Elite Colleges Don’t Understand Which Business They’re In

Top-tier universities are idea factories—but delude themselves into thinking they find the “best people.”

Harkness Tower at Yale University
Harkness Tower at Yale University (Michelle McLoughlin / Reuters)

Wealthy and famous institutions of higher learning, including the one where I work, are in a crisis of their own making. Universities exist for the production and dissemination of ideas, and make hiring and admission decisions toward that end. At the same time, elite educational institutions have irresponsibly positioned themselves as something entirely different: as the arbiters of applicants’ intrinsic merit. Like a soccer team scoring an own goal, they are hurting themselves with their clumsiness and overconfidence.

Soccer is the right analogy, as it happens. This week, the U.S. Justice Department unveiled 50 indictments in a brazen bribery scheme that, according to prosecutors, involved kickbacks to athletics coaches at Stanford, the University of Southern California, and a number of other competitive schools. At Yale, where I am on the faculty and supervise one of the undergraduate colleges, the former women’s soccer coach, who resigned in November, has pleaded guilty to wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. He had sought to arrange the admission of two would-be Yalies in return for cash.

The athletics bribery scandal is only the most recent embarrassing episode regarding university admissions. A trial over affirmative action at Harvard last fall revealed a number of awkward undergraduate-admissions policies, including “tips” for applicants with connections, a “dean’s interest list” for applicants with even more connections, and substantial traffic between the university’s fundraising office and its admissions department. In 2016, the basketball coach of the University of Pennsylvania pleaded guilty to engaging in essentially the same kind of bribery scheme federal officials have now uncovered again. (He now serves as the assistant basketball coach of the Boston Celtics.)

It’s easy to see why there is so much pressure on admissions at the most prestigious universities and colleges. Admissions rates have plummeted over the past generation. Stanford’s admission rate for the college class of 2022 was less than 4.5 percent. Princeton’s was 5.5 percent. At Yale Law School, where I teach, only 7 percent of an already narrowed-down applicant pool of the top undergraduates in the country get in. The odds are daunting. The stakes seem high. Understandably, students and parents want to know how the sorting happens. And this is where the self-inflicted wound of elite admissions comes in.

Admissions officers typically describe the selection process that winnows tens of thousands of applicants into an admitted class as essentially meritocratic. In the middle of the 20th century, leaders such as Henry Chauncey at Harvard and Kingman Brewster at Yale aimed to democratize college admissions and to turn college campuses from WASP-dominated aristocracies into little republics of merit. Laudable efforts to identify more students of color and first-generation students have doubled down on the meritocratic project.

Yet, a half century later, such efforts have culminated in a message that is as discouraging as it is untrue. The world’s richest and most famous university puts it plainly in its glossy admissions pamphlet this year: “We bring the best people to Harvard.”

Rarely has so reputable an institution made a more preposterous claim—“the best people”! What a cruel and narcissistic thing to say, especially because it is a mendacious description of what elite universities do. The Harvard affirmative-action trial showed what everyone already knew: that some students are admitted because of the money their families have donated or might donate. Impending litigation against other elite institutions may soon reveal that virtually every university adopts such admissions practices. (I have no inside knowledge about Yale’s practices or those of Columbia, where I taught for a decade.) The pretense that students are all selected for their merit, when some plainly are not, brings scorn upon institutions that claim to trade on truth. “Veritas,” reads the Harvard shield; “lux et veritas,” reads the shield here in New Haven.

The problem runs deeper. Observers understand intuitively the vast privileges afforded the children of highly educated parents in the race for ostensibly meritocratic virtues. Are these students’ high test scores a measure of merit? Surely they are also indicators of capacities for which students have only partial responsibility and control. Talent and merit are undoubtedly not the same thing, though educated elites often flatten out the differences in order to launder advantages into claims of moral worth.

As the head of one of Yale’s undergraduate residential colleges, I am surrounded by extraordinary students. They are brilliant and energetic and inspiring, and it is a privilege to work with them. But they are not better people and possess no more moral worth than their counterparts who did not get in. Few, if any, think otherwise. And as intelligent observers of the world, why would they?

Views ranging from cynicism to outrage now pass as conventional wisdom among well-informed observers of the admissions process at elite schools. All too often, elite institutions deserve such cynicism. Yale’s usually thoughtful president, Peter Salovey, responded to the bribery scandal by promising in a campuswide email to uphold the university’s “deeply held values of inclusion and fairness.” But elite higher education is neither inclusive nor fair. Inclusive? Top institutions reject nearly 95 percent of their applicants. Fair? Elite colleges and universities reject candidates with almost no attention at all to how morally deserving they are. They are manifestly ill-suited to make such judgments.

Still, Salovey’s message offers some insight into how elite institutions see their role in the world. In disavowing their past role as finishing schools for a blue-blood upper class, elite universities have mistaken an ostensibly meritocratic admissions process for their actual social function. The core of a university’s real mission is to produce and disseminate ideas; sorting and ranking applicants is just a means to an end. To fixate on the “best people” is like urging Human Rights Watch to maximize “likes” on social media instead of stopping human-rights abuses, or urging General Motors to value next year’s J.D. Power ratings over its long-term profits.

Scholars and teachers at American colleges and universities do a good job of generating ideas, if one believes the most authoritative rankings of the world’s best universities. Like other organizations in society—philanthropic foundations, business firms, government agencies—elite educational institutions pursue a mission and run themselves accordingly. Notwithstanding their rhetoric about meritocracy, admissions offices already make the pragmatic compromises necessary to cultivate—and pay for—good scholarship.

Universities have rightly increased the number of students of color, first-generation students, and international students among their admitted classes. There is every reason to think that institutions of higher education failed in their mission for too long by being parochial in terms of race, nationality, gender, and sexuality. By turning the corner on some of these failings, universities are expanding our supply of ideas.

By the same token, universities should not be embarrassed about the practice of admitting the children of generous alums or wealthy donors. Secretly, they understand exactly what they’re doing. Producing and disseminating knowledge is expensive. It produces social gains without corresponding revenue streams. If a university’s primary mission were really sorting the best from the rest, then admitting applicants based on cash would be a corrupt lie. But our mission is developing ideas. We should be no more embarrassed about that than the old Congregational churches of New England were when they sold pews to finance new church buildings.

Admitting classes of students because they help us add to the store of the world’s knowledge? Well, that’s common sense. Let’s just quit talking about “the best people.”