Bill Hulet Editor


Here's the thing. A lot of important Guelph issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Operation Varsity Blue, or, the Delusion of Prestige

Over the weekend I watched a Netflix documentary about the College Admissions Scandal that was a big news story in 2019. I thought I'd do a quick review as a way of introducing another story I'm working and will publish next week---if possible.


Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal is a pretty good documentary about a pretty goofy problem in the USA. 

There some pretty big differences between higher education in Canada and the US, and some of them are intrinsic to this story. First off, unlike in Canada, there are a small number of universities in the USA that are considered "prestigious" and there is a great deal of competition to get into them. Secondly, again unlike here, admission to them is to a large extend based on two standardized tests called the SAT (this used to stand for Scholastic Aptitude Test, but now the acronym is understood to just be a name) and the ACT (American College Testing). Finally, college athletics are much, much, much more important in the US than they are in Canada. 

The story turns on the fact that there are a lot of teens from very wealthy families who want to get into the top prestigious schools but don't have the ACT or SAT scores to secure a spot. The parents are willing to pay to get a special "in" for their kids, so an industry has developed to help them. 

I'm not talking about expensive, private "prep schools" (ie: "preparation for college") that wealthy kids go to instead of public high schools. I'm not even talking about tutors that help children get a "leg up" over those that can't afford it. What I'm talking about are very expensive consultants whose only job is to walk a family through the admission process. Just to give you a feel for the industry, here's a table that I got from a website ranking what it considered the "best" of the pack---including some idea of how much they cost.

In addition to this, there is also a whole industry devoted to "coaching" students about how to do well in the standardized SAT and ACT tests. The price you can pay for this ranges from free on-line lessons from the Khan Academy non-profit to a $5700 package that includes one-on-one tutoring from Kaplan Test Prep

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The "bad guy" in the Varsity Blue scam is a fellow named Rick Singer, who had been a high-school basketball coach and move on to being one of these college admissions consultants. His claim to fame was that he realized that there were in effect two traditional ways someone could get into one of these "prestige" schools---and created a third.

The first is to just be a really good student. Singer called this "the front door". The second is by having filthy rich parents who can donate millions of dollars to the school. This is the "back door". What Singer realized was that there were two other ways to get in: hiring a ringer to write the SAT or ACT test for you, or, bribing an athletics coach to identify you as an elite athlete that he or she wants on the school team. He called these other options his "side door".

I won't go into the details, but it turns out that if you can bribe one of the proctors who oversees people writing a SAT or ACT test, they can fill out the test for you. And even if they don't actually know the answers themselves, a smart, experienced person can guarantee a very good score. 

As for bribing an athletic coach, there are a lot of "niche" sports like lacrosse, water polo, sailing, fencing, etc, at "prestige" schools. Almost no one follows these sports and they can be chronically under-funded. This means that no one will notice if you bring in a "nobody" as an undergraduate who never actually shows up for practice let alone in a game. Because the coaches are constantly scrambling to find enough money to continue to keep the sport alive, there is a huge incentive to play along with this scam because it means you can get the bucks necessary to meet payroll. And because the head of the college athletics department is generally only interested in the varsity teams that make big bucks for the school (ie: football and basketball), they simply won't care if the odd rich kid gets in the "side door" if that's what you need to do to keep the fencing program alive. (And, of course, if you can raise money this way for the program---there is a huge incentive to just pocket it for yourself!)

Singer got paid $25 million over seven years to help a relatively small number of teens get through his "side door" into the university they wanted.

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Watching this documentary it occurred to me that I'd come across this sort of thing before. Early on in Chinese history, the Imperial bureaucracy started holding examinations to pick the best possible people to fill administrative positions. And, if my read of Chinese literature in translation can be believed, a similar industry of tutors, exam coaches, and, exam ringers existed to ensure that the children of wealthy people got a "leg up" over the general public. The more things change, the more they stay the same.  😏

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The thing that really struck me about this story is its inherent absurdity. There are lots and lots of very good colleges in the United States. These kids could have found a perfectly good place to get a BA without having to cheat. And when they get to any school of higher learning, the quality of their education really does come down to what they do there. Moreover, as anyone who's been to university can tell you, undergraduate degrees are pretty much a dime a dozen. It's the graduate and professional degrees that really count on a resume---and you simply cannot "fake" or "scam" them.

What this means to me is that the key point isn't the education or the jobs that will flow out of the college that the students are seeking to get into. Instead, it's something totally intangible, the "prestige" that comes from it. As one of the experts quoted in the documentary explains, the word "prestige" originally meant 

"trick, illusion, imposture" (senses now obsolete), from French prestige (16c.) "deceit, imposture, illusion" (in Modern French, "illusion, magic, glamour"), from Latin praestigium "delusion, illusion".

This is where we get the words "prestidigitator" and "prestidigitation" that are used to describe stage magicians and stage magic, respectively. That's because originally prestige was assumed to be phony and illusory. It's only since the 19th century that the word signifies something of intrinsic value (except by Cynics like yours truly).  

As I see it, getting your kid into one of these universities is an example of what Thorstein Veblen call Conspicuous Consumption. That is, when someone buys something expensive or rare not because they think that they can use it or the extra cost has some intrinsic merit. Instead, they make the purchase simply to tell everyone around them that they can.  

I first came across this in my life back in 1978. I was a student and I met a young woman who told me about a little business that she and a friend had had while in high school. Her friend got very detailed, good quality models of horses and then put a great deal of effort into painting them so they looked very realistic. My friend's part of the gig was to make very detailed and accurate miniature leather saddles, bridles, etc, to go on the horse. When they'd finished they then sold them to a high-end fashion store in Toronto---Hermes---which resold them for ludicrously high prices. 

I'd never heard of this particular store, or even the concept of selling ludicrously rich gee-gaws to obscenely wealthy people. So Linda (my friend) showed me one of their catalogues. I remember seeing---of all things---an alligator skin chewing gum case for $75 (that's $310 in today's money). If memory serves, this was the cheapest thing in the entire collection! 

A second-hand (vintage?) Hermes chewing gum case on Amazon! Would you pay $300?

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This story is interesting mainly because the ordinary citizen has a great interest in and a deep contempt for the rich. This is a delicious story for us because it shows that money doesn't buy wisdom or even common sense. Beyond that, the subject really isn't important to anyone or anything. It does, however, serve as an introduction to a much more important issue, one that does affect everyone of us. But that's the subject of another story---one that I hope to put out next week.

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Until then, get vaccinated. Keep your distance. Wear your mask. We may be getting close to the finish line, but that pesky delta variant is still behind us---and it's getting closer and closer every day. 

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Moreover I say unto you, the Climate Emergency must be dealt with!