Columnist

The story of alleged cheating by rich parents exposes in a unique way what Americans value in their schools. Consider the 10 richest American universities. It’s important to note that many of them are also among the most highly ranked and selective.

Here are the top 10 endowments as calculated by thebestschools.org, with the percentage of freshman applicants accepted:

1. Harvard University, $36 billion, 5 percent

2. Yale University, $27.1 billion, 7 percent

3. University of Texas, $26.5 billion, 36 percent

4. Stanford University, $24.7 billion, 5 percent

5. Princeton University, $23.8 billion, 6 percent

6. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, $15 billion, 7 percent

7. University of Pennsylvania, $12.2 billion, 9 percent

8. Texas A&M University, $11.6 billion, 70 percent

9. University of Michigan, $10.9 billion, 27 percent

10. Northwestern University, $10.4 billion, 9 percent

Harvard’s endowment is greater than the gross domestic products of 90 countries. How much good comes from all that money? Huge endowments support talented faculty, important research and ambitious students. The largesse means many universities have been able to switch from loans to grants for their poorest students.

Only a tiny slice of college students ever attend such places. Our richest universities have given degrees to many people who have contributed much to our country and society. But research shows those same bright students could have learned at hundreds of other schools what they learned at the Ivies and their equivalents.

Still, we Americans tend to think the wealthiest universities are the best. That’s one reason the 33 parents charged in the admissions scandal were so desperate to get their children into those schools.

This seems more a sign of our species’ respect for big money than any strong connection between personal financial success and the prestige of one’s alma mater. The UK Domain, a company that helps individuals and small businesses cultivate an online presence and work online, dealt with this in a revealing analysis of Forbes magazine’s annual list of the world’s 250 richest people.

Of the 196 people listed for whom UK Domain could find college information, which university claimed the most mega-rich graduates? The No. 1 school was Dropout U. Seventeen people on the Forbes list never finished college. Harvard had seven, Penn had six and Yale had five.

Just below those well-known schools was Lund University, with four of the world’s richest people. It is in Sweden. I had never heard of it, even though it is 211 years older than Harvard. The University of Mumbai, the University of Munich, the University of New South Wales and the University of Arkansas each had at least two graduates on the Forbes list.

Wealthy people can use their money to increase their children’s admission chances with little risk of indictment. They give a large check to a university fundraiser, mentioning their love of that college and their hope that their child gets in. The admissions office is quietly informed.

That old-school way of buying your kid a place is not going to end. Even the most distinguished university presidents and scholars work hard to polish their campuses’ images, which they know takes money.

Jacob Soll, a professor of philosophy, history and accounting at the University of Southern California (endowment: $5.1 billion), recently wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times hailing his school’s rising reputation and its success reducing its freshman acceptance rate from 28 percent to 14 percent in the last decade. He summed up well a central tenet of college administration: The fewer kids who get in, the better. It would damage his school’s success, he said, if “fundraising drops dramatically” because several USC officials stand accused of being involved in the admissions scandal.

Endowments have been rising for decades, but has higher education improved? I have seen no sign that life-enhancing research correlates with endowment size. Our universities are admired throughout the world, but I can think of better things to do with $36 billion than make Harvard look good.