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John Oliver rips apart the insane math of the Miss America contest

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 Miss America pageant is a deeply silly spectacle premised on the objectification of women. It's easy — and correct — to knock them for that, as John Oliver does ably in the first portion of this segment from last night. But even the pageant's critics would likely be inclined to grant that its promotion of higher education through scholarships is beneficial, however gross the selection criteria.

Not so fast. Oliver and the team at Last Week Tonight did the research and found that the pageant's claim of making available $45 million a year in scholarships to contestants doesn't come anywhere close to being true.

In 2012, the Miss America Foundation and Miss America Organization, the pageant's nationwide bodies, spent $482,000 on scholarships — $44.5 million or so short of their claim. Oliver et al then tried to pull every state-level pageant's tax records, got 33 states', and their combined scholarship spending didn't come close to reaching $4 million, let alone the $45 million claimed.

The math used by the pageants to generate higher scholarship figures is pretty astounding. Pennsylvania's pageant counted the cash value of four schools' scholarships offered to the winner, despite the fact that she obviously couldn't take all four. Alabama's claimed to offer $2,592,000 in scholarships to Troy University, which they got by multiplying the $54,000 value of the scholarship by 48, the number of scholars who could theoretically get it. The number who actually claimed the scholarship? Zero.

We've reached out to the Miss America Organization for comment, and will update if and when we get it.

Update: Here's the Miss America Organization's official comment. It's … underwhelming:

John Oliver reaffirmed that the Miss America Organization (MAO) is the largest scholarship organization for women when he stated the number of scholarship dollars claimed ‘…is more than any other women-only scholarship we could find.’

We highlight the impressive, generous $45 million in scholarships made available in an effort to honor every one of our academic partners nationwide who make available cash and in-kind financial opportunities to the MAO and young women who participate in the program. Each year, more than 8,000 young women compete for scholarships through the volunteer, grassroots-driven Miss America pageant system in more than 950 local, state, and national competitions. These scholarships are awarded not just to winners of each pageant but to runners-up and participants.

As with any scholarship, the full amount awarded may not always be used as recipients’ plans change or evolve. The Miss America Organization works every day to administer these scholarships to young women across the country and encourages our participants to utilize these scholarships provided by colleges and universities nationally who partner to fund education.

The Miss America Organization is dedicated to improving the opportunities available to our program participants and remaining at the forefront of providing opportunities to women

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