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The college admissions crisis is structural

On May 1st, news finally broke regarding the identity of the former Stanford student who was expelled as part of the fallout surrounding the college admissions scandal. It is certainly good gossip material, because some of the details are truly breathtaking. The full story reads like a TMZ expose in just how juicy it gets, but a quick recap: The parents of the student expelled from Stanford roughly a month ago in connection with the admissions scandal paid an extraordinary $6.5 million to Rick Singer, the mastermind behind the entire scandal.

How did they get this money? The student’s father is a billionaire and one of the wealthiest men in China, having amassed his fortune through a pharmaceutical company that keeps getting caught cheating its customers by making faulty drugs, which they then got approved by bribing drug regulators. We know this because one of those regulators, the Chinese equivalent of the head of the FDA, was tried, found guilty of taking these bribes and executed.

The specific aspects of this case are extremely helpful for putting into non-hypothetical terms the full range of ethical issues behind the admissions scandal. But, we also cannot let the fact that there is now a name and a face to the scandal (at least at Stanford) distract us and allow the scandal to become solely personal, because it is not. We could pretend that every grotesque aspect of this sordid affair can be attributable to the foibles of the one man who paid the bribe or the one man who facilitated it — the sensationalistic news coverage would have you believe as much — but we would be deluding ourselves. There are plenty of other people with obscene amounts of money that no one person ought to be able to have. There are plenty of heads of pharmaceutical companies who have done things that are significantly more odious (i.e. starting the entire opioid crisis). And, there are plenty of rich people who have used “donations” to get their kids into elite colleges, both illegally (as in this scandal) and through legal channels (just off the top of my head: Jared Kushner’s dad).

On some level, this is the scandal we deserve. Since we permit a system of college admissions that considers factors other than merit (for example, legacy status), we cannot then act shocked when the system admits students based on factors other than merit. Since we permit a system that allows people to profiteer off supposedly one of the world’s noblest professions, healing the sick, we cannot then act shocked when those profiteers then try to cut corners on the quality of our lifesaving remedies and bribe officials to keep it quiet, and we certainly cannot act shocked when they make billions doing it. Since we already permit a system that allows a single person to control more wealth than hundreds of millions of people and be so rich that a few million dollars feels like chump change, we cannot then act shocked when they spend that chump change on something that benefits them.

In other words, the scandal reflects systemic failures created through our own negligence and our passive consent — at the very minimum, that is, because there are plenty of folks who disagree that these are issues that need fixing. I know plenty of people, some of whom are dear friends, who are fine with pharmaceuticals being made by for-profit companies, or with the existence of billionaires or even with legacy preferences in college admissions — but that’s beside the point. What is undeniable is that if we set up a system where there exists back doors for people willing to pay obscene sums and where people are allowed to make those obscene sums through less-than-ethical means, there will be a perverse incentive to take advantage of such a system by anyone who has the opportunity to. That’s exactly why the admissions scandal has implicated so many. Indeed, while so many aspects of this case — especially the eye-popping size of the bribe — are so extraordinary to us, there is also nothing out of the ordinary about this particular bribe. This wasn’t the product of a particularly bad person, but was rather just another rational actor following their incentive structures.

This is not to excuse this particular incident or diminish its shocking details — far from it. But, it is easy to make a judgment on the details of this particular case: Of course bribery is wrong, of course it’s terrible that the money for this bribe was made — but these are easy pronouncements to make. So long as we focus on the particular details of this case, we miss the more difficult but horrifying fact that unless we have systemic changes in, if not our society, then at minimum our admissions system, none of this will change. There will be another rich parent paying an obscene sum to bribe their child into an elite institution. The parent will probably not be Chinese, they will probably not have made their fortunes in pharmaceuticals, and they probably will try to make the “donation” through legal channels in light of recent events — but none of that matters. What really matters is how this so-called meritocracy can be saved before it consumes itself through hypocrisy and bribery.

Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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