US College Admissions Scandal is Reminiscent of Russian Realities

In my 2011 series comparing life in the US, Britain, and Russia, I wrote the following about university admissions:

Overall, university admissions are probably the most meritocratic in the UK. In Russia, though the system is supposed to be meritocratic, it is skewed by corruption, for it is not unknown for applicants to bribe admissions staff at the more prestigious universities, and certainly the children of oligarchs or powerful politicians – no matter their intellectual aptitude – experience few problems in getting into schools like Moscow State University or MGIMO. However, direct bribes have become more difficult in recent years, due to the national standardization of the exam system. The US is in between. Though direct corruption is as unheard of as in the UK, the system itself is rigged in favor of the rich and influential. The most egregious example of this is the open discrimination in favor of legacies, the children of former alumni of the university. The more your parents “donate” to the alma mater, the better their children’s chances of getting in. This reminds me of a Simpsons episode where the nuclear power tycoon Mr. Burns takes out his checkbook to negotiate a place in Harvard for his ne’er-do-well son Larry.

Man: Well, frankly, test scores like Larry’s would call for a very generous contribution. For example, a score of 400 would require a donation of new football uniforms, 300, a new dormitory, and in Larry’s case, we would need an international airport.
Woman: Yale could use an international airport, Mr. Burns.
Burns: Are you mad? I’m not made of airports!

This would be considered pretty repellent by Europeans (and most Americans too), but is only counted as corruption by the former. There are two other major examples of discrimination in university admissions to US colleges. First, good athletes – primarily American football players, rowers, and lacrosse players – are much more likely to get in with poor grades, as they bring their university money and recognition (this is also common in Oxbridge, UK, for rowers). Second, there is positive discrimination* based on race: due to their poorer academic performance in schools, African-Americans** and Hispanics have an easier time getting in on poor grades than whites or Asians. (Jews have a great time of it. Though they have the highest grades of any ethnicity, they are counted as whites for the purpose of university admissions.)

This is the sort of quid pro quo that got President Kushner into Harvard.

However, if the recent news are anything to go by, the US system has degraded closer to Russia’s level, in which the former sheen of legality has been replaced by outright bribery and outsider test-taking.

Riddell took SAT and ACT exams for students between 2012 and this past February, according to a criminal complaint.

He was paid $10,000 per test, prosecutors said.

It wasn’t immediately clear, in charging documents, exactly how many tests Riddell took, but prosecutors are seeking to recover almost $450,000 forfeiture from the former college tennis player.


On Tuesday, the Justice Department announced the indictments of dozens of wealthy parents, including the Emmy-winning actress Felicity Huffman, for employing various forms of bribery and fraud to get their kids into highly selective schools. Some of them allegedly paid college coaches, including at Yale and Stanford, to lie and say that their children were special recruits for sports that the kids didn’t even play. Others allegedly paid exam administrators to let someone smarter take tests for their children. Millions of dollars changed hands.

Now I am not saying that Russia and the US are comparable, because they are not. Prevalence is certainly much greater in Russia. And American violations actually lead to criminal investigations (which you can’t exactly do in Russia, where the rot starts at the very top; e.g., Putin’s “PhD” is plagiarized).

Still, this does seem to indicate a sort of gradual convergence in institutional quality and social/moral mores, as whatever it was that made the West special – its rule of law, or historic selection for prosocial traits, or whatever else it is – continue breaking down.

I suppose one benefit is that more such cases will help reveal modern academia for the empty, useless, non-human capital increasing, pure signalling enterprise it is so far as 90% of the population is concerned.

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.


Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.


Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.


  1. e.g., Putin’s “PhD” is plagiarized

    Is there any proof of that? Definitely a rogue Minister of culture Medinsky. About Putin, I saw a lot of accusations, but no evidence.

  2. anonymous coward says

    Prevalence is certainly much greater in Russia.

    How the fuck would you know? You’re not even aware of the fact that there’s no such thing as a “prestigious school Moscow State University”!

  3. Dissertations are something that one can read and compare (unlike Putin’s supposed offshore $200 billion).

    I assume that if the researchers who discovered this lied, then they would have long since been uncovered. Indeed, it would have been a PR coup for Putin’s team to have done it themselves.

    Also, the idea that Putin had enough time to research and write a PhD on the intricacies of natural resources policy while he was busy with SPB politics, trade, etc. is quite absurd anyway. I don’t even blame him for it. It was embedded in the culture that emerged in the 1990s.

  4. anonymous coward says

    Let me expound: there’s no such thing as a “Moscow State University”, not really. It is composed of different faculties, which have no relation to each other academically or organizationally.

    There’s an assload of faculties:

    There are a few very prestigious ones, but a large part are “literally lol what” faculties, like the school of political science, the school of art or the school of translation studies.

    The very prestigious ones are the STEM ones: physics, math, CS. Bribing someone to attend them never happens because it is pointless. You’d just flunk out after the first semester, and the professors there are too autistic to care about your pedigree anyways.

    TL;DR – I suspect with a high degree of confidence that you literally don’t know anything about Russian higher education and can’t comment meaningfully on the topic of corruption thereof.

  5. anonymous coward says

    It’s not plagiarized. Written by somebody else who was sloppy with citations, yes. But plagiarism is a different thing.

  6. Dacian Julien Soros says

    Has anyone seen dissertations produced by the intellectuals of the Democratic party? The Clintons, Obama, even Warren must have produced piles of papers. I doubt they were such smart asses in the seventies, when even the thought of plagiarism software didn’t cross their mind. Claiming that “Putin plagiarized” before pulling a representative sample of Clintons is meaningless.

    As it happens, during the most recent pre-election year, Sorors friends brought to Romania the “plagiarism” nonsense. Turned out that the second in command at the ‘Save Romania’ Union, most Sorosophile group in the parliament, had plagiarized her thesis, at MIT, in the naughties. Since the mainstream party voters were not interested in “muh Putin plagiarism”, I have yet to hear any complaints. Simple lack of interest may explain why American politicians’ writings are not analyzed.

    Anyway, Soros is losing in that direction. His underlings barking about plagiarism have yet to switch anyone’s allegiances. For better or worse, the majority of US voters have concluded already that Kushner’s and Obama’s intellectual abilities are not something guaranteed or even enhanced by their stay at Harvard. Most of them think of Ivies and of advanced degrees only as a factory of smooth-talking crooks. This why, perhaps, you may want to switch the channel now. You are missing the real news, the facts that actually decide US elections.

    And you should cut Putin some slack. Show me Obama’s dissertation being tested with an antiplagiarism software first.

  7. Person who says “there is no such thing as Moscow State University” is reading me lectures about how I, who comes from a family of Russian academics, who currently works (part-time) at a Russian academic institution, don’t know anything about Russian higher education.

  8. Dissertations are something that one can read and compare (unlike Putin’s supposed offshore $200 billion).

    That’s why I doubt it. It is very simple – to lay out a page from Putin’s dissertation, and a page from work being a source of alleged plagiarism. Where is it? I have seen many accusations of plagiarism, but I have never seen evidence of this claim.

  9. You are missing the real news, the facts that actually decide US elections.

    What are we missing?

  10. Anonymous says

    Very few American politicians have produced dissertations as very few have PhDs and they are generally not required for any other degree in the US. A few universities do require senior undergraduates to produce a thesis as a sort of capstone in order to receive their degrees. The most famous of these is probably Princeton University, alma mater of former first lady Michelle Obama. Google her thesis and judge for yourself; I found it to be comically ungrammatical and inelegant (but she still managed to graduate with honors).

  11. You didn’t mention the most famous one of all, Martin King’s plagiarised doctoral dissertation

  12. AK, would it be hard for a foreigner to work at Russian academia ?

  13. B.P. Bollocksworth says

    I wonder if we will live to see USA become more corrupt than Russia. Already it seems bikes are safer in Moscow than in DC. Pressure in Russia seems toward higher social function as the Putin generation grow up.

    Who in America is willing to risk or sacrifice for the state? No one, not even the big winners of the zeitgeist (assorted losers, crooks and perverts). This is a “society” primed for accelerating corruption as boomers cede power. Only hindrance is the panopticon

  14. anonymous coward says

    I have a degree from there myself. It’s a fact that anybody who talks about “Moscow State University” instead a particular faculty is either a foreigner or a peasant with a primary school diploma.

    Maybe it’s not ignorance, maybe you’re being deliberately disingenuous in your shilling and trolling job, I don’t know.

  15. And you should cut Putin some slack. Show me Obama’s dissertation being tested with an antiplagiarism software first.

    Obama’s senior thesis is apparently a well-guarded secret, like his grades. Harvard omerta. While it might be as ghost written as his books, imagine how embarrassing it would be if it turned out to be written by himself and … kind of stupid. The legacy of the One would be threatened.

  16. I will point out that legacy applicants don’t get admitted unless their parents belong to the costlier levels of the alumni association, donate big bucks every year and serve on the numerous local alumni committees.

    They’re expected to hire new grads if they own a business or help a new grad get a job. Have a nice big house belong to a country club? Host all sorts of meetings and even pay the cost of big parties at the club. Most of all, give give give give to your school if you want your kids to get in.

    An applicant can have 3 generations of alumnae but if they didn’t give no admittance.

    The legacy admits parents give money.

    The affirmative action admits give nothing and as soon as they get to campus start demanding all sorts of special privileges and committing hate hoaxes

  17. A PhD is required to write a dissertation of 100 pages or so. That’s the monthly output of a JD candidate, many of whom also hold full time day jobs. A large majority of US legislators and presidents have JDs. It would be so entertaining to read from these geniuses. Surely, they would have been more honest than Putler.

  18. And American violations actually lead to criminal investigations

    It sometimes happens in Russia. Moscow’s second med institute got hit. But in this case the prosecution was probably the result of the wrong person not getting paid off, or some political infighting gone bad, not a true crackdown on corruption.

  19. LOL, my wife graduated from there (not from a STEM field) and in English she says she went to Moscow State.

    You are always good for a clueless comment.

  20. Anonymous says

    JDs write exams from memory under strict time limits; it would be interesting to read some of these but imo a thesis written on a topic of one’s choosing with essentially unlimited time and access to resources (including proofreading and revisions done by mentors) provides much better insight into a person’s character and intellect.