But you might say: They did it all for a worthy cause — their children’s welfare. Gulp, the real lesson is that you get ahead by cheating, exploiting privilege and covering it up. That’s just the opposite of what we should be teaching.
Fortunately, there’s a morally acceptable and practical exit from this ethical swamp: Auction off some of those scarce spots. To the highest bidders go the admissions places.
Most people are bound to react: Are you nuts? We don’t want a system that rewards wealth. True, but that’s what we have now, and human nature being what it is, we won’t eliminate the effects of parental wealth and influence. The best we can do is to force the wealthy to pay more for their good fortune.
In this light, an auction doesn’t look so bad. Everyone, or almost everyone, wins. Colleges say they need more revenue; this supplies it. Parents want their kids to go to the “best” school; some get their wish. Most important, the process is an open one with publicized rules that are in stark contrast to today’s system, which encourages deceit, unfairness and illegality.
Here’s how such a system might work.
First, it would apply only to schools with dramatic gaps between applicants and open spots. Harvard and Stanford reject 95 percent of their applicants, Columbia 94 percent and MIT 93 percent. These huge rates imply that many of the rejected are equally qualified with those who were accepted. But for many colleges, the problem is not too many applicants; it’s too few. My proposal doesn’t apply to them.
Second, the auction of admissions slots would cover only a small part of the student body — say, 10 percent to 15 percent. Colleges want to raise revenue, but it’s not their only interest. Limiting the auction spots suggests there would be little or no erosion in the quality of students (see above). Just because some students have wealthy parents doesn’t mean they’re stupid — often an unspoken assumption.
Third, to ensure student quality, applicants would be prescreened. Only those who meet the school’s high academic standards would be included in the auction pool. Suppose that College A has an incoming class of 1,000 and wants 100 of those spots filled by auction. Assume also that 400 students apply for the auction spots, but the admissions office determines that only 300 are suitable for the school. The bottom 100 would not be eligible for auction, no matter how high their prospective bid. Altogether, 300 students would not get into College A.
Fourth, there would be no bargaining. The award of admissions spots would be strictly determined by the price offered. This would eliminate one potential source of corruption. “Legacy” admissions preferences for the children of alumni would also be eliminated. All winning bids would be required to pay. Assume that an applicant applies to Yale, Stanford, Harvard and MIT — and gets into all four. She picks MIT. But Mom and Dad would still have to foot the bill for Yale, Stanford and Harvard. The reason for this requirement is that, without it, the system would be flooded with strategically placed bids that would corrode public confidence. However, students would be free to apply for regular admissions to other schools.
Finally, if the auction revenue went to scholarships for the poor and the middle class, the result could be more, not less, equality. Every effort should be made to keep the recipients of these auction awards confidential, though this would be difficult. There would also be other problems: Some alumni would surely continue to operate outside the process. My system is hardly ideal. To improve matters, colleges and universities would be required to publish information about their auctions — the number of applicants, the median and average bids, and the distribution of bids.
We have the opportunity to replace a corrupt and confusing system with something a little less corrupt and confusing. But of course we won’t take it. The optics are all wrong. It seems to favor the rich when, in reality, it does just the opposite.