[Press Rogue] Grading on a Curve, by Kyle Paoletta | Harper's Magazine

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[Press Rogue]

Grading on a Curve


Early this week, the media pounced on the latest installment of Operation Varsity Blues, the investigation into what federal prosecutors have called the largest college admissions scam in American history, bringing renewed focus to the two B-list actors who have been implicated in the scheme. As the headlines in one leading newspaper put it: “Felicity Huffman and 13 Others to Plead Guilty in College Admissions Scandal” and “Lori Loughlin and 15 Others Face New Charges in College Admissions Scandal.” From another news-gathering operation: “Felicity Huffman to Plead Guilty for College Cheating” and “Lori Loughlin and Hubby Just Indicted for Additional Charge.” The first two headlines ran in the New York Times, the second two were splashed across the TMZ website. If not for the casual use of “hubby,” it would be hard to guess which headlines belonged to which outlet.

The Times kicked its Variety cosplaying up a notch later in the week, with an article whose headline is best read as a movie trailer voice-over: “Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman: 1 Scandal, 2 Actresses, Diverging Paths.” The paper compared Huffman’s “long, hand-wringing apology” and “somber” demeanor in court with Loughlin’s seeming “to approach her courthouse visits with an affect more common on the red carpet.” The Times’ analysis mirrored a CNN article from the day before, which reported that Huffman “took responsibility for her actions,” and reminded readers of the time last month when Loughlin invited a paparazzo who filmed her leaving yoga class to “follow me around all day if you want.” Huffman, the narrative goes, is hoping to race through the publicity crisis as efficiently as possible in hopes of salvaging her upcoming Netflix miniseries, whereas Loughlin is prostrating herself before the altar of All Publicity is Good Publicity. After the scandal broke, a number of outlets simply published lists of the indicted parents, creating a kind of courtroom red carpet. The Washington Post, for its part, published brief biographies of the accused that leaned heavily on celebrity, making a point of noting that Silicon Valley investor William McGlashan, Jr., once worked with Bono. Readers, apparently, are only prepared to care about the story because the accused are famous or fame-adjacent, never mind what they actually did.

By approaching the admissions scandal as a celebrity story, outlets like the Times and the Post are squandering an opportunity to highlight the massive iniquities of American higher education. Rather than think critically about who elite universities serve—a population that includes many top-flight journalists—national outlets seem to have accepted the framing that schools embroiled in the scandal have put forward. It’s a story about a few rotten millionaires and corrupt coaches, oddballs that can be easily excised, rather than an unjust system in full flower.

A couple publications deserve credit for trying to get beyond the haze of celebrity gossip. After the original indictments, the Chronicle of Higher Education polled twenty of the most selective universities in the country, asking if they were planning to “exert more oversight over how students are designated as athletic recruits” and if the scandal illuminated a “broader need for reform in selective admissions.” Only Dartmouth, Penn, and Johns Hopkins joined Yale (which figures prominently in Operation Varsity Blues) in pledging to reform athletic recruiting. Fifteen other schools either didn’t answer or demurred, while West Point stated that “no adjustments are expected.” To the second question, only seven colleges acknowledged a need for a holistic reevaluation.

The fact that a number of schools ignored the Chronicle’s questions speaks to a rot in the college admissions system which goes much deeper than athletic recruiting. As the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen sagely pointed out last month, were a foreign correspondent assigned to cover this story, she would have to spend the bulk of her column explaining the “exotic customs of American college admissions”—chief among them the “legacy” designation, what Gessen calls “the positively pre-modern concept that the right to an elite education is heritable.” Only then could she go on to establish why this particular intrusion was deemed unacceptable. In the past decade, the industry that offers private tutoring and test preparation to the children of plutocrats surged past $10 billion in revenue. And that’s just the academic side. As Gessen points out, it’s equally “essential for parents to be able to afford to pay for their children’s extracurriculars and sponsor their volunteerism.” Have a family that can’t afford club soccer fees or a summer trip to a health clinic in the developing world? Tough luck getting into Stanford.

In addition to the survey, the Chronicle interviewed the historian Jerome Karabel, author of “a 700-page exposé of the ways Ivy League colleges have quietly tinkered with their admissions formulas for decades.” Karabel echoed Gessen’s critique, noting that the investment in tutors, coaches, and counselors is an obvious example of “how privilege is perpetuated through generations.” Even more troubling, in his view, were the methods we “take for granted as normal, such as donating a building and getting special consideration for your child or grandchild.”

Indeed, the ongoing lawsuit against Harvard seeking to prove that its admissions system unfairly disadvantages Asian Americans has exposed a “Dean’s Interest List,” which includes prospective students related to donors who have made seven-figure gifts to the university. As the Harvard Crimson noted last year, for every class admitted between 2010 and 2015, the “Dean’s Interest List” and a similar list compiled by the university’s director of admissions accounted for one out of ten new students. Harvard came under fire again last week, when the Boston Globe reported that the home of the school’s fencing coach had been purchased at almost double its assessed value by the father of a prospective student in 2016; after the student was admitted, the father sold the house at a $324,500 loss. However indelicate, loathsome, or unethical, such practices remain perfectly legal.

As the Chronicle and the Globe have shown, there are a wide range of issues in higher education that deserve greater scrutiny. Going beyond the admissions system, this scandal could also serve as a chance for the country to reckon with the outrageous sticker price of an undergraduate degree—attending Columbia University in New York costs upwards of $300,000. Or it could be, as has largely been the case so far, a heel turn for a TV star from the Nineties, full of pining for wholesome “Aunt Becky.” The general disinterest in covering Operation Varsity Blues as part of a broader story is perplexing. It starts to make some sense, however, once one realizes that many of the journalists employed by the country’s most prominent newspapers are alumni of its most selective schools. A study published last year found that some 30 percent of staff writers at the Wall Street Journal had attended an Ivy League university. At the Times, the proportion was almost 40 percent.

Perhaps journalists’ willingness to spin this story away from the systemic inequality their alma maters perpetuate can be explained as misguided loyalty. Well, it’s time to unpin that Brown pennant from the wall and tuck that Princeton hoodie away in a drawer. Elite colleges are among our most powerful institutions. While many publications are content to limit their higher education coverage to an annual thinkpiece in September, the tremendous influence these schools have managed to accumulate in the past few decades requires a new, more diligent approach. If our premier journalists could shed their nostalgia for a moment, they might see the admissions scandal for what it is: an opportunity to completely reevaluate American higher education, to turn the nation’s elite colleges upside down and shake them. The process may prove uncomfortable for those whose careers in Washington and New York newsrooms began at those very schools, but it will surely be more consequential than whether or not Lori Loughlin gets to return to Fuller House.

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