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Why The College Cheating Scandal Proves The Meritocracy Largely Works


Everyone is talking about the recent indictment of Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin, and many others in an alleged scheme to bribe their kids’ way into college. It’s easy to understand why the story has sparked so much attention. The story combines elements of popular culture (celebrities!) with matters of serious public import, and some of the details are so bizarre as to be fodder for endless jokes and commentary.

While this commentary has varied, a common theme as emerged: meritocracy is a sham. This has been a common refrain from both the left and the right. In Vox, Libby Nelson writes that “underneath the celebrity gossip and the choice anecdotes is the inescapable conclusion that the whole business of being admitted to elite colleges in America in 2019 – and make no mistake, it is a business – is corrupt all the way down.”

In the Washington Examiner, Erin Dunne goes further; it’s not just college admissions, but the whole higher education system that is the problem: “That higher education has become a transnational exchange of money for credentials is nothing new. The new admissions fraud case involving actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman just made it more obvious.” On Twitter, Ross Douthat was more succinct. The “real function of meritocracy” he wrote, “is not the facilitation of upward mobility but the legitimation of a ruling class.”

I don’t want to downplay the real problems with higher education in this country. But I don’t think that the recent scandal does much to show that America’s meritocratic college system is broken or even seriously in need of repair. If anything, it shows just the opposite. What the cheating scandal shows is that it’s actually really hard to game the system and very few people can successfully do it.

To see what I mean, consider the movie “Ocean’s Eleven.” George Clooney’s character, Danny Ocean, hatches a plan to simultaneously rob three Las Vegas casinos. To do so, he assembles a team of 11 master thieves, con men, electronics experts, and acrobats. Together they execute a complicated and expensive scheme that, among other things, involves knocking out several blocks of the city’s power grid.

It’s a fun movie (let’s not talk about the sequels). But I suspect most people do not come away from watching “Ocean’s Eleven” thinking that casino security is lousy. Just the opposite. To the extent that the film accurately depicts casino security measures, successfully robbing a casino is all but impossible.

The same is true for the cheating scandal. Note the extreme lengths that the parents in the case had to go to get their kids accepted. Participants in the scheme allegedly spent hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions, of dollars, faked photos and back histories, and in some cases had stand-ins impersonate their children. The whole thing was elaborate and, more importantly, very expensive.

High prices are typically a sign of scarcity. If gaming the system were as easy as paying for tutors and test prep, the families could have done that for a small fraction of the cost. If getting into school was a matter of having the right social connections, Hollywood stars and bankers wouldn’t have to hire a shadowy company to bribe college tennis coaches to get them in.

On Twitter, much merriment was had over the fact that when the indictments were handed down one of the students involved (whose parents had allegedly bribed officials to get her admitted to the University of Southern California) was at a party on a yacht that happened to belong to the chairman of the USC board of trustees. Admittedly, that is kind of weird. Yet the important fact is that, whatever her social connections, she was apparently only able to get admitted because her parents paid a quarter of a million dollars in bribes.

It’s also worth noting that the way the parents were able to game the system of admissions was by exploiting exceptions to the general admission process by merit. One popular method used in the scheme was to get the students admitted as athletes, usually in lower-profile sports such as water polo.

The reason this tactic could be successful is that schools allow a small number of students to be admitted with lower test scores and grades if they are recruited by the school’s athletic programs. That’s not an indictment of meritocracy. To the extent that this tactic did work, it was self-limiting. A coach who filled his roster with fake players would soon be found out or fired for bad performance. The percentage of students who could get admitted in this way must therefore be vanishingly small.

Maintaining the proper perspective about the nature and scale of the problem the scandal reveals is important. There is already a growing movement to do away with testing as a means of academic selection.

Last year Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to eliminate testing for admission to New York City’s elite high schools. And there is a growing movement to move away from reliance on the Graduate Record Examinations in graduate school admission. These movements are premised on the idea that the wealthy can game the system through “test prep” and other methods, and no doubt the recent scandal will be used to bolster their arguments.

Yet the irony is that the details of the scandal suggest testing is the hardest part of the system to successfully game. In a world where test scores play a smaller role in admissions, it would be easier for the rich and powerful to rely on subjective factors or connections to get a leg up.

Given the importance, both economically and socially, of admission to elite colleges, it is not surprising that some parents would go to extreme lengths to secure admission for their kids. But the existence of a few cheaters does not prove the entire system is rigged in favor of the wealthy. If anything, the fact that the rich and powerful need to go to such lengths to secure a few spots suggests that the system mostly works.