“I understand the people who give money to those who need money. The people who give money to those who already have all the money they need — I don’t understand that. What are they thinking?”
— author Malcolm Gladwell
Not too long ago, I started to hear rumors that certain well-known private high schools in Japan were helping their students gain admission to elite U.S. colleges by inflating applicant grade point averages, or GPAs, the average of all grades received throughout high school.
Because a high GPA demonstrates continued excellence — or better, gradual improvement over years — this number has increasingly become one of the most reliable measures of academic potential. Students often must report their GPAs on their university applications, and high schools then send student transcripts directly to universities to provide confirmation.
Curious, I contacted one of the high schools repeatedly mentioned, and the allegation was denied. The representative wrote in an email that the school’s students are assessed on their growth, and students receive better evaluations in their final two years as their skills improve.
Most of the claims I heard came from those actually benefiting from the grade inflation, and the practice was relayed in such detail that the allegations seemed truthful. And if that is the case, certain private schools in Japan are apparently engaged in a very questionable practice — most likely so that they can promote student success in publications and information sessions, and thus increase selectivity and perceived academic quality.
In this “race,” less-privileged public (aka state) school students interested in being admitted to a university outside Japan begin many steps behind. Their school is not going to tinker with their GPA. Perhaps the privileged kids should take two steps forward.
Public school students in Japan are less likely to come from socioeconomic backgrounds that are going to allow them to take a year or more of TOEFL, SAT/ACT and essay-writing prep courses that will inflate their scores and apparent talents. Perhaps another two steps.
The TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) alone is about ¥25,000 per test, and the underprivileged can’t afford to take standardized tests again and again and again — averaging three TOEFLs and four SATs/ACTs — until a high score is achieved. Two more steps, privileged kids.
Public school students often must not only study how to draft a decent letter of recommendation in English but also craft several passionate ones for themselves, because colleges usually require a few, and public school teachers often don’t feel competent doing it in English. Two more steps.
The less affluent generally don’t come from schools that have guidance counselors familiar with overseas admissions, who can ensure that applications are polished and deadlines are met. Two more steps.
Any guess who’s going to win this race?
Winning a race already won
With this as our background, the world of educational philanthropy welcomed Tadashi Yanai, the founder and president of Fast Retailing, the parent of Uniqlo, and arguably the wealthiest man in Japan.
In 2017, Yanai’s foundation doled out 37 four-year scholarships of up to $70,000 per year (¥7 million) for some of Japan’s brightest youths to matriculate to higher education in the U.S. That’s a financial commitment of over ¥1 billion. And more is on its way.
A few months after this occurred, an older Japanese acquaintance directed me to some insightful online criticism of Yanai’s act of goodwill. Basically, the writer’s argument is that this scholarship is mostly aiding the affluent — i.e., well-off private-school kids, many of whom may not even need the money.
So I decided to take a closer look. The Yanai Tadashi Foundation had informed me that 11 of the 37 scholars had come from predetermined select schools. Since it seemed that students from those schools would definitely be benefiting more than others, I asked the foundation to point out the select schools. The foundation did not want to publicly release that information, and out of courtesy I will honor the request. But I can report that virtually all the 11 scholars in this category attended elite private schools, two of which accept a lot of returnees bestowed language skills and cross-cultural experiences during a parent’s overseas posting (two more steps, privileged kids).
The 37 Yanai scholars were chosen by the foundation last April only after each hopeful candidate reported the elite overseas universities offering admission. At least nine of those kids enrolled at Harvard, Yale or Princeton, three of America’s richest schools, all of which provide very generous grants that meet a student’s full financial need for tuition, room and board, and fees.
And that was another complaint: Students matriculating to these three elite institutions would have no demonstrated financial need because costs would have been covered by the college.
In Japan, the median gross income of a household with at least one wage-earner is around ¥6.3 million. Any student matriculating to Harvard, Yale or Princeton from that household would have all his expenses met by the school. Basically, college would be free. Often travel, excursions, books and the like are also covered by schools in the elite category, depending on student need. And costs for students from more affluent homes are not unreasonable. According to Princeton, a student from a household earning $120,000 to $140,000 annually would be asked to pay about $14,000, and a student from a household earning $160,000 to $180,000 would be asked to pay about $21,000.
Why would anyone turn down grants from elite schools in favor of the Yanai scholarship? In an email, the foundation reported to me that it would be depositing up to $35,000 a semester directly into the teens’ U.S. bank accounts for tuition, room and board, and all college fees, and any leftover money — up to $10,000/year — could pocketed tax-free for personal expenses.
Funding society’s strongest
Last May, the foundation promoted its actions to the media by boasting that its scholars would be attending elite universities such as Harvard. The Nihon Keizai Shimbun ran an article. The foundation even sent me a list of the scholars’ schools.
But in reality, many of these students would be at Harvard, Yale, Princeton or wherever without Yanai’s assistance. For those in this category, his money did not actually affect their decision to pursue higher education outside Japan. The kids may have a lot more pocket money, and their parents may be able to save or spend more than usual, but far fewer than 37 destinies were altered here.
One Yanai scholar not attending Harvard, Princeton or Yale told me that he had several fully funded scholarships up to $70,000 per year before receiving the Yanai grant. There’s another destiny not altered.
Nearly 70 percent of Japanese high school students attend public school, but public school graduates accounted for only six of the 37 Yanai scholars. When I asked about this gross imbalance, the foundation representative wrote, “Though it is difficult to give general reasons for the trend, information divides or income gaps might be affecting it.”
Of course, not all kids at public schools are from low-income households, but you can easily guess where the less-privileged can be found — at public schools like Tokyo Metropolitan Kokusai High School, which had zero Yanai scholars. Kokusai High School, with “kokusai” being Japanese for “international,” educates, in its own words, “a colorful mosaic of youths from various backgrounds.” It is an International Baccalaureate World School with the express aim to “develop well-balanced students with an international perspective.”
I don’t have any affiliation with Kokusai High School, but I have visited and talked to its students, and I know that many would relish the opportunity to study overseas. However, a lot don’t come from socioeconomic backgrounds that will allow them to get two, four, six, eight steps ahead of their competition. Students there are not going to benefit from “naturally growing” GPAs.
According to its own school profile, Kokusai High gets its kids into the likes of the University of California, Irvine, which is an excellent school but does not bestow aid to international students meeting full tuition, or nearly full tuition, unlike grants accompanying a Harvard, Princeton or Yale acceptance. Kokusai High kids actually need the money. If they don’t get it, they often can’t go.
Malcolm Gladwell, the acclaimed Canadian author of best-sellers such as “The Tipping Point,” has grumbled for years about educational philanthropists funding society’s strongest links instead of its weakest. The strong-link, weak-link heuristic embraced by Gladwell is culled from the book “The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong.” Gladwell has used this heuristic to suggest that our interdependent society is best served by spreading our resources and educating as many people as possible. To use the book’s soccer analogy, what matters most is the talent of your worst player, not your superstar. Unfortunately, Yanai’s foundation chose to throw his billions at the superstars.
Now, I do know that some of these Yanai scholars have greatly benefited from this gift, particularly those coming from unstable home environments. Opportunities were realized. Loans were avoided.
However, most of those scholars are so talented that they will flower wherever they find themselves. A press release touting the support of less-affluent Japanese students heading to the likes of the University of California, Irvine, might not generate the “wow” of Harvard among most Japanese, but what is more important, creating media buzz through superfluous funding of your superstars or elevating the abilities of the entire team?
How to level the playing field
So what changes might the foundation consider? First, to address the rumors of GPA inflation, potential recipients should be confirmed to be matriculating from schools that are not tinkering with grades.
Second, the actual need of each student should be considered. At least half the scholarships should be given to kids matriculating from households not exceeding the median income. This addresses the income gap cited by the foundation as possibly keeping down applicants from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
Third, to resolve the information divide suggested by the foundation, a guidance counselor should be tasked to visit public schools, provide information to students and their families about the scholarship, and be open to providing personal one-on-one assistance throughout the year.
Fourth, financing for standardized tests and other preparations should be considered on a case-by-case basis for those in need.
And fifth, why limit the universities to only those in U.S.? Encourage the scholars to develop their talents all over the world.
For simplicity, an exchange rate of ¥100 per U.S. dollar has been used for currency conversions. The author can be contacted at email@example.com.
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