The federal judge got it wrong about parents trying to buy their kids' way into college

The federal judge got it wrong about parents trying to buy their kids' way into college
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Does the judge who jailed Toby MacFarlane for attempting to bribe his kids’ way into college have any idea how higher education has worked for decades? Displacing better qualified students happens literally thousands of times a year. Athletes, legacy offspring and affirmative-action students benefit from double-standards.

U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton sentenced MacFarlane to six months in prison for paying $450,000 to get his daughter and son admitted to the University of Southern California falsely as athletic recruits, taking seats away from two deserving students. Judge Gorton called MacFarlane “a thief.”

The judge said, “Higher education in this country aspires to be a meritocracy.” But this is often not true for athletes, legacy students, and affirmative-action exceptions. The judge added that MacFarlane tried to work his “way around the rules that apply to everyone else.” But these rules do not apply to everyone else. There are thousands of exceptions annually.


In athletics the double-standards are scandalous and I say this as a former athlete at the University of Michigan. I turn to my own alma mater to explain how admission often works. In March 2008, the Ann Arbor News ran a four-part series entitled, “Image and Reality of University of Michigan Athletics and Academics.”

It reported, “Former Michigan football standout Jim Harbaugh said the University of Michigan admits academically borderline students and then keeps them eligible for sports by steering them into specific academic areas. The former quarterback, now the Stanford University (and current University of Michigan) football coach, said that he wasn’t even allowed to major in history because the course required too much reading.” This is a long distance from Judge Gorton’s “meritocracy.” (The National Collegiate Athletic Association reports that “more than 460,000 NCAA student-athletes compete in 24 sports every year”).

Here’s another illustration. When my daughter was considering colleges to attend, I took her to visit an excellent college in Virginia. When I asked the admissions’ counselor what SAT score would qualify my daughter, he gave me a list of SAT scores, according to which my daughter would have qualified. Moments later, in embarrassment, he took the list away, saying it was for athletes. The scores were some 200 points lower than those on the regular list. Again, the claim that admission aims at better academically qualified applicants is not true.

Schools admit legacy students (children of alumni) by the thousands each year, hoping for donations from the family. That amounts to an anticipated bribe.

Or take the present case of discrimination against Asian students at Harvard, a kind of negative double-standard far removed from meritocracy. Harvard has placed what amounts to a quota on Asian students.


The school’s explanation? Using a holistic approach to selecting applicants. Some said that Harvard wanted students who are more gregarious. But the real reason for the de facto quota is that too many Asians attend the school. Meritocracy in this case is a disadvantage. Judge Gorton is wrong that colleges always aspire to be meritocracies.

I do not want to be misunderstood to say that Toby MacFarlane and the like should not be punished for lying and cheating. But I do wish to underscore that college admissions are rife with double-standards and that in thousands of cases meritocracy has nothing to do with admissions. The rules do not apply equally.

Ronald L. Trowbridge, Ph.D., is a policy fellow at the Independent Institute. He was appointed by President Reagan to the United States Information Agency and later became chief of staff for Chief Justice Warren Burger.