Legacy Admissions: The Rhinoceros Solution

Legacy Admissions: The Rhinoceros Solution

Before we begin, I should clarify that this is a framework proposed in the abstract and does not represent the views or approaches (or any approaches that have been seriously considered to my knowledge) at Northwestern University or the University of Chicago or any other university with which I’m affiliated or have been affiliated. Years ago, as a masters student, I sat in Gary Becker’s classroom (ECON33111, co-taught then with Kevin Murphy and Ted Snyder, if you’re wondering) and he said that sometimes it’s important to not only ponder, but earnestly propose, unpopular positions to expose them to the powerful abrasion of discussion and debate; I hope to do that here.

Incidentally, Becker was talking about an unpopular auction idea (auctioning internal organs, he wrote a WSJ op-ed years later on the topic with Julio J. Elias) being better than other, much worse, alternatives; my proposal is similar in concept (a practice malodorous to some is better than one repugnant to many more) but not context.

In East Africa, where I lived for several years, wildlife conservation experts have proposed a variety of related, but subtly distinguishable, plans that satisfy the desires of big game hunters while also funding preservation of rhinos. Most of these plans involve taking aging animals that are already nearing the ends of their natural lifespans and having people pay to hunt them in semi-controlled environments for huge sums; these sums are then utilized to combat poaching, to support younger or healthier animals, or to support more ecologically-sustainable tourism activities.


Above: A rhinoceros wears a graduation cap. AI-generated image, as imagined and rendered by openart.ai, created by the author

To vastly simplify the calculus, it is better to allow a few rhinos to be shot as trophies than to endanger the species wholesale through impoverished, sporadic, and ineffective mismanagement of the remaining population.

There is a relatively recent, or recently-reinvigorated, push in America to reexamine the practice of giving admission preference to the children of alumni donors at top research institutions. My proposal is to apply these rhinoceros preservation mechanisms to donor and legacy admissions practices. Currently, an alumnus who is a donor might enjoy preference from the university for his or her children; this may be a second look at a file that wouldn’t otherwise receive as much attention, in other cases this may be recruiting of an otherwise-similar candidate over one without an alumni or donor parent.

Rather than have alumni donors able to insert their progeny in the entering classes of Harvard or Stanford quietly, I suggest adding an amplifier to the system. A small number of seats at these institutions would be auctioned each year; these slots in the entering class being labeled as having been purchased. The starting bid for such seats would be very substantial, perhaps the annual tuition cost of 10 or 25 meritocratically-selected students in the same cohort. And everyone at the institution, students and faculty, would be aware which students were occupying seats that had been purchased in the auction.

The goal of this policy would be to accomplish two things: 1) to increase the transparency of, and to make more explicit, the admission arrangement between wealthy alumni and beneficiary institutions and 2) to establish that seats purchased at auction are a fundamentally separate product, a toll road next to a freeway that leads the same place (in this case, to a fine education, a wonderful network, and a university credential). Just as citizenship-by-investment schemes lead to the same passport as natural born citizenship or conventional naturalization, there could be both paid and free routes to the same destination (in this case, matriculation).

Some people are born with intellectual advantages that allow them a stronger shot at admission at certain institutions. Others are born with genes with potential for a tall height for basketball or strong shoulders for the crew team. Still others happen to be born to parents who went to Harvard and who have donated millions over the years. The struggle to define “fairness” in America is often a code for whether randomness is fairness. America gives far more money away in the Powerball lottery (randomly) than it gives the typical Fortune 500 CEO in a given year (reasonable minds can differ as to whether CEO pay is a product of meritocracy, but it certainly is a product of something other than randomness).

No one credibly argues that America should run a national lottery for teenagers to determine who attends Stanford. But the question of how a field of so many hopeful attendees gets whittled down to an entering class (Stanford’s undergraduate acceptance rate is 3.7% circa 2022) is one worthy of examination and one not traditionally heralded for its transparency. A transparent auction of a few seats to thereby fund a substantial number of other students of comparatively-penurious pedigree could solve this.

I suggest a market could exist where buying one’s daughter a slot at Harvard could be like buying a Fabergé egg or a Ferrari 250, a multimillion-dollar vanity purchase that isn’t hidden away deep in the file cabinets of the admissions office, but instead shown off like the crown jewel of one’s wristwatch collection or the matched pair of Royal over-unders in one’s cabinet of prized scatterguns. Instead of wondering “how” or “why,” the daughter’s classmates and instructors would be well-acquainted with the transaction, its price, and precisely why Ms. So-and-so is spending four years walking distance from the Charles or able to see Hoover Tower or Rockefeller Chapel on a stroll to class.

Speaking of Cambridge (Massachusetts), if one examines that “other” institution nearby (the boffin one, M.I.T.) and the older one in its namesake location (the one in Cambridgeshire), one sees no preference given to the progeny of graduates or the children of donors (M.I.T. states this explicitly on their website), so the assertion that such institutions simply cannot survive or do good research without these preferences is untrue. However, universities do have real pecuniary needs that may not be fully met with grants, tuition, and endowment investment performance.

To be clear, if donor money linked to admissions is the intoxicant at issue, I am advocating for measured sobriety (an auction system) rather than total abstinence (M.I.T.’s virtuous, but perhaps-not-universally-adoptable, approach).

The meritocrats will scream, “waaah! no selling of seats to the rich!” and “everybody deserves the same shot at XYZ University!” But if everybody deserves a shot, somebody’s gotta pay for all that ammunition.

Populists want to slam an ivy-covered portcullis down in the path of the ruling class's children, which will inevitably fail. Universities will tailor other policies to signal to them: “We now only offer sporting scholarships for equestrian sports and sailboat racing” (don’t worry, Title IX advocates, it’ll include horsewomanship and women’s sailboat racing…). It will surprise no one that people growing up in these sports are more likely to become well-heeled black tie donors in the future than a taller-than-average promising-for-seventeen-but-perennially-mediocre-by-professional-standards basketball player, but this is not a slight against such athletes; one of my top undergraduate research assistants years ago at Northwestern was a Division I fencer and she was talented with words, not just swords.

In the vein of “more is always better” some have pushed for ever-larger, ever-more-heavily-audited, ever-more-labyrinthine admissions mechanisms; this is seventeen-year-olds applying to schools, not the trial of Socrates, people (and even if it were the trial of Socrates, is 360 out of 500 votes to admit the student enough?).

I advocate here for the opposite–have a transparent and meritocratic process for 95+% of the seats and auction the rest, ideally in a public event later made available post-facto on YouTube (“publicness” doesn’t mean it has to be open to protesters, hecklers, and troublemakers; it can be an online auction, or could be a post-Davos event at a ski chalet in Switzerland in late January, or a pre-Monaco-GP event in early May, with plenty of security and most bidders calling in via telephone), perhaps with color commentary in the style of Andrés Cantor. The Biddle Room at the Harvard Club can be set up for 200+ people if I recall correctly… plus some phone lines or an online bidding platform, that should be sufficient for the well-heeled to battle (er, paddle?) it out.


Above: A young woman in Harvard Yard with the SAT (a college admissions standardized test) over her right shoulder and a dollar sign over her left shoulder. Member of the Harvard Class of 2029, AI-generated image, as imagined and rendered by openart.ai, created by the author.

This is my fifteenth year on the Admissions Committee of a graduate division of one of the top research universities in the world. And I’m myself a third-generation graduate of the University of Chicago; I have no idea what role (if any) parents’ (yes, in my case, both parents…) or a grandparent’s attendance has on admission, and we’d all like to think we can take credit for all our wins, but perhaps in the United States money, privilege, and education are inexorably intertwined. As Justice Brandeis was fond of saying, the best disinfectant is sunlight (see Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It at p. 92 (1914), required reading for those of who work in finance and insurance and try to exhibit virtues and practices that run counter to Brandeis’s worst assumptions about our natures). And, so, I suggest we open the drapes of the admissions auction room.

As a “Chicago school” person, I often find myself more offended by market inefficiencies (best guesses and social deductions as to what a family might be willing to donate to a university are far inferior to an auction) than non-market unfairnesses. Here, we can cure both with one stroke. We can take away the backroom and opaque deals and expose the delicate finesses of the patricians-only admissions process to the brutal Jovian gravity of market forces in the auction room. If people want to get their children into XYZ University so badly, they can go on the record as having paid $X,XXX,XXX for that privilege; whether they think of it as bragging rights or a way to move wealth and network to the next generation without estate taxation is up to them.

There is a parallel here to the way corporate governance has evolved in the West (but, notably, not in certain Asian or Middle Eastern jurisdictions), where some members of the Board of Directors are professional managers or long-time executives or intimately familiar with the day-to-day goings-on of the business whilst others are investors who have bought seats on the Board of Directors that they, or agents on their behalf, inhabit. The issues within the intellectual ambit of assembling a governance body for a corporation is distinct from the goal of shaping an incoming class at an elite university, but the diversity of ways one can end up in the boardroom could parallel the auction-plus-conventional-admissions system I propose–and who paid what, if anything, to be in the room could be disclosed.

If seats in the next entering class are for sale, they should be sold on stage like a prized piece of art, not a back alley like an illicit drug. Some will scoff at the prices paid or deride the bidder’s motives or bemoan that this beneficiary princeling or sheikh will be in the same classroom as their academically-gifted progeniture. But it will be better than the secrecy and suspicion permeating the public conversation now–and the societal distrust of our great institutions simmering as a result. Some will never like how the sausage is made, but transparency regarding its manufacture is superior to clandestine assembly.



Note: The author is a third-generation graduate of the University of Chicago, a donor to University of Chicago, and helped create the Muth Family Scholarship at the University of Chicago, which offers financial support to graduate students.




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