You most likely have read about the criminal prosecution of a business based in Orange County, California that helped college applicants get admitted to elite colleges by falsifying test scores for the college admission tests (SAT & ACT) and by bribing college sport coaches to arrange for the admission of students with falsified sports profiles. Obviously this business and the parents engaged in fraudulent conduct, and the use of the U.S. Mail and federally regulated banks makes this conduct a federal crime. But there is more going on here, and the one of the more interesting issues is how higher education has been transformed dramatically in the last 50 years.
There have been numerous surveys of incoming college students conducted over the past 50 years regarding the students’ reasons for attending college. Surveys from the 1960s generally identified the top reasons for attending college was to improve oneself and to learn more about the world. Attending college developed one’s character and allow a person to better understand and appreciate science, music, liturature, etc. However, surveys from this decade invariably identify economic reasons as the most significant motivation. For example, this survey conducted by Harris Poll in 2014 identifies the top reasons for attending college: “1) To improve my employment opportunities; 2) To make more money; and 3) To get a good job.”
Of course colleges often provide skills and knowledge necessary for many occupations, but it was not always necessary to go to college to earn a good living. A person without a college degree in the 1960s could find a good-paying job in manufacturing in industries like automobile manufacturing and steel. But in the 21st Century most of these jobs have disappeared in the U.S., and the jobs that do not require a college education tend to be low wages jobs such as hotel and restaurant work, retail sales cashiers, etc. This creates pressure on young people to attend college simply to earn a living wage. Many employers will not consider candidates without college degrees even if the college education has little or nothing to do with the specific job tasks. This creates pressure on young people to attend college even if they have little interest in self-improvement or learning about the world.
At the same time, the cost of college has increased dramatically. When I graduated from the University of California Hastings College of Law in 1989, the in-state tuition was about $1,000 per year. Now the in-state tuition is about $44,000 per year. Public colleges across the U.S. have lost most of their public funding and have increased the fees charged to nearly the level of private colleges. This high cost puts pressure on college graduates to earn large salaries to pay for the college debt.
Given this situation, applications to “elite” or “highly selective” schools have increased dramatically in recent decades. The data on college graduation and employment rates support the conclusion that students who graduate from schools like Harvard, Yale and Stanford are likely to earn more than graduates from other colleges. [But note that the students from these schools tend to be from the wealthy class, so it may not be the college degree that makes the difference. This may be the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc.] There are lots of colleges in the U.S. and you can get a good education at almost all public colleges and universities and many private colleges. But the perception is that the path to wealth and riches is with a degree from an elite school like Harvard or Yale. At the elite schools you can rub shoulders with the wealthy and powerful like the Bushes or the Kennedys, even if you don’t get invited to join the Skull and Bones Club.
Does a college education provide a path to wealth and power? Studies have shown that the parent’s socio-economic class is the most significant factor in the earning power of the person and there is a low probability that a child with low income parents will earn a large amount of money. While a college education improves the chances of upward mobility in socio-economic class, it is still very unlikely that a person in the bottom 10% of earnings will move up to the top 10%. I read a study last year that indicated the the percentage of children born into the lowest 10% of wealth have just a 7% chance of wealth in the top 10%.
Of course the people involved in the falsified college applications acted in an immoral way, but the problem was created by the wealth inequity in U.S. society. As noted above, the socio-economic system in the U.S. creates pressure on students to get accepted to an elite school. But these schools choose to remain comparatively small so only a tiny fraction of the applicants are accepted. So the schools create a competitive admissions system that purports to identified the “best qualified” applicants that “deserve” to go to the school. The schools attempt to pick the “best” students, and the SAT/ACT test scores and prior school performance do show some correlation with the ability to successfully complete college classes. But the different between an SAT score of 1500 as compared to 1400 is pretty much meaningless and the admission process seems to be more of a lottery rather than a significant difference between students with minor difference in test scores and high school GPAs. This inherent unfairness in the admission process invites the type of abuse that occurred in this scandal.
I spent 12 years enrolled as a full-time student in undergraduate, graduate and professional colleges. I have a bachelor, masters, and doctorate level degrees. I taught for 5 years at the University of Michigan which has highly selective admissions, and I taught for about 8 years at four different colleges in San Diego which have open admissions, so I’ve had students that ranged from extraordinarily well-qualified to completely unqualified. I think that everyone who wants to go to college should be allowed to go (at a reasonable cost or free), but of course a student needs to show basic competency in language and writing skills and basic mathematical skills. A student lacking the skills should be offered remedial tutoring, but those that do not meet the basic competency should not be enrolled. Society needs to provide a living wage for all, including those who would prefer to work instead of going to college or who lack the skills needed for college.This would go a long way in creating a more just society.We must give equal opportunity while acknowledging that people have different skills, and limited resources should be distributed such that it benefits society overall. (This is a paraphrase of the Second Principal of Justice [first formulation] from Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, Revised Edition, Harvard University Press, 1999.)
Finally, we must understand that the college admission scandal and the staggering cost of college is driven by the wealth inequity in the U.S. I will leave you with the following quote from the New York Times (found in the California Report on March 13, 2019). This is from an interview with Jerome Karabel, a U.C. Berkeley sociologist who has written extensively about college admissions:
“[T]he case reveals a fundamental “crisis” in American society. As America has become more and more unequal, affluent parents have become increasingly desperate to pass on their advantages to their children and to avoid downward mobility at all costs. Elite colleges have become seen [sic] as insurance against downward mobility. California is an epicenter of enormous wealth, and basically where you have major concentrations of wealth, you have the possibility of corruption.”