Jennifer Rubin: Elite universities will lose their eliteness if they’re not careful

Jennifer Rubin | The Washington Post

Elite universities are going to face a firestorm of criticism in the wake of the college admissions scandal if they don't police themselves - and do it fast.

These institutions maintain their stature and charge the prices they do because they are supposed to provide the best education to the best students. We got a reminder this week that this is a bit of a canard.

Forgetting about the criminal class for a moment, how can schools in which more students come from the top 1 percent than from the bottom 60 percent claim to be a meritocracy? Unless you think rich is synonymous with smart (and believe me, too many people do), then it's obvious that the system is tilted so far in favor or wealth and privilege it's about to fall over. The risk is that people start to wise up and come around to the idea that the elite private universities are where one goes to purchase the facade of merit.

And that's the rub for these institutions. As soon as it becomes apparent that plenty of rich, mediocre kids are getting in, then the school isn't really providing the best to the best, the diploma's value decreases, and there's no real prestige in going to a kind of finishing school where social alliances are made to benefit already privileged people later in life. (Instead of decoupling sports from colleges, maybe we can decouple fraternities and sororities, eating clubs, etc., so that participants in the latter don't take up space from the more accomplished and deserving students. I kid - but only a little.) To make the whole thing more odious, these schools sit on billions in endowment money, so why do they insist on scrounging for $100,000 donations here and there?

Maybe it is the ability to charge outrageous prices or maybe it's the frenzy to get a high listing on the U.S. News college rankings, but the entire process of admissions has become warped. Exclusivity has become a goal unto itself. Exclusivity begets panic begets big donations so Junior can get in - or even criminal conduct.

Schools send recruiters and alumni all around the country to private schools and high-achieving public schools to entice kids to apply refusing to set minimum grade or test standards so as to set realistic expectations; they raise application numbers sky-high with no intention of taking more than a fraction of them (the same number they took before juicing up the numbers). With tiny acceptance rates, they get to be considered "elite."

If they were really a meritocracy, they'd stop churning numbers and turn recruiters into talent scouts searching for the best and the brightest in those high schools where college attendance is not a foregone conclusion. Instead of big numbers, they should be figuring out where in non-privileged America they can source students. They should be in the business of spreading opportunity and democratizing educational opportunities, not keeping it an exclusive province of the rich and famous. (At least the football player recruited on scholarship has a real skill to offer; the scion just has his parents' bank account.)

While they are at it, why do they not educate many more people via online learning? (But then everyone would have an Ivy League diploma, and Junior wouldn't be so special.)

In sum, elite universities are undercutting their own brand by admitting the mediocre rich and failing to fulfill their stated mission, which is to educate the most talented (however they want to define that) and thereby break down class and barriers.

I'd like to think schools would come up with some simple reforms to get themselves back on track. (If not, they risk allowing the feds to force changes by restricting student aid or by regulation.) School administrators can start with some of these ideas (other than the obvious of monitoring admissions for rich kids who aren't actually playing water polo):

- Publish online all gifts from families of current students (transparency is a great disinfectant) - or better yet, don't take gifts from parents of current students or in the period immediately preceding application time (like insider trading, declare a blackout period on big gifts);

- Set a published goal for economic diversity;

- Take themselves out of the U.S. News rat race and stop juicing application numbers to maintain the impression of exclusivity;

- Change recruitment from a volume business into a talent-search activity; and

- Increase online learning and award online diplomas (stop the canard that everyone needs to physically come to the college to enjoy the "whole experience," when thousands would give their eye teeth just to get the education part of the experience).

I am sure there are plenty of other ideas. Parents, government officials and students simply aren’t going to put up with the current racket, so colleges better get cracking before the next admissions season comes around.