College Admissions Scandal: Separating Hype from Reality

I have spent some more time thinking about the college admissions scandal, which is possible the biggest story of the year and maybe even the biggest story since Trump was sworn into office. I’m seeing it everywhere, including blogs that don’t even talk about topical matters.

James when, he’s not pushing scam crypto-currency courses, is spreading sensationalist nonsense about the scandal. he writes:

But… The beginning of the end:

 

Successful famous people are using money to buy their kids into college.

 

When second or third tier kids (i.e. less qualified) get high SAT scores and get into tier one colleges, what happens?

 

It’s not just about, “Get those rich people!” There’s a deeper societal impact that is scary.

“Successful famous people are using money to buy their kids into college!”…uh…they have been doing that forever. You think a middling intellect like JFK would have gotten into Harvard if not for his dad?

It’s a known fact the very rich use their wealth to try give their kids a leg-up in the admissions process, whether it’s donations or outright bribes. So it’s not like this is a new problem, and given how long it has been going on, it’s not like it’s suddenly a crisis just because more people are aware of it.

Blogger Michael O’Church weighs in on the scandal, arguing that the the dumb-rich, who have connections, are taking jobs that could go to smart people:

In other words, the idea that we are equalizing society by forcing the offspring of the rich to fly around in corporate jets and give PowerPoint presentations (which their underlings put together) is absurd. It would be better to let them live in luxury while slowly declining into irrelevance. When rich kids work difficult jobs, it’s toward one end: getting even richer, which makes our inequality problem worse.

 

Third, when we force rich kids to work, they take up most of the good jobs. There are about 225 million working-age adults. Whatever one may think of his own personal brilliance, the truth is that the corporate world has virtually no need for intelligence over IQ 130 (top 2.2%). [...] I don’t intend to say that no corporate task ever existed that required higher intelligence; it is, however, possible to ascend even the more technical corporate hierarchies with that much or less. So, using our somewhat arbitrary (and probably too high) cutoff of 130, there are still 5 million people who are smart enough to complete any corporate job. For the record, this is not an implication of corporate management’s capability. A manager’s job is to reduce operational risk and uncertainty, and dependence on rare levels of talent is a source of risk.

Fourth and finally, when rich kids go to work, what do they do? Damage the world, mostly. A large number of them are stupid and incompetent, the result of which is: bad decisions that cause corporate scandals and failures that vaporize jobs. Most of the smart ones, worse yet, are evil. See: the Koch Brothers, Roger Ailes, and Erik Prince.

I don’t agree with Church, Altucher, and others that inept rich people are taking all the important jobs. Consider Silicon Valley tech or most big companies; the people at the top are often the most knowledgeable about their industry, with many years of experience. Google is going to hire the best accountants, lawyers, and coders it can find, irrespective of family wealth. I’m pretty sure the CEO of Nike is very knowledgeable about the athletic apparel market. Someone like Jared Kushner who Church cites an an example of having unearned opportunities, would not be chosen over an industry expert. Rather, his wealth allows him to invest and create his own companies and wealth, similar to how Trump parlayed his family fortune into building his own brand, but that does not mean corporate America would have any use for him. Someone like Kushner would actually be more of a liability, due to unwanted attention  and excessive compensation demands.

Look how strong the stock market and the private sector are. Corporate profits are at record highs. Look at all the innovation coming out of Silicon Valley. If all these dumb rich people who were unfairly admitted into Ivy League schools are supposed to be a drag on the economy, it is not showing up in the data, even after many decades of this going on. This suggests that enough talented smart people do get in and get promoted, and that dumb rich people are seldom put in positions where they can cause too much harm as far as the private sector is concerned.

For a successful company, the contribution of smart employees is enough to offset the occasional dullard that slips through, so the net result is still positive. But competent employees also make mistakes. A multinational has enough redundancy, pricing power, and inertia, that unless the market changes suddenly, it can survive a lot of mistakes. Kodak and Polaroid failed not because of incompetent employees, but due to new technologies and unforeseeable trends, such as analog cameras being replaced by digital ones.

As for middle-management dullards, this, again, is not true, at least not for top tech companies. A project manager at Google probably knows as much about code as someone who does the code. They both have computer science degrees, know the same languages, etc. Google CEO and co-founder Larry Paige personally screened every employee Google hired, and this was as recently as 2015, when Google employed thousands of people. Similarly, Bill Gates was very careful, even as late as the 90′s when Microsoft was a huge company, with who was promoted and hired. Microsoft used notoriously difficult brain teasers to screen potential hires for intelligence, and “He [Gates] doesn’t care what school you went to or how many years of experience”. Steve Jobs, also, did not delegate, and personally conducted over 5,000 interviews at Apple. Dilbert bosses would not stand a chance. An employee may disagree with the company’s vision, but that does not mean the management is inept.

This is probably why , as discussed above, corporate America is not hurt that much by cheating, because even someone who cheats on the SAT and buys their way through grad school, is still going to lack the necessary industry and domain-specific knowledge and track record for promotion to upper management. The daughters of Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, who are not even smart enough to get into a second-rate school without bribery, are not going to be working at Google anytime soon, no matter how many strings their parents pull. These room-temperature IQ admittees, assuming they even graduate, will be filtered out of the most important roles of society, and will likely be relegated to the entertainment or fashion industry. Instead of being mad or outraged, we should be ridiculing and laughing at these celebrities and their children, much like a bank robber who is caught on America’s Dumbest Criminals. The left is used to being exposed for their hypocrisy, but they cannot stand to be ridiculed, which is why they summon Twitter’s ‘trust and safety’ team when they feel ‘bullied’ (as the #learntocode meme shows).

Additionally, I think the fears of the ultra-wealthy buying their way into the top colleges is also overblown. First, most students who are admitted to top colleges are not of the top 1%, but more like the top 20-30%, which is a huge difference. Second, legacies are only 5-10% of total admissions. The data is in plain sight showing that the vast majority of students admitted to top colleges are not of the ultra-wealthy, yet James and others are spreading misinformation and fear for their own profit. So, yes, the very rich can influence the process, but there are not enough of them relative to the number of spots available that non-wealthy applicants don’t have a chance.

$150k is between the top and second quintile, which is above average, but still way below the top 1%:

Being an alumni kid helps, but it hardly a guarantee of being admitted (quora):

There’s a myth that alumni children are admitted at unfair rates. The data shows they are admitted at triple the average rate (17% vs. 5%). Is that fair? Alumni kids should have advantages better than average, so it shouldn’t be less than 5%. Is 3X fair? Regardless, that means 80+% of alumni kids are rejected, so it’s far from sure for alumni children applicants.

I think the biggest issue is not the rich, but rather the scarcity of spots relative to the number qualified applicants for Ivy League schools, which means a lot of meritorious students are denied, but also other possible factors such as quotas. Combined, the Ivy League will admit about 28,000 students for 2019. About 2 million students took the SAT in 2018. So a purely meritocratic admissions process for any one of the eight Ivy League schools would require an SAT (m+v) score in the top 1.4%, or a score of at least 1480. So a purely SAT-based approach, in theory, could work, and indeed many applicants with near-perfect scores are rejected, as the article points out. But this is not because of wealh, but due to a combination of a ‘holistic’ admissions process, and possible quotas (as Ron Unz has documented).

I agree that employers and college admissions should focus more on objective measures of merit such as SAT scores instead of holistic, subjective measures such as extra-curricular activities and athletics. Cheating on the SAT in its own right needs to be more severely punished. The SAT is sorta a victim of its own success: for many decades, for half of the 20th century, it enabled talented, exceptional middle and lower-income students to be identified and selected for advancement and scholarships, but has become so ubiquitous that it has spawned entire industries that seek to undermine its objectivity, such as cheating and coaching. The inherent problem with any filtering mechanism is the higher the stakes are, the greater the incentive for cheating. This means better tests for merit need to be devised, under the assumption there will be some unavoidable cheating. Fortunately, the efficacy of SAT test prep and coaching is overestimated, and top scores are still rare and correlate highly with ability despite newer iterations of the test becoming easier.

That’s not to say they aren’t problems–there are–but it’s not the end of the world, it does not threaten the economy that much, it has been going on a long time, and regarding Ivy League admissions, quotas seem to be a bigger factor than favoritism of the rich.