Friday , October 18 2019
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Eye of the needle, again (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

Summary:
The US college admissions scandal is rolling on, seemingly endlessly. There’s been a lot of discussion of moral decay, hypocrisy and more. But no one seems to have mentioned the central point. The number of places in the Ivy League and similar schools has remained almost unchanged for decades, even as the demand for those places has been swelled by a wide range of factors, most notably by the growth in all forms of inequality, which is mediated in part by unequal access to education. Parents who want their children to maintain their position in the scale, or climb upwards, need to facilitate that access if they can. There’s no fair way of allocating that limited set of places*, and, even if there were, the existing system is full of arbitrary roadblocks to some and loopholes

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The US college admissions scandal is rolling on, seemingly endlessly. There’s been a lot of discussion of moral decay, hypocrisy and more. But no one seems to have mentioned the central point. The number of places in the Ivy League and similar schools has remained almost unchanged for decades, even as the demand for those places has been swelled by a wide range of factors, most notably by the growth in all forms of inequality, which is mediated in part by unequal access to education. Parents who want their children to maintain their position in the scale, or climb upwards, need to facilitate that access if they can.

There’s no fair way of allocating that limited set of places*, and, even if there were, the existing system is full of arbitrary roadblocks to some and loopholes for others. The standard way of allocating scarce goods in a market system is through willingness to pay, and that plays a big role in the process. But since an open market isn’t an option, willingness to pay isn’t enough on its own, and can’t be tied to directly to the admission decision. What you want, as this story says of Harvard is “well-off, multi-generational Harvard families [who] pay higher tuition and give more money” (ideally over a long period). Unsurprisingly, parents with money, but without the required social access have sought more direct methods of buying a way in for their children.

Catching and prosecuting a few parents isn’t going to change this, and neither is any reform of the admissions system. The problem can only be resolved by reducing inequality in society as a whole, and particularly, by increasing access to high quality post-school education. I have no clear idea how this goal should be pursued in the US, given the stratification entrenched in the system. Given the numbers involved, there’s a strong case for focusing on free access and more funding for community colleges, ideally with a transition path to four-year institutions. But I don’t understand the system well enough to know whether this would work. Regardless, the US case provides a warning for countries like Australia, where the leading universities (the so-called “Group of 8”) are keen to put more distance between themselves and the rest.

  • An system based solely on test scores, such as the SAT, would not be as obviously arbitrary as the current one. But it would clearly favor those with the resources to get test prep tutoring and so on. The Japanese example is not encouraging, at least from a distance.
John Quiggin
He is an Australian economist, a Professor and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland, and a former member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government.

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