One eye-popping detail from the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal was the incredible variation in what parents had to pay to bribe their beloved progeny into Ivy League schools. Some moms and dads managed it with just a few hundred thousand dollars, while others had to fork over millions. The same dynamic plays out in the legal but no less scandalous world of “development admits”—when the likes of Charles Kushner donate large sums to fancy universities just as their kids’ applications are pending, and lo and behold they miraculously get in.
Into this thicket wades school finance impresario Marguerite Roza in a new and timely paper. Written for the 0.1 to 0.01 percent, she identifies the right price to pay for admission into each of the eighty most selective colleges in America. The analysis presented multiple methodological challenges. First, given research by Raj Chetty and others showing that rich kids don’t benefit much from attending elite schools, it was impossible to do a cost-benefit analysis related to long-term income gains. And second, since so many billionaires and their brats value the schools’ prestige over their academic prowess, she had to find a way to quantify that.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and Roza hit upon a brilliant empirical strategy, leveraging the social media accounts of students and parents, both before and after admission, to look at the status-boosting potential of each college and university.
The results are fascinating, if largely intuitive. The biggest status-enhancers are mostly what you’d expect—Harvard, Princeton, and Yale top the list—but they’re also the most expensive to unlock, requiring bribes of half a million or donations of two-million-plus. Other top-tier schools underperform relative to their academic quality. Stanford especially is seen by the jet-set as “too nerdy,” and the University of Chicago as “too cold.” This keeps their bribery charges relatively low. On the flip side, USC can charge a premium thanks to its So-Cal sun and splashy location, no matter its famously so-so academics. (We’re sorry, Morgan, but it’s true.)
But it turns out there are some bargains if parents know where to look. The service academies, for one, show great potential. Bribing a senator to sponsor a candidate’s nomination is dirt cheap—and not only are West Point and the Naval Academy tuition-free, their cadets actually earn a salary! Granted, students don’t get to spend their days lounging on billionaires’ yachts, but aircraft carriers are almost as nice.
But the best deal, dollar for dollar, is…Duke! It’s prestigious, it’s sunny, and with its “one and done” culture, administrators are used to prioritizing money over academic excellence. Devilish indeed.