Matt Yglesias’ five-year old son asks: why do we send the top students to the best colleges? Why not send the weakest students to the best colleges, since they need the most help? This is one of those questions that’s so naive it loops back and becomes interesting again.

To avoid corrupting the youth, we might provide an optimistic answer: anyone can teach addition, any college math major can teach calculus, but it takes a world expert to teach ten-dimensional hypertopology. We want to take the few students smart enough to learn hypertopology and connect them to the few experts smart enough to teach it. But this seems false; most of the classes at top colleges are the same material that gets taught everywhere else; you don’t get into subjects that need world experts until postgrad.

Another answer, still somewhat optimistic: we want to maximize the chance of geniuses doing revolutionary work. If we give a mediocre student the world’s best writing teacher, and a genius a mediocre writing teacher, they might each write a pretty good novel. But if we give a mediocre student a mediocre writing teacher, and the genius the world’s best writing teacher, then we might get one mediocre novel and one work of staggering genius which revolutionizes literature forever. Likewise, if we connect the world’s most talented young scientists to the world’s best science teachers and labs, maybe they’ll cross some threshold of understanding where they can discover a cure for cancer. I think this is the best explanation that sticks to optimistic prosocial answers.

(Is is true? An oft-cited paper, Dale and Krueger, appears to find that, controlling for applicant characteristics, people who attend more selective college don’t earn more money later in life. Here’s a gesture at a challenge to these results, apparently supported by Dale and Krueger themselves, though I can’t find any more information. Earnings are a poor proxy for “teaches better” - it would be great to have something like value-add to GRE scores - but AFAIK no study like that exists.)

What if we’re more cynical, and believe in the signaling theory of education?

We could think of “the best college” as a self-fulfilling prophecy; for whatever reason, one college has gotten a reputation as the one whose signal is most valuable. Everyone naturally tries to get in there; if they fail, they go to the college with the next-best reputation, and so on. The system is stable; the “best” college will keep its reputation (since it gets the best students) and the best students will always want to go to the best college. If, as Matt’s son suggests, all the Ivies started accepting the worst students instead, an Ivy degree would soon become a signal that you’re bad, and employers would stop respecting it.

I heard a fascinating variation of this hypothesis from Matt Christman of Chapo Trap House: elite colleges are machines for laundering privilege.

That is: Harvard accepts (let’s say) 75% smart/talented people, and 25% rich/powerful people. This is a good deal for both sides. The smart people get to network with elites, which is the first step to becoming elite themselves. And the rich people get mixed in so thoroughly with a pool of smart/talented people that everyone assumes they must be smart/talented themselves. After all, they have a degree from Harvard!

The most blatant form of this obfuscation: suppose you own a very successful family business. You can leave your son your fortune, you can leave him the business, you can leave him your mansion, but you can’t (directly) leave him an aura of having deserved all these things. What you can do is make a $10 million donation to Harvard in exchange for them accepting your son. Your son gets a Harvard degree, a universally-recognized sign of being a highly meritorious person. Then when you leave him the business, everyone will agree he deserves it. Who said anything about nepotism? Leaving a Harvard graduate in control of your business is an excellent decision!

This happens a little, but I think it mostly isn’t this obvious. More often the transactions are for abstract goods: prestige, associations, favors. The Maharaja of Whereverstan sends his daughter to Harvard so that she appears meritorious. In exchange, Harvard gets the credibility boost of being the place the Maharaja of Whereverstan sent his daughter. And Harvard’s other students get the advantage of networking with the Princess Of Whereverstan. Twenty years later, when one of them is an oil executive and Whereverstan is handing out oil contracts, she puts in a word with her old college buddy the Princess and gets the deal. It’s obvious what the oil executive has gotten out of this, but what does the Princess get? I think she gets the right to say she went to Harvard, an honor which is known to go mostly to the meritorious.

People ask why Harvard admissions can still be bribed or influenced by the rich or well-connected. This is the wrong question: the right question is why they ever give spots based on merit at all. The answer is: otherwise the scheme wouldn’t work. The point of a money-laundering operation is to take in both fairly-earned and dirty money, then mix them together so thoroughly that nobody can tell which is which. Likewise, the point of a privilege-laundering operation is to take in both fairly-earned and dirty privilege, then stamp both with a Harvard degree. “Fairly-earned privilege” means all the brilliant talented ambitious youngsters admitted on the basis of their SAT scores and grades and impressive accomplishments; “dirty privilege” means the kids of various old-money aristocrats, foreign potentates, and ordinary super-rich people. Colleges mix them together, with advantages for both groups.

Is this good or bad? It’s good insofar as it provides a justification for making some elite positions dependent on merit and accessible to anyone, but bad insofar as it helps defend and obfuscate the ones that aren’t. It’s good if you think it’s good for all the elites (meritocratic and otherwise) to know each other and be on the same page; it’s bad if you don’t want them to be (maybe because it helps them oppress people more efficiently).

I expect that without such a system the elites would do their own thing without any concession to merit whatsoever - so maybe it beats the alternative.