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  • Max Stearns

Why Corruption Matters

The print and social media are jammed with stories of corruption. The plea deals and resulting convictions pursuant to the Mueller investigation, some, but not all, of which implicate Donald Trump, are too numerous to recount. This past week’s disclosure of “Operation Varsity Blues,” the shocking FBI investigation into the pervasive college admissions bribery scheme, extends the culture of corruption into higher education. Thus far, 50 extraordinarily well-off persons—famous actresses, law firm partners, successful physicians, and the list goes on—engaged in a complex, and stunningly cynical, scheme, whereby they paid considerable sums, totaling millions of dollars, to ensure that their children, already of enormous wealth and privilege, manage to get just a little bit more through what Rick Singer calls "side door" elite college admissions. This is apparently only the tip of the iceberg. Singer, the head of The Edge College & Career Network and his so-called non-profit The Key World Foundation, claims that as many as 761 persons will be eventually be implicated in the larger scheme.

Some commenters claim that the overall college admissions system is rigged to favor the wealthy. One commentator has gone further, claiming the whole notion of academic meritocracy is misguided. These framings regard higher education writ large as a scheme benefiting wealthy elites at the expense of nearly everyone else. If the entire system is rigged and corrupt, there is little most ordinary people can do to fight back. It is someone else’s game. And yet, bracketing disagreements over some controversial aspects of general admissions policies, and focusing in a more laser-like way on this specific scandal, helps to explain the unique problem of actual corruption.

Understanding why corruption matters helps cabin arguments treating any and all admissions criteria beyond traditional academic credentials as proof that the overall system is, at best, rigged, and, at worst, an elaborate scheme of lawfully sanctioned bribery. Careful analysis demands distinguishing the merits of particular admissions programs, on one side, with the legitimacy of such programs, on the other. This is where corruption comes in.

Corruption is obviously immoral, unethical, and, yes, typically illegal. But the question is why. Consider the myriad “other” categories that go into complex college admissions decisions. Numerous non-merit, or perhaps alternative-merit criteria, influence elite admissions admissions processes. Such colleges and universities take into account not only academic performance, reflected in GPAs and high stakes test scores; they also consider demonstrated athletic talent, musical or other talents, development prospects, race, geography, work history, and countless other considerations. Ultimately, the most prestigious schools compete in conveying that they have managed, year in and year out, to assemble an impressive and diverse class demonstrating a remarkable array of talent and personal backgrounds, yet without relinquishing the most elite overall academic credentials.

Of course nothing in life is free. Competitive athletes, musicians, and performing artists dedicate thousands upon thousands of hours yearly perfecting their skills. Such accomplishment, and also diversity, often come in conflict with more narrowly constructed academic criteria reflected strictly in grades and high stakes testing. Only the most elite schools hold the rarified market positions that enable them to assemble such diverse talent and backgrounds while still achieving remarkably impressive published or advertised mean scores, or 25th and 75th percentiles, on GPA and SATs and ACTs, along with stunningly low ratios of acceptances to applications.

Elite schools, which manage to offer wide-ranging athletic programs, music programs, foreign language programs, performing arts programs; writing programs, and the list goes on, are rare. Just as biologists have identified evolved traits signaling “since I somehow thrived despite my plumage, just imagine how strong our offspring will be!” so too, elite schools reveal that their stunning plumage is not at the expense of conventional measures of aggregate academic achievement. And, not surprisingly, students, employers, graduate programs, and faculty take notice.

If the market rewarded elite schools for disregarding all but grades and test scores, surely some would take the bait. And yet, the most elite schools decline to ensure entering classes with just 1500-1600 SAT scorers or 35 and 36 ACT scorers in favor of more diverse and talented entering classes year in and year out, yet still with remarkably high aggregate scores. In doing so, such schools convey that students admitted based on additional considerations must be so extraordinary that the admissions office willingly accepts the tradeoff. Those who managed to get admitted competed against a vast field, and the eventual degree thus comes with added prestige, or so the story goes.

Corruption offends not merely because it affronts morality; it offends because it undermines the power of institutional signaling. When people pay to play, there is no longer a presumption that the admissions committee credibly assessed and weighed whatever strengths a particular applicant brings to the table against the weaker parts in her or his application. And, of course, all applicants have strengths and weaknesses. Instead, the corrupt admission is a product of something outside any accepted evaluative criteria that the university, employers, graduate schools, faculty, and, perhaps especially, prospective students accept as part of a legitimate and complex admissions process.

Although the context differs, the problem of political corruption is the same. Political signals are terribly noisy. Our two-party system exacerbates the already great challenge of messy political coalitions. The party duopoly presents bundled policy positions that are the product of a loose set of bargains affected by interest groups; federal, state, and local institutions; demographics, geography, ideology, and countless additional factors. Despite all the complexity and noise, as a general matter, each party historically coalesced around a set of policy positions—what political scientists call “ideal points”—comprising a vast array of salient political issues. When a presidential nominee or elected official advocates for or against any given policy position, observers generally infer that wherever that policy location happened to be, it is an inevitable product of negotiations and tradeoffs balancing considerations of principle, ideology, policy, and effect on votes, complex considerations that rarely, if ever, move in a single direction.

It’s no secret that politics is an often-dirty business, but when those running the government appear to be influenced by financial self-interest or that of family members, this too undermines meaningful signaling. Corruption takes away any presumption favoring generally accepted factors as drivers of critical policy tradeoffs. If a policy position derives from financial or other benefits to the politician, those frustrated with the choice have limited means of responding, especially if they do not know, or if they cannot prove it even when they do. Attempting to persuade political leaders that specific policy choices are unwise, or that they are simply unpopular, is beside the point if neither wisdom nor popularity was the basis for having made the policy choice in the first place.

Neither political nor educational institutions need be pristine for corruption to matter and to effect genuine harm. There is real value on all college campuses, not merely elite ones, in having students exhibiting a wide range of talents, interests, personal backgrounds, and demographics. Such considerations do not undermine an overarching commitment to academic merit as is indicated by the simple fact that the most elite colleges and universities elect to make those tradeoffs every day. Similarly, party platforms need not satisfy an ideological purity test to gain the support of voters who face a meaningful menu of packaged choices. But when we voters no longer assume that the reason for the choices made is a product of the usual complex and messy considerations that inform either admitting an entering college class or implementing a national policy, confidence in the complex signaling of our most valued institutions is undermined. The antidote to corruption is not perfection; it is legitimacy.

I welcome your comments.

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