In a recent piece about Harvard’s admission practices, the excellent Allysia Finley wrote that they’re “all about money.” Unfortunately, Finley wrote the latter in pejorative fashion.
To see why, consider the Peddie School, a private school in New Jersey. After the late billionaire media mogul Walter Annenberg donated $100 million, Peddie was able to substantially increase the percentage of its students on financial aid to 40%.
During Roberto Goizueta’s tenure as CEO of Coke, the company’s valuation surged from $4 billion to $145 billion. Emory University’s endowment was stuffed with Coke shares, only for the endowment to balloon in concert with gobs of scholarship money.
One guesses future Annenbergs and Goizuetas will receive preferential treatment at schools that their remarkable ancestors helped improve so profoundly, and who could reasonably blame the schools? Not only did the money lift the prestige of both, it continues to make it much more feasible for those of limited means to attend each. It all rates prominent mention in consideration of what Finley’s aforementioned column is largely about: her lament is that Harvard discriminates “Against Middle Class Kids” when it comes to acceptance to the school. Well, yes. And thank goodness for that. The rich have more money.
Finley’s complaint is that Harvard has not just been discriminating against certain races in favor of others. It turns out recruited athletes get special treatment, along with “children of donors, alumni and faculty.” But isn’t this a good thing?
Consider a school not Harvard. Clemson has historically been more of a destination for the middle classes. To have visited it in the late 1990s was to see a campus that wasn’t terribly impressive. Fast forward to 2023, and a trip to Clemson is a trip to a resort masquerading as a college. Why? The answer is simple: Dabo Swinney and the players he's recruited to play football. Swinney's transformation of the school’s team has been a magnet for donors, and has driven a surge of applications. Great coaches and athletes elevate schools, which argues for discrimination in favor of them.
Big donors don’t just make generous scholarships possible, their funds are also a magnet for the best of the best professors. To say they can and frequently do lift a school’s prestige is tautological, at which point it’s no surprise that a perk of bringing one’s talents to a university includes preferential treatment for offspring. Just as there’s a relentless war for talent in business and sports, is it any surprise that academia is any different?
Of course, professors and athletes want the best facilities where they’re doing their work. In which case it’s no surprise that the kids of donors per Finley receive preferential treatment. Indeed, those of us who aren’t the children of donors can’t have it both ways, as in we can’t aggressively apply to the schools possessing the most prestige all the while lamenting the money that makes them prestigious. In other words, critiquing Harvard for favoring big donors is to critique the very actions that made Harvard so desirable to ambitious middle class kids in the first place.
Worse, where does it end? Conservatives and libertarians have oddly cheered a recent Supreme Court decision banning preferential admissions based on race. Why they’d cheer that which expands the power of government over private property and free association is on its own puzzling, but it’s also puzzling for the future blowback that it ensures: government disallowing preferential admissions more broadly. Paraphrasing the late P.J. O’Rourke, if you hated Harvard when it was “all about money," just wait until isn’t.