The university admissions scandal has it all: Hollywood stars, scheming millionaires, and even sports coaches, all engaged in corruption. It’s the stuff of a made for television movie, but it exposes some of the all too real crises in modern higher education.
Yes, the system is rigged. But it goes way beyond the check Aunt Becky wrote to get her daughter into the frat parties at the University of Southern California. One crisis was already well known: the skyrocketing cost of a college education. Tuition costs have nearly tripled in the past 40 years. Outstanding student loan debt now exceeds $1.5 trillion.
For middle-class Americans, it’s a considerable burden. But cost is no barrier for others. The more than four dozen people charged by the FBI allegedly paid a total of up to $6 million in bribes to get their children into top universities. Actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli allegedly paid $500,000 to have their two daughters “recruited” to join the USC rowing team, even though neither daughter rows. Their parents easily posted the $1 million bail.
But for parents with scruples, and lesser means, near-prohibitive cost is but the start of college problems. The drastically rising cost of college adds insult to injury. As costs skyrocket, it’s not improved education students are receiving, but indoctrination. Indeed, many worry that the academy has been captured by leftist professors who, as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos suggested two years ago, are more intent on indoctrinating rather than educating their students.
Inside Higher Ed, which is hardly a conservative publication, recently published a study by Econ Journal Watch that quantified the academy’s leftward lurch. History departments had 33 liberal professors for each conservative. The ratio in journalism departments was 20 to one, in psychology 17 to one, in law nine to one, and in economics five to one.
Conservative voices are not only greatly outnumbered on campus, they are being actively suppressed. Conservative speakers invited by students have been disinvited by cowed administrators or conniving faculty. Some have been driven from the podium by force. As DeVos observed, institutions at one time dedicated to the exploration of ideas now seem bent on “silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom [the powers that be] disagree.”
Why do middle-class parents sacrifice so much to send their children to universities that indoctrinate more than teach? Because when every barista has a bachelor’s degree, only bachelor’s degree holders can be baristas. This credentialing arms race has created a considerable mismatch in the marketplace. Nearly half of all working college graduates (about 20 million people) are in jobs that do not require a college degree, according to data from 2010 analyzed by Richard Vedder, Jonathan Robe, and Christopher Denhart at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
It’s a phenomenon that has accelerated over time. The authors found, for example, that just one percent of cab drivers held a college degree in 1970, compared with more than 15 percent by 2010. What’s the explanation? Is college not preparing students for the jobs they want? Is it not equipping students with the skills and knowledge employers value? Is the system simply producing too many bachelor’s degree holders.
Whatever the answer, federal policies dedicated to the proposition that everyone should go to college are making the problem worse. The system pushes into college people who might be better off pursuing other options, and it encourages them to take out massive loans to pay for that decision. The federal government now originates and services roughly 90 percent of all student loans.
When students cannot repay their loans, taxpayers get stuck with the tab. Taxpayers also get saddled with increasingly generous student loan “forgiveness” policies. And what it means is that the two-thirds of Americans who do not hold bachelor’s degrees wind up helping pay the bills for many of their far better off college graduate counterparts.
By providing easy and virtually unlimited access to student loans, Washington has tilted the policy scale in favor of attending college, Moreover, elitist culture has attached a stigma to not attending college. Parents and students alike feel that getting that sheepskin is essential to getting ahead in life, just as prior generations felt about high school diplomas. But degrees do not necessarily signal skills attained or knowledge acquired.
We tell people a bachelor’s degree is the only ticket to the middle class. Students work hard to get into college and take out student loans to finance it, all in hopes that it will signal to employers they’ve played the game. And that’s the real scandal. High cost, corruption, near leftist monopoly, suppression of speech rights? What do all these things have in common? They betray the emergence of an elite system that stands separated from the rest of the country, while the rest of the country subsidizes it. Perhaps this scandal will open people’s eyes at last.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 3/22/19