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Has higher education had its Bernie Madoff moment?

A big story is developing about claims that financiers, Hollywood celebs and others engaged in criminal fraud to enable their children to get into posh Ivy League universities and other such places.

Beyond the salacious details about such a story – and you can imagine how this plays to the “poor ordinary folk outraged by rich people doing Bad Stuff” sort of narrative – is the issue of what the likes of Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds has called the education bubble. With credentialism in the workplace rising, demand for college/university degrees expanding, and fuelling rising student debt, higher tuition fees and yes, more debt, the higher ed. industry is exhibiting the kind of distortions and potential for fraud that we saw in the period leading up to the financial crack-up of 2008. Remember the Bernie Madoff Ponzi fraud scam? The hedge fund that wasn’t was able to scam people at a time when asset prices were rising everywhere and getting into the juiciest hedge funds was the name of the game, rather like getting into the poshest schools was seen as important to people today. By preying on insecurity, vanity, status and worries that being outside meant failure, Madoff defrauded people out of billions of dollars. The parallels with what is going on in higher ed. are quite close.

On a related point, I recently read US academic Bryan Caplan’s book, The Case Against Education: Why The Education System is a Waste of Time and Money. I might not go as far as agreeing with the totality of his ideas, but it seems to me that when people are allegedly committing crimes to get kids into a university, and where the kind of “snowflake” issues are turning some of these places into echo chambers for the Hard Left, it is time for radical change.

20 comments to Has higher education had its Bernie Madoff moment?

  • Mr Ed

    Let no one prejudge any issue of fact or law, and presume innocence, even involving US Federal charges as I understand is the case here. From media reports, I understand that certain wealthy people are alleged to have made charitable donations to major US Universities (respectively) in order to secure places for their offspring.

    This does rather blow the ‘White Privilege’ narrative out of the water, as if these rich (often even Democrat-supporters and donors) people have paid more than the standard tuition fees etc., then their darling offspring can’t get places on the basis of merit or ‘White Privilege’, but they have to pay through the nose for what is not theirs ‘of right’.

    Am I missing something?

    And isn’t this all simply paying up-front rather than facing some undignified begging from University Chancellors, or Vice-Chancellors or Pro-Vice Chancellors on $500,000 or so salaries when at a vulnerable moment at graduation?

    The United States of America, a country where, if you do business, or even give money away, you may wonder who, of those you come into contact with, might have been ‘turned’ by a Federal Government, and is wire-tapped, hoping to trap you into the web of a criminal conspiracy and then put you on a charge with a 20 year sentence. Sounds familiar?

  • Dalben

    They’re also alleged to have bribed university employees like coaches to lie to the university about their kids accomplishments and recruit ability and to have bribed people to alter test scores. So not just paying the university to take their kid with a ‘donation’. That’s still legal but probably requires a much more substantial amount of money.

  • James Strong

    ‘with credentialism in the workplace rising’.
    I’m happily retired. The qualification that got me my first job at the start of a moderately successful working life would not get my CV past the post room (or whatever the nodern equivalent is in a large office) and on to the recruiter’s desk.

    If the recruiter opened his own mail then my CV with that qualification would go in his bin.

    We’ve long since seen A Level standard jobs going all-graduate, and Bachelor degree jobs now requiring a Master’s.

    Coming soon – A Level jobs demanding a Master’s degree.

  • CaptDMO

    In the US, “Featured” in photos, front and center are two entertainment “stars”.
    *phew* FINALLY, we can put the “Glass Ceiling” meme to rest!”
    Wait, wasn’t “Folks with money getting their kids higher education” how higher education (and “The Gentleman’s “c”) came to be?
    And yes, “social connections” were VASTLY more valuable than MOST of what was being regurgitated in the classroom.
    Of COURSE there are valuable course-of-study classes/paths.
    It IS easy to “just party” while you’re waiting for your unprivileged (pigment, gonad, gender confidence, bell curve) classmates to “catch up”.
    Warning:(US) Private Prep School grads…… Be careful NOT to disprove your “Introduction to Architecture” tenure candidate professor’s graduate thesis on Ancient Greco-Roman structural anthropology in your second Freshman paper.

  • Bloke on M4

    “With credentialism in the workplace rising, demand for college/university degrees expanding, and fuelling rising student debt, higher tuition fees and yes, more debt, the higher ed. industry is exhibiting the kind of distortions and potential for fraud that we saw in the period leading up to the financial crack-up of 2008.”

    Some workplaces. Generally the sort of places that are themselves running on bullshit. They hire graduates as a CYA exercise. If it all goes wrong, they can point to the fact that they hired a graduate, so it can’t be their fault.

    The small software houses I work in pretty much don’t care if you have a degree. We want to see experience, mostly. A degree will get your foot in the door for a junior role, but you’re going to do the same programming tests as the kid with an A level in computer science who has built a few noddy websites.

  • Flubber

    What? Those loud voices preaching equality are busily spending their money to entrench privilege?

    Say it isnt so…..

  • Sam

    This episode was eye-opening not for the sordid affair in question, but for the reaction.

    I readily assumed everyone knew this sort of thing happened all the time. I was bored before finishing the headline. It’s like hearing the French president has a mistress or something. No shit, dog bites man and all.

    Have I placed too little faith in our institutions and am overly cynical or too little faith in the general public and their understanding of the world?

  • NickM

    I did physics at Nottingham. I was taught, by amongst others an FRS (who also won the Nobel). To a very large extent I learned science and maths, smoked dope, danced at The Irish and shagged birds. I did well enough to get a full studentship for an MSc in Astrofizz at QMW, London. I knew people who got into the politics and they were mainly wankers who “studied” the Farts and Shiturature. Basically unless it is STEM or languages or, you know, useful somehow then university is essentially pissing on Chris Grayling’s garden gate and calling it pointful.

    Professer Sir Peter Mansfield FRS won his Nobel for inventing the MRI scanner. Now that is worthwhile in a way that spouting pomes (not an sp) about your “Angry lesbian breast” isn’t. I don’t wanna call rank here (except I am) but…

  • llamas

    It’s been a long time indeed since I read for the law but I’m having a very hard time making out the elements of the offence of criminal fraud. Maybe one of our resident legal-eagles can help me out here.

    Who was defrauded, here? Sure, universities were misled into offering places to these students based upon false accounts of their abilities, But – I’ve not heard any suggestion that the colleges were duped into offering these brats scholarships, or that they somehow avoided paying the same tuition as everybody else.

    So whose pocket is being picked, here? Students are admitted to these universities all the time who do not meet the academic requirements, for any number of reasons. And CV-burnishing is a n ancient pastime in college admissions.

    This sounds to me very much like the universities making a tremendous fuss because they have been very-publicly duped, and of course a generous helping of envy directed at these people who were able to buy their kids’ ways into exclusive schools. But I just can’t see the fraud?



  • Mr Ed


    I read that one of the (many) charges was ‘mail fraud’ which I think was made out on the basis of sending a false prospectus in the US Mail. (Some might say the USPS is ‘mail fraud’, but that’s another matter). I think it may actually be closer to ‘honest services fraud‘, as per the Wiki article.

  • Bilwick

    To Lori Loughlin and Felcity Huffman, I say: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rX7wtNOkuHo

  • Eric

    I readily assumed everyone knew this sort of thing happened all the time. I was bored before finishing the headline. It’s like hearing the French president has a mistress or something. No shit, dog bites man and all.

    Agreed. What’s irritating about the hyperventilating is if you’re very rich instead of mostly rich you can buy your kids a slot at any school you want by purchasing the school a new building, and it’s all above board.

  • CaptDMO

    Make a donation? fine.
    Claim it on your taxes as a deduction, well…
    “and there was nothing of value exchanged for this?
    In-kind items of value are frowned upon, for all except “special” political campaign
    Rich folks used to pay for their kids to get through college.
    Now, rich folks pay for their kids to get through college.
    “Social promotion”, “disadvantaged”, and “quota” has a whole new flavor.

    Llamas-“This sounds to me very much like the universities making a tremendous fuss because they have been very-publicly duped…”
    Really? This is the U.S.!
    “Oh, if only SOMEONE could get through to the king, and let him know what’s REALLY going on!”
    Trust me, “the king” knows……

  • Johnathan Pearce

    My impression is that more and more firms and economic sectors require credentials. If that wasn’t the case then it’s hard to explain some of the massive higher ed expansion we’ve seen.
    Of course there are many forces at work. One is that sending kids to college massages down unemployment data.

  • Eric

    Johnathan Pearce,

    In the US the credentialism can be traced mostly back to Griggs v Duke Power. Employers can no longer screen prospective employees with IQ tests, something that used to be routine, so they’ve started to use college degrees as a proxy for IQ.

  • llamas

    Oh, I get it – not actual fraud, but a sort of administratively-devised-defintion of ‘fraud’ that we use to punish those who do something we don’t like but which is not, in itself, a crime.

    So, riddle me this – if what these folks did was ‘criminal fraud’, would the identical charges not lie against Senator Elizabeth Warren – falsifying her situation (ethnic origins) to obtain advantage in college, academic and professional situations? If not, why not?



  • TMLutas

    I’ve yet to see anyone ask a thing of the accreditation bodies. They’re supposed to make sure that fraud and deceit do not enter into academia. Where were they? I suspect they had other priorities.

  • Stephen Houghton

    This excellent limerick explains why the Universities are mad.

    Rich parents are asked to respect
    How colleges choose and select.
    A bribe for admission
    Is fine on condition
    It’s suitably large and direct.

  • Paul Marks

    Most of higher education, at least in the United States, is a DOUBLE scam.

    It is incredibly expensive (thanks to many decades of government subsidies – such as government backed “student loans” which push the cost of tuition up and up – just as government subsidies of rent paying or medical expenses push the cost up and up), and it is largely Marxist rubbish – indeed Marxism of the most infantile “Woke” type. It is hard to tell the difference between the “elite” education of Harvard and Yale and the Frankfurt School of Marxism ravings of Marvel Comics. Indeed the only real difference is the absurdly pretentious language that the universities use – at least Hollywood and the rest of the Marxist entertainment industry (hello Disney Corporation – you do realise that Mr Walt Disney would fire you all in a second if he returned to this life) spare the world such pretentious language.

    “Ah but Paul – you do not understand that Mr Walt Disney would not be able to fire the Corporate bureaucracy today – they would sue him, and they control the courts and so on”, I honestly believe that Walt Disney would go back to Missouri and sweep the streets (if he could get no other job) rather than be the figurehead of some “Woke” (Frankfurt School of Marxism) Corporation. Being the head of some Woke Corporation such as “Patreon” – is not a job for a man with any self respect.

    It is the same in the universities – could the great figures of American scholarship in the 19th century (James McCosh, Noah Porter, A.L. Perry, Frank Fetter….) get a job today in the universities?

    Well they could get a job – as toilet cleaners or security guards, but they certainly could not get an academic position in most (most – not all, there are still a few holdouts) universities.

    So why does this system persist – vast expense in order to be taught Marxism, and dumbed down infantile “Frankfurt School” Marxism at that – stuff about “feminism”, “queer theory” and so on that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (both “straight white men” – with no time for “niggers” to use the nasty word they used) would most certainly NOT have sat through.

    Simple – NETWORKING, to get a “good job” in the government bureaucracies (Federal, State or local) or in one of the “Woke” (Frankfurt School) Corporations one must have a “good degree”.

    Rich white people send their children to university NOT, in the main, out of a love of Marxism (certainly not the dumbed down Marxism that Karl Marx, busy “knocking up” his maid [Frederick Engels preferred Fox Hunting] would have laughed at) – they send their children to university to get a “good job”.

    If someone is white and male then having rich parents is basically the only way to get to somewhere like Harvard and get the “good job” at the end of it.

    Females and non-whites might get in on quotas (although that is not automatic – a CONSERVATIVE young women or black person has little chance). But not a POOR white male – at least only rarely.

    So what do white males from POOR families do? They do what “Rednecks” have always done – they work with their hands (they make things – including deadly instruments of war, things that with their “lack of education” they “should not be able” to make) and they FIGHT – and they are very good at that. As the college “Woke Corporation” and government bureaucracy types may find out one day soon.

  • Mary Contrary


    The alleged offences were committed in the US, where fraud is (mostly) a State matter, and so the law will vary from State to State. However, had the same (alleged) facts been perpetrated in England and Wales, they would certainly (if proven) make out a criminal offence.

    The law of fraud was substantially simplified and modernised in the Fraud Act 2006. Usually I would personally think such changes for the worse, but this particular case seems to be an exception: the new offence of fraud by misrepresentation is simple, understandable, objectively determined, requires a guilty intent, and just.

    If someone behaved in the way reported in the UK, and were successfully prosecuted under the Fraud Act, as I believe they could be, I would not lose any sleep at all over their conviction.