Poison Ivy League: Is It Actually Worth It to Cheat Into the Elite?

Actresses Felicity Huffman (L) and Lori Loughlin are among 50 people indicted in a nationwide university admissions scam, court records unsealed in Boston on March 12, 2019 showed.
Actresses Felicity Huffman (L) and Lori Loughlin are among 50 people indicted in a nationwide university admissions scam, court records unsealed in Boston on March 12, 2019 showed. LISA O'CONNOR,TOMMASO BODDI/AFP/Getty Images

In the 2013 TV movie A Mother’s Rage, Lori Loughlin is taking her daughter to college, only to be chased around by a carjacker. “She will keep her daughter safe… at any cost!” the tagline blares. And that’s what Loughlin and her fellow elites from Hollywood, the business world and others thought they were doing: cheating to get their kids into prestigious colleges to keep their kids “safe,” at least safely in the upper class. But they might have saved their money, because it’s not clear if all that money would have actually bought the best for their kids.

The Myth of the Elite College

Clearly, the dominant myth is that elite colleges are something worth cheating to get into. “The Ivy League colleges are usually regarded as the pinnacle of the academic system, conferring on their graduates privileged access to the most rewarding social positions,” writes Richard Farnum in an essay published in the book The High Status Track: Studies of Elite Schools and Stratification.

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“Entrance to these elite colleges and universities is largely contingent on the manifestly universalistic grounds of scholastic performance or other achievements, and their differential ranking is to a large extent governed by precisely such criteria,” Farnum continues in the book, edited by Paul W. Kingston and Lionel S. Lewis. “The best colleges are inhabited by the best scholars and attract the best students, who are admitted mostly according to their academic merits.”

Such a myth of earned selectivity has been severely punctured by the recent FBI raids that have snared rich and famous parents trying to break the rules to get their kids into elite colleges, a mission dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues.”  But do these vaunted institutions guarantee success to their graduates?

The Harvard Effect… Is It So Effective?

In a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research (the same group that officially defines recessions), Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger titled their research “Estimating the payoff to attending a more selective college: an application of selection on observables and unobservables.” But it’s really a focused look at what they call “The Harvard Effect.” They found “that students who attended more selective colleges do not earn more than other students who were accepted and rejected by comparable schools but attended less selective colleges.”

So where should these famous, potentially felonious, fathers and mothers have sent their kids to school? Conservative commentator Thomas Sowell has some ideas. In his book Economic Facts and Fallacies, he points out that small liberal arts colleges like Grinnell, Harvey Mudd, Swarthmore and Reed, have outperformed graduates of elite schools. “Of the chief executive officers of the 50 largest American corporations surveyed in 2006, only four had Ivy League degrees,” Sowell noted.

That fits with Dale and Krueger’s results showing that private college attendance can make a difference. They write “the average tuition charged by the school is significantly related to the students’ subsequent earnings. Indeed, we find a substantial internal rate of return from attending a more costly college.”

Students enter the Admissions Building on the campus of Harvard University.
Students enter the Admissions Building on the campus of Harvard University. Glen Cooper/Getty Images

The Advantage of Liberal Arts College

But why is that the case? If you’ve taught in college, you probably know why. At my liberal arts college, between 60 to 80 percent of our annual evaluation is based upon our teaching. Only about 10 to 30 percent of the remainder is dedicated to research and publishing, while a similar score is assigned to our service to the college and community.

Elite universities demand elite publishing records. Terms like “publish or perish,” dictate that the average professor at these institutions must spend the bulk of their existence writing, leaving little time for classes and students. The courses are likely to be managed by graduate assistants who have to spend a lot of their time writing lengthy dissertations.

In the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, Seema Rawat and Sanjay Meena write, “Academic institutions and university frequently use the number of publication to an individual’s credit as the measure of competency. Administrators are increasingly using this as the criteria during recruitments. Scholars, who publish infrequently or who focus on activities that does not result in publications like instructing undergraduates, may find themselves out of contentions for many teaching positions.”

If my daughter was accepted to one of the elite colleges or a liberal arts college with similar funding, I’d advise her to consider the quality of the education more than the name-brand of the university.

You’ll find some state universities, dubbed “Research I” universities, which behave the same way as the elite colleges when it comes to focusing on student learning. But you can find professors, even whole institutions, who will care about their teaching and will find ways to navigate the demands of the publishing world to deliver a good education to their students. Finding them should be the focus of your college search, not how many Google hits a school gets.

“To high-strung affluent parents, well-compensated counselors, and other members of the elite-admissions industrial complex: Just relax, okay? You are inflicting on American teenagers a ludicrous amount of pointless anxiety,” wrote Derek Thompson for The Atlantic in an article published in December of 2018, before the scandal broke. “Even if you subscribe to the dubious idea that young people ought to maximize for vocational prestige and income, the research suggests that elite colleges are not critical to achieving those ends. In the aggregate, individual characteristics swamp institutional characteristics. It’s more important to be hardworking and curious than to receive a certain thick envelope.”

Don’t get me wrong. There are great students graduating from these elite colleges. But you can also find good graduates at liberal arts colleges and state universities as well. If you’re a college student, focus on the learning and let the earning take care of itself. You don’t need a big-name school to succeed in life.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia—read his full bio here. Poison Ivy League: Is It Actually Worth It to Cheat Into the Elite?