want their kids to be around people they perceive as better, at a school they feel better bragging about to their friends when the subject comes up. They want their children to start off at the top (at least what they perceive to be the top) and stay there. I know it’s more complicated than that. You’ve written about Bill Gates many times in the past, etc., etc. He started out thinking of law school at Harvard, didn’t he?

    Still, let’s stipulate that doesn’t account for everything: rather than bribe people and participate in schemes that are so terribly embarrassing and could lead to a RICO felony conviction, those folks could play it straight and take their chances with the elite schools. If the child doesn’t get in, they fall back a little to one of the (many) safety picks. That’s not a catastrophe, because their family’s wealth and status could elevate them even more, relatively speaking, than if they went to an elite school. In other words, being the daughter of a multimillionaire magnate at [insert good-but-not-traditionally-recognized-as-elite school here] might actually be more socially beneficial relative to her peers than it would be at Yale?

    In other words, if someone can afford to spend $1.2 million dollars to bribe people, they could damn well afford $1.2 million in private tutoring, special living arrangements, lifestyle enhancement and enrichment that would help anyone but the most determined and irretrievable lost ne’er-do-well of a kid succeed at a good-but-not-elite school.

    How about this alternative: they believe the research that posits elite schools are most helpful to people from disadvantaged backgrounds and may be a waste of money for everyone else, just an illusion. However, they are so irretrievably vain that they actually consider their kid who only got 1220s on the SATs to be one of the disadvantaged? They’re delusional?

    OK, I’m done for lunch today. I’ll leave everyone with a clip from one of my favorite movies:

  5. One more thing, sorry for the extra post. Normally I appreciate not being able to after-edit but…:

    I wonder if the people who participated in this scheme convinced themselves of what they wanted to believe, which made it easier (even necessary!) to do what they did. Maybe they just didn’t care much at all about other arguments, morality, legality, rationality, decency, honesty, or anything. I wonder how many of them were suffused with anxiety, overtaken by vanity, or otherwise convinced of whatever they had told themselves: Their kid had to go to one of these schools…because they had to.

    To spend that kind of money doing something like this they would have had to feel super-strongly about it. I quote you:

    “Humans are highly suggestible and we eventually begin to believe our own rhetoric.”

    From this essay, which, after all, is one of the reasons I’m commenting on this post today:

    In other words, I’m saying: I’ll bet a lot of them just felt compelled to make it happen no matter what, and they were willing to do whatever it took.

  6. What about assortative mating? If you are wealthy, you might feel your child will meet a more suitable mate at one of the Ivies. Oddly, I don’t see this mentioned in all the writing about the admission scandals. I have a son who is a high-achieving college grad and this is certainly an issue for him. He wants to marry a woman of similar background and career aspirations as himself. Easier to do if you social environment is an Ivy league grad school.

  7. If social mobility is, in fact, low, why are rich and famous people bothering to bribe college officials?

    It’s just one of the causes of low social mobility. Asking this question is like asking why people buy expensive houses in the best school districts or pay to send their to private schools or SAT prep. classes.

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