In my 2011 series comparing life in the US, Britain, and Russia, I wrote the following about university admissions:
Overall, university admissions are probably the most meritocratic in the UK. In Russia, though the system is supposed to be meritocratic, it is skewed by corruption, for it is not unknown for applicants to bribe admissions staff at the more prestigious universities, and certainly the children of oligarchs or powerful politicians – no matter their intellectual aptitude – experience few problems in getting into schools like Moscow State University or MGIMO. However, direct bribes have become more difficult in recent years, due to the national standardization of the exam system. The US is in between. Though direct corruption is as unheard of as in the UK, the system itself is rigged in favor of the rich and influential. The most egregious example of this is the open discrimination in favor of legacies, the children of former alumni of the university. The more your parents “donate” to the alma mater, the better their children’s chances of getting in. This reminds me of a Simpsons episode where the nuclear power tycoon Mr. Burns takes out his checkbook to negotiate a place in Harvard for his ne’er-do-well son Larry.
Man: Well, frankly, test scores like Larry’s would call for a very generous contribution. For example, a score of 400 would require a donation of new football uniforms, 300, a new dormitory, and in Larry’s case, we would need an international airport.
Woman: Yale could use an international airport, Mr. Burns.
Burns: Are you mad? I’m not made of airports!
This would be considered pretty repellent by Europeans (and most Americans too), but is only counted as corruption by the former. There are two other major examples of discrimination in university admissions to US colleges. First, good athletes – primarily American football players, rowers, and lacrosse players – are much more likely to get in with poor grades, as they bring their university money and recognition (this is also common in Oxbridge, UK, for rowers). Second, there is positive discrimination* based on race: due to their poorer academic performance in schools, African-Americans** and Hispanics have an easier time getting in on poor grades than whites or Asians. (Jews have a great time of it. Though they have the highest grades of any ethnicity, they are counted as whites for the purpose of university admissions.)
This is the sort of quid pro quo that got President Kushner into Harvard.
However, if the recent news are anything to go by, the US system has degraded closer to Russia’s level, in which the former sheen of legality has been replaced by outright bribery and outsider test-taking.
Riddell took SAT and ACT exams for students between 2012 and this past February, according to a criminal complaint.
He was paid $10,000 per test, prosecutors said.
It wasn’t immediately clear, in charging documents, exactly how many tests Riddell took, but prosecutors are seeking to recover almost $450,000 forfeiture from the former college tennis player.
On Tuesday, the Justice Department announced the indictments of dozens of wealthy parents, including the Emmy-winning actress Felicity Huffman, for employing various forms of bribery and fraud to get their kids into highly selective schools. Some of them allegedly paid college coaches, including at Yale and Stanford, to lie and say that their children were special recruits for sports that the kids didn’t even play. Others allegedly paid exam administrators to let someone smarter take tests for their children. Millions of dollars changed hands.
Now I am not saying that Russia and the US are comparable, because they are not. Prevalence is certainly much greater in Russia. And American violations actually lead to criminal investigations (which you can’t exactly do in Russia, where the rot starts at the very top; e.g., Putin’s “PhD” is plagiarized).
Still, this does seem to indicate a sort of gradual convergence in institutional quality and social/moral mores, as whatever it was that made the West special – its rule of law, or historic selection for prosocial traits, or whatever else it is – continue breaking down.
I suppose one benefit is that more such cases will help reveal modern academia for the empty, useless, non-human capital increasing, pure signalling enterprise it is so far as 90% of the population is concerned.