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A modest proposal to fix elite college admissions after the scandal

Worse than the bribery is that elite schools admit almost no poor kids.

Harvard’s campus, viewed from the Charles river.
The Dunster House dorm at Harvard. We should probably specify that Harvard isn’t implicated in the admissions scandal but, uh, there but for the grace of God go they.
John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

The least surprising revelation of the great American college bribery scandal that came to light a couple of weeks ago is that elites are willing to spend truly extraordinary amounts of money to get their kids into brand-name schools — by any means necessary, in this instance.

Actress Lori Loughlin spent some $550,000 to get her daughter, Olivia Jade, into the University of Southern California. A Yale soccer coach got $400,000 to falsely claim a student as a recruit. And now the 50 indictees in the case are working their way through federal court.

The revelation of corruption isn’t too surprising; the American upper-class’s obsession with college admissions and willingness to spend hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, to rig the system is well-documented. Jared Kushner got his acceptance letter from Harvard after his father gave the school $2.5 million.

But the ironic lesson of the scandal is that the kids whose parents have the resources to engage in this kind of bribery are exactly the kids least likely to benefit.

As the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson recently explained, the best research we have (much of it conducted by Alan Krueger, who passed away recently) suggests that attending a selective school does little or nothing in economic terms for the average male student. Their earnings are similar to those of male students who were admitted to selective schools but did not attend.

Women who attend do better — but not because they earn higher wages. They’re less likely to leave the labor force upon marriage or child-bearing, which drives basically the entire earnings benefit.

But one group does benefit economically: poor students. A 2017 paper by a murderer’s row of elite economists — Raj Chetty, John Friedman, Emmanuel Saez, Nicholas Turner, and Danny Yagan — found that elite schools are pretty good at getting the poor kids they teach into the top 20 percent of the income distribution, and astoundingly good at getting them into the top 1 percent.

At Harvard, more than half of students born into families in the bottom fifth of the income scale reached the top 20 percent of earnings ($58,000 a year for adults their age), and about one in eight got into the top 1 percent ($197,000 a year) by age 32 to 34.

Stanford did even better: 18.5 percent of bottom-quintile attendees were in the top 1 percent.

But there’s a problem: These schools teach barely any poor kids. As of the class of 2013, only 4.5 percent of Harvard students came from the bottom fifth, or families making $20,000 or less. At Yale, it was only 2.1 percent.

That to me suggests these schools need to be enrolling a lot more poor students.

Let’s increase the number of poor students at elite colleges

There are a bunch of simple methods these schools could use to bring in more poor kids.

Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby and the University of Virginia’s Sarah Turner conducted a large-scale randomized study where they sent mailers to high-scoring high schoolers in poor households offering information on applying to highly selective schools, including advice on crafting an application, a waiver of application fees, and information on the net cost of attendance. They found that the intervention, which costs a mere $6 per student, made students 46 percent likelier to enroll in a selective school.

More recently, University of Michigan economist Susan Dynarski and her colleagues found that offering qualified poor kids a free application to UMich, along with an assurance that their income level entitles them to free tuition, more than doubled applications to the school.

One worry some skeptics might flag is that admitting many more poor kids could dilute these mobility effects. Maybe, but the evidence suggests not. Friedman told me in 2017 that the authors examined schools where the share of poor kids enrolled rose over time (most notably Harvard, which saw a big jump in low-income enrollment between 1998 and 2002), and checked to see if they became less successful at elevating those kids economically.

The answer was … not really. He estimated that, say, Princeton could enroll six times as many poor students while barely changing its effectiveness at making poor kids rich.

So let me suggest a modest proposal. Rich white families seem dedicated to spending lots of money getting their kids into places like Harvard (which, to be clear, isn’t implicated in the college bribery scandal). Harvard should let them do that — set aside, say, 20 percent to 30 percent of each class to these rich kids, auctioned off at market prices. Maybe you can set an SAT minimum if Harvard wants to retain whatever dignity it still commands (I suggested a lottery system with an SAT minimum when I went there).

The rest of the class would be devoted to bright kids of modest means, with heavy preferences for people in the bottom half of the income scale, and a set-aside for poor kids from developing countries. The auction proceeds should be enough to offer all non-auction students the ability to attend tuition-free.

I’m not the only one saying this, by the way. Michael Cappucci, a senior executive at the company in charge of managing Harvard’s endowment, asked in a LinkedIn post, “Why do we have a system where wealthy parents have to make shady payments to even more shady intermediaries to get their kids into college? Why don’t the colleges just auction off a certain number of spots each year?”

If it really wanted to expand the school’s impact on poverty and mobility, Harvard could dramatically expand to have 10,000 or 15,000 or even 20,000 undergrads. It would be a very different undergraduate experience, and might reduce some of the social network effects that make the school effective at providing opportunity to poor kids. But America’s elite schools educate far fewer people than, say, Canada’s (the University of Toronto educates over 43,000 undergrads at a time) and could afford to do quite a bit more.

As one of Harvard’s more famous professors, John Rawls, once argued, inequalities can sometimes be justified if their existence is harnessed to benefit the worst-off among us. This plan strikes me as fitting that bill. The admissions process is corrupt. We might as well use that to expand access to elite school’s resources for poor Americans, and poor people the world over.

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