The college admissions scandal—involving several prominent families, including a few famous actresses—might be just about squeezed of all discussion. It’s really just about all I’ve seen in the newsfeed the last few days, from the actual reporting to the think pieces wondering, “Why are we surprised?”
Why are we surprised, indeed? What aspect of our culture should lead us to believe that privileged white folks would draw some ethical line around higher education, when time has shown again and again that literally anything can be bought and paid for? From elections to silencing sex scandals, to enormous corporate cover-ups, this country is wall-to-wall lousy with dark money and general shadiness.
There are also pieces going around about the problematic nature of college athletics in general … the toxic culture that promotes all sorts of unhealthy standard practices. And I’ve even seen a few pieces—not enough, but a few—asking, where are the men? Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin are the first faces I see every time I log on. What about their husbands? Why are we only going after the women here?
And yes, there’s discussion about the unsurprising white privilege inherent in this whole fiasco. The age-old truth, simply put on display here, that rich white people (and sometimes just regular middle-class white folks) can buy their way into all sorts of places—literally and otherwise—that people of color struggle to access through all the proper and “legal” channels. From college admissions to border walls.
It’s a loaded topic, for sure. But I can’t help but think that the real crime nobody is talking about is college tuition. Yes, these folks broke the law, and it’s gross and outrageous and they should face consequences. In truth, they have “robbed” other students of opportunities by pushing their less-qualified kids through a process that’s meant to bring out the best.
But what about the institutions that are robbing families blind, every single day? What about the student loan crisis—to the tune of $1.5 trillion (I don’t even know how many zeroes that is)—that is wrecking the economy?
When America was a baby, our founding fathers intended that state universities should be basically free to any student that wanted to learn. The sobering reality is, over the past 30 years, tuition at four-year institutions has increased by 213 percent. I don’t need to tell you that wages have not grown at the same rate. One result is a widening default margin.
Another reality is that millennials and older GenZ kids are more confined in their life choices. They are less empowered to pursue creative endeavors or innovative startups. They have to take a 9 to 5 immediately to start making payments. They wait longer to start families—or opt not to have families at all. Which is fine, if that’s what they want … but it’s not something you want someone to give up on account of crippling debt.
The bottom line is, college is becoming more and more a choice that is limited only to the economic elite, and less accessible to Americans from lower economic realities—or even the middle class.
What’s driving the costs up so sharply? Well, it’s complicated. For one thing: athletics. See again the toxic loop of college sports mania, who benefits and who suffers.
But another huge contributing factor is—surprise—politics. Just as many states seek to gut public education (see post from yesterday), states are also spending less and less on their universities. Making student costs higher than ever. According to a recent piece in the Atlantic, these “state cutbacks did not necessarily make colleges more efficient, which was the hope; they made colleges more entrepreneurial.” And you know what entrepreneurial means in America—an opportunity for a handful of people to get rich while everyone else pays more than they can afford. Higher administrators at many schools can expect to pull a seven-figure salary; while many faculty are just scraping to get by. Education has become a “market-driven system,” which always means good news for a handful of people up top, and really bad news for most everyone trying to access that system.
So why do we keep paying? Because, despite all indicators to the contrary, we still value education. Even as the current administration persists in its narrative of anti-intellectualism, and many states fight for the very idea of public school, deep down we still know that learning is important. It may yet destroy our economy if we don’t change the narrative … but one way or another, we are keeping the dream of college alive.
Yes, people who manipulate the system for their own kid’s advancement should face consequences. But let’s acknowledge, too, that the system itself is manipulative. Follow the money and see where it goes. Anyone who’s getting rich from a tuition check is a much bigger part of the problem.