Years ago, Occidental College opted not to use admissions to chase money. The decision came with a cost.
One day in 2012, an admissions director at Occidental College got a surprising email. William “Rick” Singer proposed that the school reconsider an application from an academically challenged daughter of a wealthy family.
He wanted the school to overturn her rejection, and he suggested the parents would give the school money above and beyond tuition.
“Are you kidding?” an incredulous Mr. Singer wrote about her not being admitted. “We can create a win-win for both of us.”
Vince Cuseo, the admissions official at the small California liberal-arts school, gave a simple response: No.
Mr. Singer, the admitted mastermind of what federal prosecutors have called the largest admissions-cheating scandal in the country, had reason to be hopeful. He had made inroads into brand-name colleges and universities around the country scores of times, exploiting higher education’s focus on
Mr. Singer’s illegal operation has spawned criminal charges against 52 people, 29 of whom have pleaded guilty or plan to. It has also further highlighted the role of money in admissions, and the often wide gulf between high ideals of meritocracy and mercenary business practices.
Occidental, a small, private liberal-arts college in Los Angeles, has charted a different path. Two generations ago, it opted out of the chase for well-heeled students and put its money into scholarships for less well-off minorities.
Those decisions, however, have come at a cost. Occidental’s $434 million endowment is roughly $70 million smaller than what it might have been had the school prioritized prestige and wealth, according to Amos Himmelstein, the school’s vice president for planning and finance. While the school boasts beautiful beaux arts architecture and is building a new aquatic center, the infrastructure hasn’t kept up with improvements made by its peers, he says.
The question, Mr. Cuseo says, is at what price “are you willing to sell your soul”?
The once-booming age-old business model of higher education faces tremendous pressure due to demographic changes, disruptive technology and the tightest labor market in half a century.
As a result, colleges and universities face rising incentives to cut corners or outright lie to boost rankings. They are also under pressure to use legal backdoor strategies to attract affluent students and donations to boost bottom lines.
Mr. Singer exploited these forces to create what he called his side door strategy, in which he bribed college coaches to tag clients’ children as walk-on athletes even though they didn’t play the sport. He also rigged SAT and ACT scores.
Occidental has largely resisted these temptations. A turning point for the school came in the 1980s, as Los Angeles transformed into one of the nation’s most diverse cities. Occidental trustees, many local business owners themselves, felt there weren’t enough educated minorities to fill jobs. Occidental reworked its curriculum and enrollment practices to draw more black and Latino students, said Eric Newhall, a retired Occidental English professor who headed the school’s faculty council at the time.
The school emerged as one of the nation’s most racially and socioeconomically integrated private schools, long before many universities were prioritizing diversity.
One concern across the school quickly arose: If it turned away wealthy white students, who would pay the bills? The question divided the school, said Mary Weismantel, a young professor at Occidental in the 1980s who now teaches at Northwestern University.
Today, Occidental is 49% nonwhite and attracts fewer wealthy students than the vast majority of its peers. It also boasts one of the highest percentage of poor and working-class students receiving Pell Grants and has one of the highest rates of economic mobility of its peers, according to Harvard economist Raj Chetty and Occidental.
But financial stress has followed. In 1995 Occidental’s endowment ranked 120th in the nation. By last year it was 208th.
The school has lost ground partly because of its commitment to enroll poor and working-class students who need grants. Occidental’s need-blind enrollment program climbed from 11% of the budget in the mid-1980s to 24% by 1993. That December, then-President John Slaughter said the increase in financial spending “has escaped the boundaries of reasonableness,” according to an alumni publication.
The school eventually had to dip into its endowment to pay the bills. And today, while it maintains a strong reputation and a middling $434 million endowment, it still faces underlying fiscal issues. In September, Moody’s Investors Service revised the outlook on Occidental’s $84 million in debt outstanding to negative from stable, citing the school’s “commitment to affordability” and lagging fundraising.
These headwinds mean dormitories are cramped and nearly half are without air conditioning. The steel lawn-irrigation system installed in the 1930s is thoroughly rusted out. The campus is pretty and tranquil, but amenities pale when compared with those offered elsewhere: lazy rivers, palatial fitness centers, climbing gyms, high-tech libraries and swanky apartment-style dorms.
“Does that influence incoming freshman? I think it does,” said one prominent alumni, who has been active in fundraising. “The sad reality is that colleges that have leveraged white wealthy students have really prospered.”
Unlike other schools, it doesn’t heavily prioritize athletes or legacies in admissions.
Occidental fields 21 varsity teams but offers little credit in the admissions process for athletic prowess, according to school officials. The idea isn’t to be the best but to stay competitive, said Mr. Cuseo, now the vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions. In 2017 the school had to cancel the last four games of the football season because there weren’t enough healthy players. The team has since rebuilt.
In September, a study analyzing admission data at Harvard showed 43% of white students are either athletes, legacies or were children of donors or faculty. A similar count at Occidental was 18%, school spokesman Jim Tranquada said.
Occidental also resists gaming the rankings. Perhaps the most widespread strategy to manufacture an appearance of selectivity is lowering the bar for applicants in order to attract more. That generates more rejections, making a school appear more selective. Occidental hasn’t done this.
“There are a lot of things you can do that are pretty simple, and I’ve been in faculty meetings where it’s been discussed,” said Occidental Professor John McCormack. “But it’s just not who we are.”
In 2004, Mr. Singer assembled an advisory board for his then company CollegeSource, which at the time had a legitimate division. The board included five prominent higher-education figures, including Ted Mitchell, then president of Occidental.
Mr. Mitchell, who left Occidental in 2005, has said he was an unpaid adviser to Mr. Singer’s venture 15 years ago to provide counseling to low-income students.
The prominent Occidental alumnus who also knew Mr. Singer recalls hearing Mr. Singer call Occidental “dumb” for having what he portrayed as too thick of a wall between admissions and fundraising departments.
Mr. Cuseo says he has never felt pressure to take any of the students if they don’t meet school standards. Five years ago, the development office recommended he look at an applicant whose prominent and widely known name made his “eyes kind of open up,” he says.
Yet, “it was pretty darn clear that the student didn’t deserve to be admitted to Occidental,” he says. The school rejected the teen.
Mr. Cuseo said the email from Mr. Singer in 2012 was extremely unusual. An upset Mr. Singer requested a meeting to discuss helping his client’s child “find her way to becoming a student at Occidental” after she had been rejected. Mr. Singer also criticized Occidental’s admission policies.
“You are off base,” Mr. Cuseo replied.
Caitlin Zaloom discusses her book, “Indebted”, at Politics and Prose.
Based on a series of frank and personal discussions with students and parents across the nation, Zaloom‘s book documents how the struggle to finance college education is transforming middle-class life. An associate professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, a founding editor of Public Books, and author of Out of the Pits, Zaloom reveals the hidden consequences of student debt, describes the wrenching moral decisions parents make having to choose between jeopardizing their own financial security or forcing their children into debt, and relates the frustrations of navigating a labyrinth of government-sponsored programs, for-profit funders, and university aid requirements. Zaloom is in conversation with Dorian Warren, president of Community Change and Community Change Action.
Caitlin Zaloom is associate professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. She is a founding editor of Public Books and the author of Out of the Pits: Traders and Technology from Chicago to London. She lives in New York City. Twitter @caitlinzaloom
A former dean of the Yale Law School sounds a warning.
Anyone who has followed the news from college campuses over the past few years knows they are experiencing forms of unrest unseen since the late 1960s.
Now, as then, campuses have become an arena for political combat. Now, as then, race is a central issue. Now, as then, students rail against an unpopular president and an ostensibly rigged system. Now, as then, liberal professors are being bullied, denounced, demoted, threatened, sued and sometimes even assaulted by radical students.
But there are some important differences, too. None of today’s students risk being drafted into an unpopular, distant war. Unlike the campus rebels of the ’60s, today’s student activists don’t want more freedom to act, speak, and think as they please. Usually they want less.
Most strange: Today’s students are not chafing under some bow-tied patriarchal WASP dispensation. Instead, they are the beneficiaries of a system put in place by professors and administrators whose political views are almost uniformly left-wing and whose campus policies indulge nearly every progressive orthodoxy.
So why all the rage?
The answer lies in the title of Anthony Kronman’s necessary, humane and brave new book: “The Assault on American Excellence.” Kronman’s academic credentials are impeccable — he has taught at Yale for 40 years and spent a decade as dean of its law school — and his politics, so far as I can tell, are to the left of mine.
But Yale has been ground zero for recent campus unrest, including a Maoist-style struggle session against a distinguished professor, fights about “cultural appropriation,” the renaming of Calhoun (as in, John C.) College, and the decision to drop the term “master” because, to some, it carried “a painful and unwelcome connotation.”
It’s this last decision that seems to have triggered Kronman’s alarm. The word “master” may remind some students of slavery. What it really means is a person who embodies achievement, refinement, distinction — masterliness — and whose spirit is fundamentally aristocratic. Great universities are meant to nurture that spirit, not only for its own sake, but also as an essential counterweight to the leveling and conformist tendencies of democratic politics that Alexis de Tocqueville diagnosed as the most insidious threats to American civilization.
What’s happening on campuses today isn’t a reaction to Trump or some alleged systemic injustice, at least not really. Fundamentally, Kronman argues, it’s a reaction against this aristocratic spirit — of being, as H.L. Mencken wrote, “beyond responsibility to the general masses of men, and hence superior to both their degraded longings and their no less degraded aversions.” It’s a revolt of the mediocre many against the excellent few. And it is being undertaken for the sake of a radical egalitarianism in which all are included, all are equal, all are special.
“In endless pronouncements of tiresome sweetness, the faculty and administrators of America’s colleges and universities today insist on the overriding importance of creating a culture of inclusion on campus,” Kronman writes.
This is a bracing, even brutal, assessment. But it’s true. And it explains why every successive capitulation by universities to the shibboleths of diversity and inclusion has not had the desired effect of mollifying campus radicals. On the contrary, it has tended to generate new grievances while debasing the quality of intellectual engagement.
Hence the new campus mores. Before an idea can be evaluated on its intrinsic merits, it must first be considered in light of its political ramifications. Before a speaker can be invited to campus for the potential interest of what he might have to say, he must first pass the test of inoffensiveness. Before a student can think and talk for himself, he must first announce and represent his purported identity. Before a historical figure can be judged by the standards of his time, he must first be judged by the standards of our time.
All this is meant to make students “safe.” In fact, it leaves them fatally exposed. It emboldens offense-takers, promotes doublethink, coddles ignorance. It gets in the way of the muscular exchange of honest views in the service of seeking truth. Above all, it deprives the young of the training for independent mindedness that schools like Yale are supposed to provide.
I said earlier that Kronman’s book is brave, but in that respect I may be giving him too much credit. Much of his illustrious career is now safely behind him; he can write as he pleases. Would an untenured professor have the guts to say what he does? The answer to the question underscores the urgency of his warning.