The Costs of Crime

So, be honest. How many of you would have ever thought of this scheme? You want to be able to sell access to elite colleges, and so you spend months looking for weaknesses in the admissions processes. You find three: you hire crooked proctors for standardized tests; you find a few supergeniuses who can knock out a 1500 SAT before their first coffee; and you recognize the importance of college sports and the lack of integration between athletic and academic departments. So you offer to let a kid sit for the SAT, have the proctor slide that test out of the batch and replace it with one conducted by someone else. Then you bribe a coach of a minor sport to tell her or his admissions department that this kid is a total game-changer, that your team will thrive with his presence. That sporting lure, combined with the artificially inflated test score, suddenly makes a relatively normal kid look like a perfect prospect. The kid shows up on campus, and really, who’ll ever look to see if he comes to water polo practice?

Rich people have always been able to cheat. Tax loopholes that you and I would never benefit from are worth millions if you have hundreds of millions—it’s totally worth spending a couple hundred thousand dollars on legal and tax work to take advantage of them. Shell corporations, falsified paperwork, offshore banking, teams of mercenaries professionals to cover your scent… the amount of creativity is remarkable, and the line between creativity and crime is a distinction drawn only by suckers.

So the colleges caught up in this week’s admissions scandal have done what you’d expect. In Texas, Governor Abbott has ordered a review not just of UT admissions but of every university in Texas (which is silly—no one is using this scam to get into West Texas A&M). University of California system president Janet Napolitano has ordered a similar review of the UC admissions processes. Those reviews will cost money. The resulting policy changes that strengthen the coordination between admissions and athletics will cost money. The increased security of test site administration and test booklet handling will cost money.

People wonder why the tax code is thousands of pages long, and blame it on “bureaucracy.” But the real reason is that every clause in the tax code is a response to a crime scheme that’s already been perpetrated a few times. Every crime breeds a policy in response. Every policy requires oversight. And oversight equals work, and work equals salaries, and salaries equal added cost to the product.

Rachel Toor, a writer who once worked as an admissions officer at Duke, drew a distinction between students who come in through standard admissions processes and those for whom there is an “institutional interest.” That interest takes three traditional forms: an interest in pleasing legacy families; an interest in cultivating potential donors; and an interest in athletic performance that brings a school fame, glory, and logo-licensing revenue. She’d estimated that about 20% of Duke’s students came in through one of those three open windows. If those windows were all closed, if a school just declared that all of its students had to compete equally through academic preparation, everyone’s lives would be easier. The job of oversight would be drastically reduced, and the cost of an elite education would be very slightly more within reach of the talented but unconnected. But that would be a unilateral disarmament that no school would dare take. Safer to go on the way we always have, add a few very expensive patches to the security protocols, and wait for the next burst of criminal creativity to embarrass us again for a few days next year.