Americans believe in meritocracy in principle. Polls show that significant majorities — between 67% and 70% since Gallup began asking the question in 2003 — believe that, when it comes to university admissions, “applicants should be admitted solely on the basis of merit”.
The most successful Broadway show in living memory, Hamilton, is an exuberant celebration of a self-made man — the first US Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, who was born into poverty (“a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman”) but indefatigably read, wrote and fought his way to the top.
Unlike his wealthy rival Aaron Burr, Hamilton isn’t admitted to Princeton and has to settle for King’s College (now Columbia University). It doesn’t matter. Hamilton gets “a lot farther by working a lot harder / By being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter”. Nothing can stop this young, scrappy, hungry prodigy from “rising up”.
Yet in practice Americans don’t believe in meritocracy at all. Plenty of wealthy Americans have no problem with the idea of hereditary privilege, as long as they are spared the social obligations of traditional aristocracy. At the same time many educated Americans support and practise systematic racial discrimination — even if they justify today’s “affirmative action” as a form of redress for past discrimination. The result is the corrupt and inequitable system of undergraduate admissions at the elite universities.
Last week the Department of Justice accused 50 people in six states of a “racketeering conspiracy” to get patently undeserving candidates into colleges including Yale, Stanford, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Southern California (USC). Among the parents charged were the actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, the fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli.
At the heart of the racket was William Singer, the founder of the “Edge College & Career Network”, also known as “the Key”. Wealthy parents paid Singer to help their talentless and/or idle offspring cheat on standardised tests or fake athletic prowess. He bribed test administrators and college coaches. He also falsified students’ family histories and biographies to take advantage of quotas for racial minorities.
“There is a front door of getting in [to college] where a student just does it on their own,” Singer explained in court last Tuesday, “and then there’s a back door where people go to institutional advancement and make large donations, but they’re not guaranteed in . . . I created a side door that guaranteed families to get in.”
Loughlin and her husband allegedly paid $500,000 (£380,000) to get their two daughters, Olivia and Isabella, accepted as recruits for the USC rowing team, even though neither had ever knowingly held an oar. If shamelessness were a varsity sport, Olivia would have deserved a full scholarship. A well-known social media “influencer”, who plugs fancy footwear and dental aligners on Instagram and YouTube, she had the gall to admit in a video that she was going to college solely for “game days, partying”, because “I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know”.
Welcome to the fake-it-ocracy. Remember, this side door came into existence because the back door of a fat donation — like the $2.5m paid by Jared Kushner’s father to Harvard — just isn’t 100% reliable.
It took me a while to figure the system out after I moved from British to American academia. At Cambridge and Oxford I had been directly involved in undergraduate admissions. I and my colleagues read the application forms, the sample essays and the answers to what remained of the old entrance examination. We spent long days interviewing the candidates.
The Oxbridge system has long been criticised for admitting too few pupils from state schools or ethnic minorities, but I did not regard my role as that of a social engineer. My goal was to pick the cleverest students, regardless of all other criteria, and my main preoccupation was to separate the truly bright from the well coached. I did not care if they could row or tap-dance. I wanted intelligence, because I would have to teach these people for three years and the last thing I wanted was to spend hours of my life with dunderheads.
Harvard was different. At first, naively, I couldn’t understand why a substantial proportion of my new students were there, as — to judge by their mid-term exam papers — they wouldn’t have stood a chance of an interview at Oxford, never mind a place. It was explained to me that a substantial chunk of undergraduates were “legacies” — there because their parents were alumni, especially generous alumni — and another chunk were the beneficiaries of affirmative action or athletics programmes. The admissions system was managed by professional administrators, not professors.
Later, when I saw evidence that Harvard and other colleges were discriminating against Asian applicants — whose share of the total undergraduate body ought to have been rising on the basis of their numbers and superior performance in standardised tests — I wrote an essay lamenting the decline of meritocracy in America.
This, too, was naive. For the reality is that meritocracy as an ideal is fatally flawed. Nepotism will always find a way through, no matter how tough the tests. There have been times when even I have been tempted to pull a string or improve an essay for my own children. Admirably, they have spurned such offers.
The social scientist Charles Murray has argued that a cognitive elite has emerged in America because smart women meet smart men at places such as Harvard, get married and have smart children. But if not everyone at Harvard is smart, the theory is weakened. There’s also the biological reality that smart parents don’t necessarily have smart children. Even if they do, parental wealth corrupts offspring, eroding their work ethic. Sooner or later, money starts to override merit. Outright racketeering is remarkable only because there are so many legal ways to get mediocre students into the Ivy League.
The law of unintended consequences is history’s only law. The more the admissions criteria to elite colleges have been distorted, the faster the ideology of “intersectionality” has spread across campuses, with highly disruptive results. Last week students at Sarah Lawrence College held an occupation to demand (among other things) that a professor, Samuel Abrams, have his position “reviewed” — by them. His crime? He wrote an article in The New York Times pointing out that university administrators are overwhelmingly liberal or progressive in their politics.
This is not to predict that Olivia Giannulli will go from fake to woke. But she would do well to consider it. The best form of protection from the social justice warriors is to become one. And, guys, just imagine all those new followers on Instagram!
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford