To Understand The History Of Elite College Admissions, Just Follow The Money

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Yale University students join in a Frisbee game Wednesday, April 10, 1974. (Bob Child/AP)
Yale University students join in a Frisbee game Wednesday, April 10, 1974. (Bob Child/AP)

A federal judge has delayed the hearing for actress Lori Loughlin and her husband until next month in the recent college admissions bribery case. They'll appear in court April 3 on charges that they paid $500,000 in bribes to get their daughters into the University of Southern California.

The scandal has left many unsurprised, though, and has brought greater attention to the fairness of the college application process. The case also begs the question of whether or not those with money and influence have always had an unfair advantage.

Historians Ed Ayers and Brian Balogh, who bring a historical perspective to the case, think so.

“Rich people have gotten their kids into college for, well, pretty much the history of colleges,” Balogh (@historyfellow) tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson. “That is the baseline.”

Since the beginning of higher education in the U.S. in the 17th century, colleges have been tailored to the rich, say Ayers and Balogh, co-hosts of the podcast "BackStory," produced at Virginia Humanities. Harvard and lots of other schools at the time were established to create an educated clergy, but then expanded into other professions, like law.

“The trick was that you had to know Latin and Greek and often Hebrew to go to them,” says Ayers (@edward_l_ayers), “which gives you some idea of who they're made for.”

Interview Highlights

On the history of land grant colleges and how they allowed rural and lower-income people to get a higher education

Ed Ayers: “We create[d] land grant colleges [in] 1862. The great vision of colleges for rural people: that every state would be given land on which they could build a university.”

Brian Balogh: “And that really distinguished us, didn't it, Ed? That was just different about America.”

Ayers: “It's a great advantage of the federal system, that everybody gets something. ... All the big universities that you think of — University of Michigan, Michigan State, all of those places — are land grants and so that changed everything. And it was meant to change everything. It was meant to say that college is for everyone and not just people who speak ancient languages. [They were] for people who want to be excellent farmers, and they were famously inexpensive, relatively easy to get into, including for women. And in fact this is one of the great democratic innovations in all of American history.”

On the advent of historically black colleges and schools for women


Ayers: “Those were created in the wake of emancipation all across the South. And so, you'd have people who had been born into slavery, who were then going to college. ... We think about Booker T. Washington. It opens the doors for all of these people, so you have these parallel tracks toward democracy, and you're also having colleges for women being created at this time as well. So, in the late 19th century, early 20th century, it looks as if college is going to be really something everybody can benefit from.”

Balogh: “That's absolutely right. But everyone was really not all that many people. A lot of people just didn't see the reason to go to college, and one of the limiting factors that we usually don't think about is, before you go to college, you need to go to high school. And most Americans didn't really start getting high school degrees until around the time of World War II.”

On when college began to be seen as a prestigious place that could secure one’s future, and how World War II opened the system up to people of different economic backgrounds

Ayers: “Well, that's been the case all along, right. What's new is not the exclusion, but rather the great opening, and that happens with World War II and the G.I. Bill. This is really what opened the door for a lot of lower-class white men, who would not have been able to have gone to college before, but suddenly, Uncle Sam is footing the bill, and it makes sense for them to go to college.”

Balogh: “And it caused all kinds of disruptions. Colleges weren't used to seeing this kind of college student. It really was very universalistic within the realm of white men, and I think we both want to emphasize white men, because even though African Americans served in the military and were veterans, they didn't have those high school degrees. They couldn't take advantage of this incredible benefit that the federal government was offering, and women did a lot to help the war, but not many of them qualified for veterans' benefits.”

On whether elite schools like Georgetown and Yale University deserve their prestigious reputations

Balogh: “I think they do if you measure them in terms of the income that you're going to make if you've gone to a place like this. People who go there make more money, but I don't think that's a great way to measure ... prestige. Even if you were a lowly history professor, you're not going to make nearly as much as the petroleum engineer who went to Oklahoma State, but if you're a history professor who went to Harvard, well, then that just conveys a kind of specialness that is out there in society. I'm not in any way saying it's deserved, but I think that's a real factor.”

Ayers: “It's also a real factor in terms of life partners and business partners. ... It matters enormously, and of course then you have networks within networks, so it's not enough to go to an Ivy League school — you have to be in the right dining club.”

Balogh: “It's network, not net worth. But the two are very much related.”

"If you're talking about building these networks, you need to capture as much of the talent in the country as possible, and people are finally beginning to realize that talent comes in all shapes and colors."

Ed Ayers

On diversity in college admissions

Ayers: “We are admitting the most diverse classes ethnically and in terms of gender in American history."

Balogh: “And in terms of country of origin.”

Ayers: “That's right too. We're the great magnet for international students. And here's the thing is that these colleges and universities are spending enormous amounts of money, mainly by redistributing the money of rich people who are paying full freight. A large part of the tuition of people who were paying 50 or 60 thousand dollars a year is plowed back into financial aid for others. And so, people have recognized that you're not going to be a prestigious university if you don't look like America. If you're talking about building these networks, you need to capture as much of the talent in the country as possible, and people are finally beginning to realize that talent comes in all shapes and colors.”

On what we should make of parents paying people to get their children into college

Balogh: “From any perspective, it's reprehensible. Let's just say that flat out. But I do think that we pile so many expectations on universities, on education in general. We expect them to solve gigantic social problems that really are well beyond the pale in terms of what they can do to educate.

“We do that because there is something that is not on the table through much of American history, and that's the r-word, which is redistribution. And so, because we're not willing explicitly to do things that would redistribute income, wealth and early opportunity — like where people live, where they go to school early on — we say, 'Oh, it's OK. This is all going to get solved by a better education system.' "

Ayers: “I think one of the expectations that people pile on colleges [and] universities is that it will somehow be a meritocracy, and in my best days, I believe it's as close to a meritocracy as we're going to get. But it also has a kind of a money laundering effect. What it means is that it doesn't really matter how you got there, including maybe buying your way in, but then you are seen as merited once you've graduated.

“So, at the same time it creates prestige, it makes the prestige seem earned, rather than purchased. And I think that's why this remarkable degree of outrage has met this relatively few number of people who were doing this, because it seems a violation of sort of the secular gospel of this country, which is that people deserve what they get.”

Savannah Maher and Ciku Theuri produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtJackson Cote adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on March 22, 2019.


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Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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