Opinion/News Analysis

The Dirty Little Secret of America's Elite Universities

Copyright © 1997 by Richard Huffman. Reposted here with permission. This commentary originally appeared in the University of Washington-Bothell Commons. The author's URL is at: http://www.wolfe.net/~lzerfred

Lon Grammer, undergraduate at Yale University, was set to graduate last June with 1300 of his classmates. But just seven weeks before graduation Grammer was arrested for larceny in the first degree. He was accused of changing his high school and community college transcripts and forging bogus letters of recommendation three years ago to secure his entrance into Yale. The administration at Yale wants Grammer charged with larceny because of the $61,475 worth of loans and grants that he received under false pretenses while at Yale. If convicted Grammer could receive 20 years in prison.

Twenty years in prison for lying on his transcripts? I would venture to guess that a significant proportion of candidates to elite schools misrepresent their records in some way, with absolute truth giving way to hyperbole, and hyperbole often giving way to actual lying. In even the most honest student, a stint as a summer camp counselor that was quit after two weeks might become on a college application, "a volunteer leader for disadvantaged inner-city youth in city-wide pilot summer camp program which I helped to design".

Admittedly, Grammer went far beyond common hyperbole; he plain lied. And his lies earned him scholarships at Yale that other students were entitled to. But Yale isn't prosecuting Grammer with such a vengeance because he 'stole' $61,475. The university is prosecuting him because he exposed the dirty little secret of top-flight schools; the education received at elite universities is not appreciably different than at most other, considerably less expensive, colleges in the country.

Grammer attended Cuesta Community College in San Luis Obispo, California. In his two years at Cuesta, Grammer achieved the unremarkable grade point average of 2.077, or C average. (The bogus transcript that Yale received said that Grammer had achieved 'a grade point average of 3.91' or 'A' average.) While at Yale, Grammer maintained a 2.5 grade average, which is the low end of a 'B-' average.

This is what is so maddening to Yale. Not that they are losing a portion of the $61,475 that Grammer received, but that a 'C' average community college student could compete and succeed at a school that is supposed to be out of his league. Yale and other elite universities thrive on the notion that they are superior to other schools, like state universities. How else can they justify charging $25,000 a year for an education that costs $3,000 to a student at the University of Washington?

If Grammer's actions had been discovered after he had spent two years performing terribly at Yale, by either failing most of his classes, or dropping out, we would have never heard of Yale trying to seek prosecution for larceny. I suspect that instead Yale would have expelled him, possibly tried to force him to repay his loans, and alerted the media to use Grammer as a poster boy for how 'tough' it is to receive a degree at Yale. Instead, Yale is afraid that Grammer left the inference in the public's mind that Cuesta college in San Luis Obispo, California is tougher academically than Yale University.

The true reason for Yale's zealous prosecution was unwittingly revealed in a newspaper quote by an unnamed Yale official. The official remarked that, "[a]ny alumnus would be appalled if we were to tolerate fraud of the institution." This official understands that the real value of a Yale education has nothing to do with what one learns there; the real value of a Yale education is its perceived quality with potential employers. In the real world, 'A' average graduates from Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo will always be second in line to 'C' average graduates from Yale. Lon Grammer knew this; that's why he cheated his way into Yale. Yale knew it too; that pecking order is what they are trying to protect by prosecuting Grammer.