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Higher Ed Shake Up
Breaking the Ivy League Monopoly

America’s top universities, for all their rhetoric about equality, diversity, and social justice, actually do far more to perpetuate and sustain the upper class than they do to promote those values, racking up billions in tax-exempt donations, connecting their disproportionately wealthy students to lucrative job opportunities, and fostering exclusive social networks of the rich and powerful. In his latest USA Today column, Glenn Reynolds highlights the extent of this problem, and offers a trio of (mostly) tongue-in-cheek proposals for bringing the Ivy League to heel:

  • We should eliminate the tax deductibility of contributions to schools having endowments in excess of $1 billion. At some point, as our president has said, you’ve made enough money. That won’t end all major donations to the Ivy League, but it will doubtless encourage donors to look at less wealthy and more deserving schools, such as Northern Kentucky University, recently deemed “more inspirational than Harvard” in the London Times Higher Education magazine.
  • We should require that all schools with endowments over $1 billion spend at least 10% of their endowment annually on student financial aid. That will make it easier for less wealthy students to attend elite institutions.
  • We should require that university admissions be based strictly on objective criteria such as grades and SAT/ACT scores, with random drawings used to cull the herd further if necessary. That will eliminate the Ivy League’s documented discrimination against Asians.

We don’t think this kind of heavy-handed state intervention is necessary—and Professor Reynolds, libertarian that he is, surely doesn’t either. But there are less extreme measures that really could be effective at knocking the Ivy League off of its pedestal.

One possibility is a system of national exams, sponsored by employers, that would allow students from less prestigious schools to demonstrate that they had learned as much as or more than Ivy grads. As it stands, the top companies companies tend to recruit only at the top schools, so it is difficult for students from West Texas University or California State Chico to demonstrate their qualifications. Hundreds of companies use university prestige as an imperfect proxy for intellectual ability.

Needless to say, this system is deeply unfair. Whether or not someone impressed an admissions committee at age 17 (and admission committees are imbued with the usual higher education pieties and prejudices) is hardly the best way to measure what he or she has learned by age 22. People mature in different ways and at different paces, and use their time in college differently as well. Since it can be hard to perform poorly at grade inflation mills like Harvard, especially in the soft subjects, almost everybody who gets in graduates—no matter how little they learn.

Imagine if a coalition of companies that hire large numbers of recent graduates (Bain, McKinsey, Google, Teach for America, etc.) on a national basis were to set up a system of exams that allowed students to demonstrate what they had learned and what they can achieve—and then those companies chose employees based on scores, with no regard to undergraduate institution. Some British companies have already taken steps in this direction. If American companies followed suit, they would unleash tremendous potential by broadening their applicant pool to a much greater number of potentially qualified candidates. They would also do more to promote social justice in America than armies of Ivy League diversity bureaucrats and Halloween costume police could do in a lifetime.

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  • Contemplationist

    As laudable as this sentiment and idea is, if you know anything about Civil Rights jurisprudence, you know about Griggs vs Duke Power, and the legal doctrine of ‘Disparate Impact.’ Any such exam would suffer from ‘disparate impact’ violations if it were fair, as legions of test makers of standardized tests have discovered after spending billions of dollars in trying to craft tests that are culturally neutral, fair and yet have predictive validity with respect to student/job performance.

    So, yeah, advocate for overturning ‘Disparate impact’ and Griggs v Duke Power, and you shall have your national assessment exam.

  • BoMc

    Unfortunately, this is article shows how a pundit sometimes needs to educate himself before speaking. We’re in the situation we’re in precisely because the courts outlawed the use of testing in job applications as discriminatory against minorities. It’s not enough to suggest that companies test, you must change the law to allow them to do so.

  • qet

    It is always amusing to see an Ivy League grad (one from a prestigious New England prep school no less) decide, from the rear echelon of middle age, that the standards under which he himself was admitted are–Who Knew?!–unjust. “Unexpectedly!”, as Reynolds likes to say. No doubt Mead threw his own acceptance letter over the Yale wall rather than be seen to legitimize such an unjust educational war. (Or maybe it was a friend’s acceptance letter?).

    Arguments like this one confuse cause and effect. It is urged that an Ivy League diploma guarantees a satisfying, meaningful, comfortable life. Sort of like Trading Places, The Prequel. So the Ivies are perceived not as educational institutions so much as silver mines, and are now to be nationalized in the public interest. Or, because not a freshman falls without the State father nowadays, the Ivies are not educational institutions so much as welfare agencies, to be administered for the public benefit. And all those poor Asians whose parents spend tens of thousands of dollars on test prep, math camp and physics tutors and who will now take their rightful matriculation places under the new “numbers plus lottery” system will simply replace Mayflower descendants and other WASPs in the ire of the class warriors. The entire phenomenon will merely be displaced from the Ivies to Kaplan, Princeton Review and Kahn Academy, and soon their seats will have to be filled on the basis of a test plus lottery, and so on and so on.

    • Uhm, you miss the obvious – the standards under which he was admitted are not the same standards in place today. Nothing you say has any merit, not understanding first things.

      • qet

        Well, OK, let’s explore that a little. Whatever the particular standards then and now, they appear to share the same quality that is today being complained of; namely, that they overlook academic merit in historically disadvantaged groups in favor of merely perpetuating the racial, gender and socio-economic ruling elite. In Mead’s day it was not Asians that were the exemplars of this unfairness but women, Jews (maybe; not sure when Jewish admissions to the Ivies began to rise), and of course blacks. And don’t forget the Irish: Tip O’Neill famously said in a commencement address there in the 80s that in his day (which was before Mead’s time), the only way he could get through the gates into Harvard Yard was by carrying a broom.

        Then, as now, it was believed that many Ivy graduates were undeserving, having been admitted principally because of their race, gender and socio-economic status. Yet I am certain that nearly every Ivy student believes he does deserve to be there. I am sure Mead believed that of himself. So either these students are wrong or the complaints are wrong. And I just find it interesting that people who already got theirs and believed their own admissions worthy are now joining the people calling for either a total reformation of admission standards or, as Mead does here, a total bypass of the Ivies altogether. I assume he was not calling for this when it was his turn for admission. And I fail to see a qualitative difference between then and now in terms of this issue.

        So, what first things have I not understood?

  • wigwag

    It absolutely is necessary. A 25 percent excise tax on the earnings on all university endowments of $2 billion or more is precisely what the doctor ordered. What should our presidential candidates do? They should promise that they will appoint no one to their administrations who has earned an undergraduate or graduate degree from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown or Dartmouth. The litmus test we need for the Supreme Court is that Ivy League graduates need not apply. What can ordinary citizens do to make our country better? How about refusing to vote for any congressional or senatorial candidate who graduated from the Ivy League.

    For well more than a century, Ivy League graduates have been ruling the roost. It’s time for a change before the students who emerge from these faux-institutions of higher education ruin our country entirely.

    • f1b0nacc1

      While I endorse the sentiment, all that does is move the ‘elite’ credentiallers to another venue. So the Ivies are no longer acceptable? Fine, U Chicago/Stanford, JHU, etc. are the ‘new Ivies’…. We will simply end up chasing the rules lawyers as they keep trying to fix the game.
      Might I suggest that as an alternative we simply undermine the game itself. Kill the basis for our credentials-happy system (I won’t bore anyone here with my standard suggestions on this subject), and build an infrastructure (and a social consensus) on skills, rather than credentials as the basis for prestige and success…

      • wigwag

        f1b0nacc1, I agree with you, but I do think that the ivy league institutions that I mentioned play a particularly nefarious role in American society. The entire infrastructure of American higher education is rotten to the core, but Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown and Dartmouth do a particularly good job at sending undergraduate and graduate students out into the world with a penchant for making our country weaker, more unequal, less free and less adept at confronting the challenges we face in the 21st century, I’m tempted to say that graduates of these institutions are doing as much or more to damage our nation than ISIS and Al Qaeda put together.

        Take the supreme court; all nine justices attended either Yale or Harvard Law Schools. Almost all of them also attended Ivy League schools to take their undergraduate degrees. It simply doesn’t matter whether they’re to the left like Justice Ginsberg or to the right like Justice Scalia; a supreme court where everyone graduated from Harvard or Yale doesn’t reflect America. Is it any wonder that the Supreme Court is so out of touch?

        26 United States Senators graduated from an Ivy League School; 12 attended Harvard, 8 attended Yale, 4 attended Dartmouth and 2 attended Princeton. If there is a more elitist, obnoxious, incompetent and thoroughly destructive group of individuals anywhere in America than this crowd, I would like to know what it is.

        The last four presidents all attended Ivy League institutions. If either Bush, Clinton or Obama were so smart, do you think that our county would be in the mess that its in?

        Ivy League institutions need to be cut down to size before they destroy our country. That’s exactly what a significant number of people who work at those institutions would love to do.

        Professor Mead taught at Yale for a number of years. Maybe he would like to tell us how many of his colleagues on the Yale faculty thought the United States was too racist, sexist, homophobic and imperialist to play a positive role in world affairs. Trust me; it was a significant number, indeed.

        • Tom

          Bush ’41 was a decent president, better than any of his successors. A low bar, but still.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Bush 41 was an adequate president…he successfully presided over a victory in Kuwait, and comported himself as a decent and honorable man. He ALSO signed off on an irresponsible tax increase, signed the ADA, and lost his reelection campaign to a lecherous hillbilly and his harridan wife.
            Better than his successors, certainly….but that is setting the bar low. He was adequate, little more.

        • f1b0nacc1

          I believe we are largely in agreement (you are nicer about the Senate than I am), but dealing with the Ivy league isn’t going to solve the problem, even in the extremely unlikely event we could actually get the necessary legislation passed. As I pointed out before, the liars and crooks would just move on to a new set of schools and anoint them, and we would be back to where we started from.
          If we want to deal with the problem, destroy its foundations first:
          1) Terminate support for 95% or better of all non K-12 education funding (and return the K-12 to the states). Move away from college for everyone, and take it back to college for those 1-2% that actually have some business being there. There is no reason at all why we should support this rampant credentialism, and finance its infrastructure.
          2) Enact strict term limits, 2 terms for president (already here) and no more than 12 years in the legislature (6 rep terms, 2 senate terms, or any mix less than or equal to 12 years). Supreme court should be limited to no more than 20 years, and nobody who has held elective office at the federal level should be eligible.
          3) Repeal the 17th Amendment (I would kill the 19th too, but alas that is not an option) and resume election of Senators by state legislatures. There was a good reason for that in the first place.
          4) Eliminate all deductibility for donations to universities or other institutions of learning. Ban college sports (other than intramural sports) for any institution receiving federal aid.
          5) Terminate Title IX, but make universities answerable to the same anti-discrimination standards as the federal government.
          6) Terminate all federal funding to any institution of higher learning where the administrative overhead exceeds 5% of the total budget. I believe that the model for this can be found in the Obamacare legislation. Since universities are overwhelmingly liberal, they should be quite comfortable with this change.
          7) Explicitly enable discrimination lawsuits against universities that offer preferences to children of donors and alumni. This last change alone would probably cripple the Ivies and the various wannabes, but this would be good insurance in any case.
          8) Make civil service personnel subject to dismissal without the elaborate procedures currently in place. Even a completely patronage based system (keep in mind patronage, if proved, is punishable under existing anti-bribery laws) would be better than what we have now. Senior civil service personnel (SES+) should be permitted to serve ONLY one president, and never ‘held over’ or eligible for promotion of any sort.
          In addition to all of the above steps, a strong social educational initiative should be undertaken by the various political parties (as well as other interested groups) to discredit the notion that individuals who have not developed a career outside of government have no business serving in it. The revolving door of the academic-governmental complex must be permanently shut, along with the idea of the lifetime politician. This can only happen if we the people understand this menace and undertake to destroy it.
          Will this reduce the efficiency of the government? Likely, but I consider that a positive thing, as did the founders, who understood that an efficient government was in fact a bigger menace than an efficient one. Government should be small, largely inefficient, and used only for those things that cannot be accomplished by private initiative. The dominance of the Ivies is not the cause, but rather the result….if we want to eliminate it, we must start with what makes it possible.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Oh, and I did forget one thing….
          Overturn Duke v Griggs

  • ptsargent

    I am surprised the author of this piece apparently subscribes to the myth of schools’ striving for something called “social justice”. I defy anyone, including PHds and other academics to come up with a definition of “social justice” that makes sense and that stands up to third grade level logic or that any two people would agree with. “Social” is a collectivist construct and “justice” is an individualist construct. Never the twain can meet.

  • Fat_Man

    My response to Reynolds proposal about admissions is that college graduation is simply a ticket to get a decent job and denotes no educational value (“women’s studies” ’nuff said), therefor there is no reason to impose any academic requirement at the outset. The fairest system of allocating the golden tickets to make sure that all children regardless of origin or class have an equal chance is a lottery.

    Here is the system: Every high school graduate can enter the lottery. On the lottery day, the kids receive a number at random from a pool of numbers equal to the number of entrants. Number 1 goes first and gets to pick a college from the list of colleges*, and he is admitted. The process is repeated until the last kid gets to pick. When a college is filled, its name is removed from the list. The last kid won’t have much of a chance to pick Harvard, which has a freshman class of about 1500.

    Most likely every entrant will have to submit a ranked list of places he would pick. To prevent the thing from dragging out for too long.

    I would hypothesize that one effect of a lottery admissions plan would be a return to more stringent grading in the class rooms. It would be useful to the faculty to weed out the poor performers more quickly, and the students might have less of an attitude of entitlement.

  • Fat_Man

    I too am frustrated with the current situation among the wealthy institutions. I think that it deserves a lot more attention from policy makers than it has received. The Universities have received massive benefits from the government (Federal and state) not just tax exemptions, but grants for research and to students, subsidized loans, tax deductions for contributions, and on, and on. They have responded to this largess by raising salaries, hiring more administrators, spending billions on construction, and continually raising tuitions far faster than the rate of inflation. I really do not think the tax payers should be carrying this much of a burden at a time when deficits are mounting without limit.

    Henry VIII solved a similar problem by confiscating assets. We have constitutional limits on that sort of activity, but I think there a lot of constitutional steps that should be considered. Here a few:

    1. There is ample reason to tax the the investment gains of the endowments as unrelated business taxable income (UBTI, see IRS Pub 598 and IRC 511-515) defined as income from a business conducted by an exempt organization that is not substantially related to the performance of its exempt purpose. If they do not want to pay tax on their investments, they should purchase treasuries and municipals, and hold them to maturity.

    2. The definition of an exempt organization could be narrowed to exclude schools that charge tuition. Charging $50,000/yr and sitting on 30G$ of assets looks a lot more like a business than a charity.

    3. Donations to overly rich institutions should be non deductible to the donors. Overly rich should be defined in terms of working capital needs and reserves for depreciation of physical assets.

    Ron Unz wrote about the multi-billion dollar endowments:

    “Paying Tuition to a Giant Hedge Fund: Harvard’s academic mission is dwarfed by its $30 billion endowment.” By Ron Unz The American Conservative December 4, 2012

  • Attila_the_hun

    There is Ivy League Monopoly because of intellectual elites like this writer. Do you want to break Ivy League Monopoly? Get the government out of education business. Abolish the department of education. End public education all together. What is ailing The USA is just big government or more presciently SOCIALISM.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    I think the Credit agencies should be used for credentialing, and test scoring educational achievements. This would mean testing for class credit hours and degrees, and shove the outrageously expensive University system aside in favor of Rock Star level Professors that can really TEACH.

  • MarkE

    The Ivies are not so bad . They are really the intellectual
    heritage of our country and are widely reputed to be the best in the world.
    Because of limited enrollments there is a random element as to which of the
    brightest and most talented they admit. The kids who are equally great but don’t
    get in do very well elsewhere as has been abundantly documented.

    The idea of limiting endowment and foundations is attractive.
    Rather than the dollar amount of money, I would prefer to see the lifetime of
    all foundations limited to 100 years sort of like a long-lived person. At the
    end of that time the money would have to be spent on real people not on other
    foundations. These large sums over time come under the control of neurotic people that use the funds to further goals
    that would make the original donors angry. Why should any corporation
    foundation or otherwise be allowed to survive longer that a person?

    • Jim__L

      Required reading for MarkE: God and Man at Yale.

  • Anthony

    Two related thoughts: 1) “Over the last few decades America’s ruling elites have been produced largely as a consequence of the particular selective methods adopted by our top national universities in the late 1960s. Leaving aside the question of whether these methods have been fair or have instead been based on corruption and ethnic favoritism, the elites they have produced have clearly done a very poor job of leading our country, and we must change the methods used to select them”, especially as the funnel of opportunity at various levels in America has drastically narrowed.

    2) “Eliminating at a stroke the enormous expense and complexity of our baroque admissions process (at top tier schools) might actually raise the quality of the students attending elite colleges by drawing more applicants into the system, especially if tuition at our top private colleges were drastically reduced or even eliminated”, given the structural shift and conventional changes impacting both working and middle class Americans.

  • JOS1999

    In a way, it makes sense, but would ultimately fail in America due to political correctness. The Colleges all across this nation inflate their worthiness for employment once the student graduates. Take the Colorado shooter James Holmes as a prime example. He had graduated from a supposedly “prestigious” institution in California (You know one of those places with a 5 point scale rather then a 4 point one…Don’t even get me started on how idiots from California convince employers, outside of that state, that they are smarter then they really are.) with a Degree in Neuroscience in the Top 1% of his class. And yet, he was a psychopathic nut. With standardized testing, you would marginalize some and promulgate others. And the lawyers would have a field day taking judgements from employers who didn’t take into account some random variable like, some of my favorites that colleges use: “Being the first in a family to go to College,” or “growing up

    without a Father.”

  • Robert Burke

    Defund “Progressive-Retardnation” worldview education in K-12, university and especially Journalism Schools (like USC.) Replace it with “1776-Tragic-Liberty” worldview pedagogy. This fixes everything, when you think about it. This is the ax-to-the-root solution.

    And again, this needs to be done in all nations, does it not? Why would Muslims need to be so extreme, if the West could again educate?

  • Daniel Nylen

    The perch of the Ivies is due, IMO, mostly to Griggs v. Duke Power Company. So, not only do you have to overturn it, as noted by several comments below, but you should remember that it is why the Ivies gained such a top position in the first place. Before Griggs, employers routinely gave exams, such as the Federal Government Civil Service Exam. A good state degree could compete with the Ivies but when the tests went became banned the employers had little choice but to screen by credential. This led to the race for credentials and the many, many, other bad unintended consequences of an unrealistic imposed government fiat. Return freedom (in testing and hiring) and the ivies will find their own level in a free market.

  • The domination of power in this country by elites is a serious issue. Two things everybody needs to keep in mind: one, all of our presidents and presidential nominees are Harvard or Yale graduates now (the last exception was Bob Dole, who lost); and two, while a majority of the population in the U.S. is Protestant Christian, reflecting the founders and earliest settlers from Europe, NONE of our top government positions are held by a Protestant, not in the executive branch, not in Congress (where a Catholic just replaced a Catholic as Speaker), and not one single Supreme Court justice. We have experienced a silent coup and most people don’t even know it.

  • teapartydoc

    The average American of the not too distant future will view the foundations, not only those of universities, but even of hospitals and charities, similarly to the way the Englishman coming out of the middle ages viewed the monastic estates that had expanded themselves at the expense of his great grandparents. I can’t wait.

    • MarkE

      And yet the foundations often do good things before they go bad. Why not just limit the life-span of these charitable organizations so that at least they can’t go on for ever when they become mediocre or counterproductive?

    • Jim__L

      It’s fascinating to read 19th-century accounts of Americans traveling through “priest-ridden Italy”, noting how a massive and largely useless Catholic bureaucracy was holding back countries in southern Europe.

      We’re seeing exactly the same effect here, with the connection between Liberal Arts schools and government.

  • ChuckFinley

    Sure a test would be great but as several others have pointed out Griggs v.Duke Power makes testing for job qualification illegal in the United States. There are a lot of things that would be great if this country could get past its unfortunate history of race relations but there are too many people who’s livelihoods and political power depend on racial antagonism for that to happen in our lifetime.

  • richard40

    At this stage I would not mind a bit if all of Glenn Reynolds proposals were all law. Its not like the law would impact anybody who does not deserved to get hit. And let all those elitists smugly lecturing us all on how we have too much money and privilege, try and oppose those measures, and defend their money and privilege.
    National tests for hiring would be a wonderful idea, producing a real meritocracy, and not the phony ivy league kind. But as others have said here, present anti discrimination law makes them impossible. Some racial groups will inevitably do worse as a group than others, because of the lousy schools they attend, and then the anti discrimination legal suits start.

  • lukelea

    Affirmative action for all would insure that Ivy League student bodies reflect the full racial, ethnic, and geographical (including rural/urban) diversity of America. That is one step that would pass constitutional muster since it would not discriminate against or in favor of any particular group. It could still be based on merit, the best and the brightest from each group.

    An unintended — or perhaps intended — consequence would be to greatly increase the academic quality (and hence influence and prestige) of second and third tier liberal arts colleges and universities. I’ll leave it to the reader to see why.

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