The college admissions corruption scandal that broke this week, ensnaring Hollywood stars and business executives who were allegedly a bit too eager to bend the rules for their children, has unleashed an agonized discussion among Americans about decaying public mores, the self-entitlement of the wealthy and the crisis of higher education.
What that discussion has missed so far, though, is that plenty of other countries have been confronting the same problems for years. Unfortunately, the societies in question are ones we probably don’t want to emulate.
The idea of paying bribes to gain admission to elite schools, a central feature of the FBI’s “Varsity Blues” investigation, is old hat in other parts of the world. Post reporter William Wan noted a few years ago that “admission to a decent Beijing middle school often requires payments and bribes of upwards of $16,000, according to many parents. Six-figure sums are not unheard of.” Four years ago, Cai Rongsheng, the former admissions director at Beijing’s prestigious Renmin University, was prosecuted for taking payments from parents who were only too happy to compensate for their children’s lack of academic qualifications. He confessed to earning $3.6 million over an eight-year period.
It’s possible that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s relentless anti-corruption campaign has since made a dent in this sort of cheating — but I’m not holding my breath. China’s notoriously competitive educational system, combined with a pervasive culture of informal payments for just about every service imaginable, makes for powerful negative incentives.
The Russians aren’t far behind. One 2015 study estimated that Russian families “pay about $300 million annually in bribes to ensure acceptance to universities, and another $700 million once students are enrolled.” A former deputy prime minister cited in the same paper put the figure at between $2 billion and $5 billion a year. The practice is so common that one journalist posted a price list, broken down by institution. If you want to get into the prestigious Moscow State Institute for International Relations — supposedly a public university, open only to those with the best grades — you just have to pay the right person $20,000 up front, and you’re in!
Such practices aren’t limited to authoritarian states. The world’s largest democracy has a chronic problem with corruption in the higher-education system. The most notorious case India has produced so far was the Vyapam scam in the state of Madhya Pradesh. The BBC took stock in 2015, three years after the first revelations came to light:
Some 2,530 people have been accused since 2012. Around 1,980 people have been arrested; and 550 people are still sought by police. Twenty courts in Madhya Pradesh are looking into 55 cases registered in connection with the scandal.
Varsity Blues seems pretty modest compared to this. Still, an Indian newspaper commentator reacted to the revelations from America like this: “What happens in India, happens in U.S. too.”
It’s hard to blame him. After all, the participants in the U.S. admissions fraud also systematized cheating on standardized tests to help their clients get into the right colleges — even if their methods look pretty primitive compared with some used elsewhere. India’s own “cheating mafia” is notorious for its sophistication and reach. Turkey’s Gulenist organization, an Islamist group that has now been condemned for its alleged involvement in a 2016 coup attempt, used its members inside the education bureaucracy to supply exam answers to children from its network of private schools. And China’s notoriously high-pressure university entrance exams, the gaokao, has inspired a seemingly endless stream of amazingly sneaky cheating schemes.
But why go to so much trouble? The answer is simple. The right university degree offers a pathway to social status, intellectual respectability and better jobs. That’s why diploma mills, which churn out impressive-sounding scholarly credentials for a price, resist all attempts to root them out. It also explains why politicians in countries from Spain to Malaysia keep getting caught for claiming degrees they never really earned. (Vladimir Putin is probably the highest-ranking public official to have been found to have plagiarized a dissertation — a discovery that somehow didn’t prompt his resignation, as it might have elsewhere.)
There is a glimmer of hope, though. Many people around the world — not just those appalled by the Varsity Blues revelations — still seem to understand that gaming higher-education systems isn’t just morally wrong but also potentially damaging to their fellow citizens. (Which Indian would want to be treated by a doctor from Madhya Pradesh?)
Americans once aspired to higher ideals. It’s sad to think that it’s the cheaters in the world who can now cite us as models.