Breaking news from the Big Fucking Deal Desk: Claremont-McKenna College just had a big scandal blow up in its face over its embellishment of its students’ SAT scores. It turns out that for the past five years, its admissions office added an imaginary 25-30 points annually to the average scores of its incoming freshman classes. The game is now up, and the media are now pointing the accusatory finger: “My, how your nose has grown!”

Try as I might, I can’t get myself to give a shit about the fibbing. I don’t feel one iota of outrage, disgust, surprise, anger, or any other negative sentiment towards Claremont-McKenna. Not a bit. I barely even feel cynical about it. It’s about what I expect of colleges these days. Actually, I expect worse. At Alma Mater, I’ve seen worse and heard credible stories about much worse outrages.

As a country of desperate collegegoers, we’ve no excuse to wag the scolding finger. None. The fibbing in question wouldn’t have happened if Americans weren’t a nation of gullible morons. There would have been no incentive to lie. I must also single out the Chinese, a very different people from a very different country, but one that is arguably engaged in an even madder scramble than Americans to get into prestigious American schools.

The crux of the problem isn’t that some shithead at Claremont-McKenna was unethical enough to aggrandize the institution with such a fraud. It’s that the prospective student body and their parents (never, ever let the parents off the hook in a case like this until they have proven their innocence) lend even a shred of credence to the self-important mediocrity that is US News and World Report. Americans regard the US News college rankings as the Bible of higher education. Chinese widely and erroneously regard it as an official publication of the US government.

Two questions immediately come to mind. First, has anyone noticed the hackneyed groupthink and bad writing that permeates the regular issues of “US News” and questioned the wisdom of relying on such a crappy publication as the oracle of collegiate excellence? Second, has anyone noticed the blatant superficiality and crassness of the college rankings themselves or of the criteria used to rank colleges? US News is the kind of publication that you read because it happens to be out on the table at the doctor’s office, or because your brain is too shot at the moment to process Time. It isn’t as bad as USA Today, but it isn’t a whole lot better, either. In a nation with free and ready access to superior publications, we choose to take our advice on colleges from a blatantly inferior one that purports to quantify the unquantifiable. We have only ourselves to blame for that. US News isn’t a hologrammatic projection diffusing into our psyches along an osmotic gradient in the fashion of television or radio; it’s a publication that we must actively read in order to be propagandized by its rot. We have free agency in the matter and cannot truthfully plead otherwise.

Try to imagine the idiocy that would be necessary to turn to USA Today as one’s only source of advice on restaurants in Paris or plumbers in Davenport. Now, consider that a weekly news magazine vaguely better than USA Today, one that has established that reputation largely subliminally by not copying USA Today’s appallingly juvenile graphics, is widely believed to publish an infallible guide to choosing not restaurants or repairmen, but four-year colleges, attendance at which will have a potentially lifelong effect on earnings and professional advancement. We actually believe these dolts when they tell us that Pepperdine is five rankings better than Pomona, or vice versa. They claim to have run all the rubrics and done all the math. They might as well swear on their lives that they slaughtered the yearling ram according to sacred custom and paid rapt attention to where and how its entrails fell. Reality has flown the coop for anyone who seriously believes that, thanks to its charts and surveys, US News and World Report has any special insight into the academic quality of a college, let alone its suitability to a particular student.

US News earnestly quantifies the unquantifiable. This is an Asperger’s spectrum pursuit, but we consider the fools brilliant for it. It’s as though we turn for relationship advice to a weird old bachelor who crunches the numbers on an Excel spreadsheet in his basement, then calls us with the results: “Well, she scored fifteen out of seventeen on the personality metrics, seventeen out of twenty-five on the psych profile, seven out of ten on tits and ass, six out of ten on the face, and she passed the oil level dipstick test, so I’d say she’s marriageable. I recommend popping the question, so to speak, although her cherry you might not be able to pop so much. Ha.” We’d be idiots for believing a damned thing said by such a creep without confirming it ourselves, and fools unto ages of ages for marrying someone based on his advice.

One of my college guidance counselors, the Solar-Powered Sex Machine, encouraged me to apply to Alma Mater because it had a high female-to-male ratio. He remembered fondly his first visit to his own alma mater, which he decided to attend after seeing throngs of young ladies sunning themselves on the quad in various states of suggestive dress. Not the cream of wisdom and prudence, perhaps, but at least it was reality-based. The Solar-Powered Sex Machine had made his decision based on a gut feeling about the campus and its student body, a decision that he had to visit the campus in order to make. Visiting the campus is a smart move. Even those who are inclined to think with their penises can benefit from a campus visit. When I visited Alma Mater, for instance, having already received an acceptance letter while I waited for Reed to boot me from its waiting list at the start of May, in spite of my natural physical attraction to some of the women I encountered, I noticed that they generally gave the appearance of having been lobotomized. They were a bit too eager to have me, and everyone else within earshot, join their student body. This had not been the case at Reed or Princeton. After I matriculated, I discovered that a disturbingly large number of the coeds were coquettish, manipulative, haughty, or otherwise manifestly fucked up in the head. There went the advantages of that gender imbalance. Another bad sign, at Alma Mater if memory serves: one of my fellow prospective matriculants assumed that “matriculate” was a synonym for “trickle.” That, along with the flippantly, bizarrely juvenile admissions reps who spoke to my tour group at that most illustrious and Zuckerbergian of institutions, Hahvahd, was one of the premier FML moments of my college tours.

I ultimately matriculated, or trickled, at Alma Mater in part because it turned out to be, allegedly, my best safety school. Precious little prep-school educated snowflake that I was, I was too good for Rutgers. In retrospect, maybe I should have gone to the school that I liked because it presumably wasn’t so haughty and lobotomized and was located next to a commuter rail station with service to Manhattan. When I finally set foot on the Rutgers campus the year after I graduated, I was impressed, so my gut feeling could well have been right.

Of course, there’s little point to this sort of Monday-morning quarterbacking. Asking whether I should have gone to Rutgers instead is like asking whether, during freshman year at Alma Mater, I should have made a real pass at Lady York, my unstable quasi-girlfriend who was officially dating Jewish Ben from Brooklyn, but not as far as her parents or her sister with Downs Syndrome were concerned. It was fated to be a trainwreck either way, as would anything involving no fewer than two lovers with diagnoses of manic depression, Catholic parents, an atheist Jewish boyfriend with a bunch of other girlfriends in the city, an atheist-turned-crypto-Protestant volunteer French writing tutor on the side, a class about European empires that subsequently turned into trainwrecks if they and their colonial civil services weren’t from the start, and, serving as matchmaker for Jewish Ben and his semi-lapsed Catholic girlfriend on the downlow, the district attorney who prosecuted Charlie “Murder is the Charge!” Robertson for, you guessed it, murder.

Some things, like the Detroit Lions a few seasons ago, just aren’t meant to be. Some things just feel like murder, even if one knows intellectually that Lillie Belle Allen had it worse. My real point, however, isn’t that I had a volatile love life early in college; it’s that a gut check can prevent, or at least mitigate, college trainwrecks, provided that the prospective student has the balls to tell mom and dad when a well-regarded school fails the gut check or a poorly-regarded one passes. I did for Harvard, but not for Rutgers.

How does US News fit into this scheme? It doesn’t. Turning to it for advice on choosing a college is like getting directions to Torresdale Avenue from the guy on the outbound Route 9 express to Roxborough who’s muttering (betcha didn’t see this coming), “DAH-yum! SHEE-yut! I used to have some family on Torresdale AVENUE!”

Did I overplay my hand? Well, dude probably did have some family on Torresdale Avenue. Maybe he still does. That doesn’t mean that he’s an expert on the Northeast. It’s a good day when he can tell the difference between Frankford and 69th Street and doesn’t try to catch the next trolley to Erie-Torresdale. The devil is in the details. Dirty-ass trolleys and dirty-ass multicar trains serve some of the same dirty-ass stations through the same dirty-ass tunnels, but they go to different dirty-ass neighborhoods. The important thing is to be on the correct dirty-ass platform. And to read the signboard on the train.

Similarly, US News collects, collates and publishes a shitload of data about colleges. It has sources at the colleges that it reviews. It administers reams of surveys. None of it means that its reviews are worth a warm bucket of piss. The colleges play that game skillfully. They’ve mastered it. Besides, Asperger’s-spectrum metrics and Asperger’s-spectrum data analysis yield an Asperger’s-spectrum result. We’re getting reviews about campus culture from the equivalent of Data from “Star Trek.”

Of course, taking the wrong train is a $1.45 oopsie in Philadelphia, $2.00 if you paid full fare, free if you can turn around at an enclosed station or have a reasonable driver. Choosing the wrong college is more like a $20k oopsie–per semester. Come to think of it, some of the dorms are reminiscent of SEPTA, but not as cheap, and they don’t go to Northern Liberties every fifteen minutes.

Face it: if you or your child is planning to go to college, you’re going to spend a shitload of money, some of it on products and services ranging from mediocre to tortiously bad. If you didn’t already know that, I have some construction bonds to sell you for the new tunnel from San Pedro to Hilo. There’s a lot of bullshit and fraud in college, and you don’t need to buy a magazine supplement to know that.

The Devil’s advocate will obviously ask whether US News rankings alert parents and students to the bullshit and fraud, thereby helping them avoid it. Maybe, but don’t count on it. As I mentioned above, colleges know how to play the game. When I was enrolled, Alma Mater’s president, Billy Fish, spoke very favorably of Reed College, the same one that rejected me after lengthy deliberation, for not playing the dirty ranking game. He described Reed as being singular in this regard. The rest of the field, he said, were forced to cater to US News’s whims. Another way of saying this is that colleges are administered by spineless creatures. It takes a true scholar-invertebrate not to tell off a bunch of self-important racketeers for using their abysmal judgment and writing skills to prey on the insecurities of prospective students and their parents for profit. Of course, it’s usually the invertebrates that are squishy and flexible enough to worm their way into the dank crevices where the oracles of US News ask them to go. ‘Tain’t pleasant or dignified, but it’s lucrative, and a good way not to get booted by the trustees back into the tenured ranks of lesser consequence.

The basic model is that if US News asks for it, the college provides it or does it. US News sports wood at the sight of large endowments, so colleges move heaven and earth to raise their endowments. US News sports wood when large percentages of students and alumni give money, so the schools pester their students and alumni to no end to give money, any money, for their dear school. The pitches may make the mature segments of the audience vomit, but they give editors at US News a boost to their own private endowments, so the pitches must go on. If Alma Mater’s large population of amoral sycophants is any indication, colleges have an easy time indeed finding students to fill out questionnaires favorably and offer favorable comments to interviewers.

With luck, US News rankings can prod colleges to provide cafeteria food that doesn’t make diners barf, coffee that doesn’t taste vile and double as a laxative (Alma Mater had the opposite–and a cafeteria ranked in the top ten nationally), and dorms whose condition isn’t actionable under health and building codes. On the other hand, there’s no way in hell to quantify the quality of instruction, instruction being the ostensible purpose of the university and especially of the liberal arts college, because quality of instruction is inherently qualitative, not quantitative. Compelling qualitative arguments can be made that P.J. O’Rourke is a better polemicist than Jim Hightower, or vice versa; some writers or instructors can be reasonably included on or excluded from a list of good ones by a consensus of sane third parties; but as a qualitative measure, any such determination will always be subject to individual opinion. If I find P.J. O’Rourke a bit demoralizing and doctrinaire but entertaining as hell, another person will find him unbearably ideological, a third will find him nothing more than a petulant asshole, and so on. Substantially the same things might be said about Hightower. Maybe a consensus can be established that O’Rourke is more reasonable and civil than Ann Coulter, and sweet Lord, I hope one can, but once we try to quantify one writer’s work against another using a checklist or a survey, we’ve entered the territory of that unmarried marriage counselor with the spreadsheets in his basement. At that point, the only burgers on the menu in the caf are ass burgers.

It was only a matter of time before some school got caught cooking the books on its SAT scores. SAT scores are theoretically a measure of academic aptitude, and they are in practice as well when those taking part are morally grounded and intellectually inclined, but in another sense SAT scores are merely a set of numbers, neither one higher than 800 and no higher than 1600 in the aggregate. Few things are easier to fabricate than numbers. You just make some up. If you’ve a lick of sense, you’ll know how to concoct numbers that are plausible, although only on a case-by-case basis can it be determined whether the target audience is really interested in plausibility.

If your school has a large cohort of business or marketing majors, for instance, you might want to go whole hog. Throwing in a trolley ride to a parallel universe populated by a creepy mailman and an androgynous king might not be such a bad idea if the student body is already living in the Land of Make-Believe. A sweater and shoe changing ceremony, on the other hand, might be too much adult supervision for the student body’s tastes. Sleazy salesmen don’t much appreciate the morally upright sort of psychologist-clergymen hanging around when they’re running boiler room scams. No matter how much they tone down the theology for mixed company, they’re bad for business. Instant examination of conscience, just add tennis shoes and a zip-up cardigan: Jew, Catholic, or Five-Pointer, you’ll know you’re a slave to the sinful nature when you see that you’re a slick, lying, mercenary shit and he isn’t one. Pitchmen like to vet their counselors for vulgarity, and banish them if they haven’t any. At that point, Mister Rogers gets to go back to guiding factory tours, and perhaps ruminating on the sad state of American industry in an age of financial chicanery; alas,he, like a number of the factories he toured, is defunct.

But Joel Osteen isn’t! Nor is Pat Robertson, who offers up a song of praise in that most Holy Spirit-inspired of tongues, Pig Hebrew, whenever he capitalizes another blood diamond mine with the tithes and offerings of the faithful. I hope you weren’t expecting any leadership by example from the clergy and their broadcasters, because you may not be getting any; the “Prosperity Gospel” gets first dibs on airtime. A Billy Graham Crusade classic may have cheaper royalties, but there’s only so much demand for his highminded brand of the old-time religion. Besides, the hucksters are more amenable to product placement, and they bring out enough dopamine to keep the audience coming back, week after week, for another righteous bong hit of that rad-ass 3:20.

To hazard a guess, I’d say that these particular shits are lagging, not leading, indicators of societal rot. I do not, however, believe that they’re anomalies. The growing revolt in Protestant circles against Osteen’s debased theology, for one thing, is so far too diffuse and low-profile to marginalize his brand of fraud. Osteen, Robertson and their fellow travelers are birds of a feather with a wide variety of very powerful secular frauds. In that context, the reformists battling them are, with luck, somewhat more influential on society at large than the Amish; in a culture as permeated with fraud as America’s, there’s little reason that they couldn’t be dismissed as harmless goody-two-shoes curiosities instead.

The big concern in any book-cooking scheme is an independent audit. Students or alumni would have difficulty auditing SAT scores because their only recourse, absent surreptitious access to official school files, would be to ask their peers about their SAT scores and compare the results to the institution’s published scores. There would be no way to get an adequate sample size or a statistically sound sample and little way to ensure honest responses to a survey. Absent proof, grumbling about score inflation could easily be dismissed as paranoid conjecture by disgruntled students and alumni with axes to grind. If the institution cooking the books is the only one with access to the books, it’s easy to keep them closed. Those who might be tempted to expose irregularities can usually be intimidated.

The key word is “usually.” Things go along as usual, the sycophants do their part to keep the ship on course, the would-be snitches are silenced, maybe not quite as they would be by Crips or the Ndraghetta but still in a manner that makes decent people blanch, and then–balls. Someone calls the Chronicle of Higher Education, or the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, or the Attorney General’s office, or some other agency that is statutorily authorized to breathe down legal hellfire in the circumstances, and it’s Game Over. That’s not so great for alumni donations, so it’s best to avoid such unpleasantness. On the other hand, the shrewd financial steward who really gooses contributions before the scandal blows up and covers everyone in egg may be able to stash away a big enough kitty to see the institution through until the media get bored and move on, allowing the institution to propagandize its marks for another round of largesse. This is one of the crassest, most amoral cost-benefit analyses imaginable, but it’s entirely plausible. Bullshitting the public about an institution’s SAT scores may be simply crazy, or it may be crazy like a fox. We might like to think that our colleges have scruples and a sense of shame, but as I alluded to in “Tammany Hall for Young Scholars,” applied ethics got out of Dodge long, long ago.

Like it or not, there’s a market for higher education, and institutions providing it respond to market forces. Do they ever. Everyone who has ever lent credence to their bullshit has been complicit. That includes me. Anyone who has paid attention to competitive schools for fifteen minutes knows that they’re cutthroat, ready to play rough and tumble in the filthiest highland cracker mudpit they can find. If they had scruples, they wouldn’t fill out US News’ damn surveys or berate everyone within earshot for money. Or cover up campus police misconduct until the end of the academic year, then hire as chief an allegedly disgraced lieutenant previously fired for being a good cop. As a matter of course, the higher the US News rank, the nastier the mudpit.

Around a crass operator like Billy Fish, this starts to seem self-evident. To listen to his shrill rhetoric, one would think that Alma Mater is forever at an inflection point, on the verge of either becoming a world-renowned center of educational excellence or being forced to decamp en masse into the hills to subsist on sassafras bark. Your contribution, your very contribution, is the only thing that will make the difference. As alumni, we’re threatened with the constant specter of institutional impoverishment and imperilment, and by extension personal imperilment. It’s absurd, but all too often it works. It’s a permanent state of war, great for rallying the troops if not for factual accuracy. We’ll always be Swarthmore’s poor stepsister, unless it’s convenient to gloat about our alleged academic and financial superiority to those haughty Main Line Quakers, but that won’t be the case for a while. In fear of institutional and personal decline, we’re encouraged to model ourselves on Tom Bradley: a police lieutenant, a mayor, the namesake of an airport terminal, but, in good times and bad, never one to pass up an opportunity to buy more socks.

For all I know, the administration at Claremont-McKenna could be sleazier than Alma Mater’s, but the SAT scandal doesn’t prove it. It’s at most a secondary symptom of the underlying disease. We might want to take the planks from our own eyes before removing the speck from Claremont-McKenna’s. The customers they’re trying to deceive are far from virtuous.

If the science grant overhead scandals of the 1980s are any indication, we’re about to face a wave of embarrassing stories about SAT score inflation at other schools. In a sick way, I’m looking forward to that. I know damn well that a lot of these schools are infernally sleazy, and I wouldn’t mind it if fewer people granted them the pretense of virtue.