Does Your Higher Education Institution Determine Your Long-Term Success?

Below is an edited English version of a Vietnamese article of mine that was published last month by Zing.vn.  A Vietnamese translation of an article by Professor Peter Gray, from which I quote, was subsequently published by Zing, which ranks 7th in Viet Nam, 353 in the world, and 62 in the “news and media” category.

Shalom (שלום), MAA


Success without integrity is failure.  -Unattributed

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Illustration:  Phượng Nguyễn, Zing

While this US college cheating scandal may come as a shock to many Vietnamese, who believe that the US system is merit-based, it is just one of a number of examples of corruption in the education system and elsewhere in society.  And while most of these activities are not illegal, many are unethical and unfair in a country that pays lip service to equity and fairness.

What’s probably most shocking from a US perspective is that these people got caught, along with their co-conspirators at various elite public and private institutions.  Wealthy parents, some famous, most not, paid Rick Singer, CEO of a company called Edge College & Career Network LLC and a nonprofit called the Key Worldwide Foundation, from $200,000 to $6.5 million to bribe coaches, fabricate admissions documents, such as athletic achievements (this included taking staged photos of playing various sports), and help their children cheat on their SAT and ACT exams.

In one case, a San Francisco winemaker allegedly paid $50,000 for a proctor to be flown to a test center in West Hollywood to correct his daughter’s SAT answers after she took the test, which she had been allowed to take over a number of days because of a psychologist’s note.  The father complained that his daughter’s score of 1360 out of 1600 was not high enough and subsequently agreed to pay $200,000 to get her into USC as a water polo recruit even though she no experience in the sport.

Some of the universities touched and tainted by this scandal, including a few that are familiar to Vietnamese, are Georgetown University, Harvard University. Stanford University, the University of San Diego, the University of Texas at Austin, UC Berkeley, UCLA, USC, Wake Forest University, and Yale University.

When Your University Admission Letter is Accompanied by a Receipt

One widely publicized example of how money buys access to education in the US is how Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, gained admission to Harvard University.  In 2005, Daniel Golden, a Boston-based senior editor at ProPublica, wrote a book entitled The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges–and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates in which he exposed the corrupt admissions practices that favor the wealthy, the powerful, and the famous.

As he wrote in a 2016 article published shortly after the election of Donald Trump, “My book exposed a grubby secret of American higher education: that the rich buy their under-achieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations.”

Golden reached out to administrators at Kushner’s private high school, The Frisch School, in New Jersey.  As one former official put it, “There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard.  His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not.”

Jared Kushner’s father, Charles, a New Jersey real estate developer and New York University (NYU) alumnus, had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University not long before his son, a mediocre private school student, was admitted.  As US comedian, Bill Maher, quipped in a sketch about Jared Kushner, “One clue your enrollment may not entirely based be merit-based:  When your acceptance letter comes with a receipt.”

Another way that wealthy US Americans ensure their children’s admission to Ivy League and comparable US institutions is legacy admissions, also known as “affirmative action for the rich,” a preference that most top 100 colleges and universities give to students who have a familial relationship to alumni of that institution, i.e., a mother or father who has a degree from the school in question.   Legacy students comprise about 14% of Harvard’s undergraduate student body and are accepted at five times the rate of their nonlegacy peers.  This translates into a nearly 34% acceptance rate vs. under 6% for those without the same connections.

It Doesn’t Matter What College Your Kids Attend (in the USA)

In a recent article entitled Back Off: It Doesn’t Matter What College Your Kids Attend, Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College (MA, USA), referred to high school students as “the most stressed-out people in America, 83% of them attribute their stress to school.”  This also applies to children from upper class families in which pressure to achieve is especially high.  So why are some parents willing to do anything, including breaking the law, to “help” to guarantee that their sons and daughters will get admitted to prestigious institutions?  Because they believe that is the only key to success, however they define it?  For the bragging rights that accrue? So that their children will follow in their academic footsteps?  Does it really make a difference in terms of future income and happiness?

In two large-scale studies conducted by Stacy Dale, a mathematician, and Alan Krueger, an economist, of students who entered college in 1976 and another group in 1989, their research question was this:  If people have the same socioeconomic background, academic ability and motivation, will those who attend an elite institution of higher education make more money later in life than those who go to a non-elite school?  “Other things being equal, attending an elite school resulted in no income advantage over attending a less elite school, neither in the short term nor in the long term.”

Gray also referenced a 2014 survey by Gallup and Purdue University that assessed the extent to which 30,000 higher education graduates were, according to them, enthusiastic and committed to their work and thriving in their personal lives.  The key finding was that there were no significant relationships between their feedback and the type of college or university they attended, large or small, public or private, highly selective or less selective.

The good news for parents and students, at least in the US, is that it isn’t the type of school young people attend but what they do while they’re there that makes a difference in their lives.  What’s important is the nature and quality of their experiences in and outside of the classroom.  Professor Gray’s advice to parents was simple:  “Ease up.  Reassure your kids rather than stress them.  For happiness and meaning, they may need to spend less time grubbing for grades and more time pursuing their own interests.”

In other words, one of the primary goals of young people, with understanding and support from their parents, teachers, and others, should be to find their ikigai, an existential sweet spot that is the intersection of that which you love, that which are good at, that which the world needs, and that for which you can be paid.  That is how success should be defined in any country.

 

Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. He is the co-founder and managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and HCMC.  Ashwill served as country director of the Institute of International Education (IIE)-Vietnam from 2005-09.