The College Admission Scandal Points to a Series of Problems

For once, a story that seems to have nothing to do with the Trumpers knocked Trump and his gaggle of crooks off the front page. However, the news story featuring a US Attorney handing out nearly five dozen indictment on charges of bribing college officials to get their kids into elite colleges tells us a whole lot more about the system than we might care to know.

It used to be that a college education was an option in this country. It was helpful to have one, but it wasn’t a necessity. However, as time has moved forward, a college degree is practically a necessity. If you want to work at a fast food chain, you can do so without a bachelors degree, but if you want to go into management, you’re out of luck without one.

That’s not the worst part, however. A certain societal hierarchy has developed over the years, in which having a degree isn’t enough; nowadays, it too often matters where your degree comes from. If you want to be a lawyer, your chance of getting into a high-paying elite firm is greater if you have a degree from an Ivy League school than if you graduate from a state school or a smallish Catholic college of 3,000. Someone with an engineering degree from Harvard or Stanford can make millions more over their working life than someone with an engineering degree from a less “elite” school. If the education was significantly better, that might make more sense, but there is no evidence than a degree from Harvard teaches someone more than a degree from the University of Minnesota or the University of Maine.

This is one of many reasons why I find the concept of “free college” at state schools to be absurd. Yes, I agree that too many students are graduating with crippling debt, but the solution is “debt-free college,” not “free college.” And “free college” would exacerbate the disparities between rich and not-so-rich when it comes to attending a great college. It doesn’t address the real problem, which is students borrowing a shit-ton more money than they need, so they can live in luxury, instead of the traditional near-poverty students used to live with. When I went to school the first time, I live in a dorm and I ate ramen more often than I care to admit. The University of Arizona bookstore carried books and only books; now the bookstore has a Lancome Counter and an Apple Store.

If we make such universities free for everyone in the state, then everyone is on equal ground and that means the rich will have a built-in advantage. Means-test students and make it free for those whose families truly cannot afford it, and you have a winner. We could also increase funding to state schools, to encourage them to reduce tuitions and to create new programs that put them closer in quality to the elite schools these rich crooks are willing to pay dearly to get their kids into.

Another thing; sports. We should be paying college athletes. One aspect of the indictments announced yesterday that was overlooked was how many of these kids got into their elite college through sports and never played, or apparently didn’t even practice. College athletes bring a lot of money to their schools, even elite schools. They should be paid for that with something besides a free education. Have them sign a contract and give them a reasonable amount of pay for their service to the school. It doesn’t have to be a lot; just enough to make it less likely to accept payment from someone to throw a game. This would make it impossible for anyone to pretend to be an athlete to gain admission to an elite school, which is apparently happening with some regularity.

There are so many ways that wealthy people use their money to gain an edge for their kids over others, short of an outright bribe. Many on the right whine and cry about affirmative action, which is an attempt to make up for the long period of time that women and minorities were barred from going to college, by giving them a few points toward their admissions packet. However, they never, ever complain about legacy admissions, which gives an automatic advantage to those who whose ancestors were never denied admission to any school. And that’s more than a few points on the entrance application; that’s guaranteed admission to the child, grandchild or even a niece or nephew of an alumnus.

There are also myriad admissions consultants who charge thousands of dollars to try and guide junior to a school with enough prestige that they get thousands of admission packets for every opening. There are thousands of companies who offer to tutor and provide an edge with regard to the SAT or ACT tests for hundreds or thousands of dollars each, which only those with plenty of disposable income can afford.

Back in the days before we passed the GI Bill, going to college was a meritocracy. College was optional and if you wanted to go to college, you were screened in a way that made it more likely that you would be successful. Now, a college degree is a seeming necessity, but the admissions process has become anything but egalitarian. It’s no longer even remotely egalitarian and it’s far too easy for the wealthy to buy an edge. And if so much is at stake for a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer to obtain a degree from an elite school, it’s time we tore down the entire admissions system and transformed college admissions into an egalitarian enterprise.

What yesterday’s admissions scandal should be teaching us is that there is far too much at stake when it comes to college admissions to not make sure the process is fair for everyone. While I don’t believe this system can be purely egalitarian – anymore than the government system can ever be perfect – our goal should be a more egalitarian system at least with regard to public colleges and private colleges that take public money.

Also published on Medium.

About Milt Shook

A writer with more than 45 years in the political game (and let's face it, it is a game). I am a liberal because facts have a liberal bias, and I really like facts. If you like facts, you'll like this blog. If not, you'll have a hard time.

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