A massive college admissions bribery scandal, implicating many wealthy and famous parents and top athletic coaches, roiled academia yesterday. The Justice Department charged dozens of people, including Hollywood celebrities, influential investors, and prominent business leaders.
Most of the media will focus on the corruption of wealth and privilege that this scandal exposes. They will revel in their schadenfreude as they comb through the sordid details of the bribery and fraud. And they are right to do so. The scandal lays bare the assumption of impunity that many in the elite share.
But perhaps we should focus on another assumption that these parents made. The assumption that getting their kids into these elite schools, enthusiasm and merit be damned, would vastly improve their children’s lives. Because this assumption is shared by far more people than just a bunch of corrupt and soon to be imprisoned helicopter parents.
We are close to owing $1.6 trillion in student loans. And judging by the trope of the struggling college graduate, we have relatively little to show for it.
Many politicians have long touted the importance of going to college and have called for increased government investment in higher education. President Obama argued that a college degree was a “prerequisite for the growing jobs of the new economy” and that the higher earnings of college graduates demonstrated that higher education was “the clearest pathway into the middle class.” Bernie Sanders believed that federal and state governments should invest a combined $70 billion a year to ensure that everyone could have free access to public higher education.
Many students and families believed them and went into debt to fund their educations, often ignoring a fundamental question that any prospective student should ask, “Why do I really want to go to college?”
The daughter of one of the implicated parents answered the question succinctly for herself in a YouTube video a few months ago, long before the scandal broke. She said she didn’t really “care about school.” She was more interested in the experience of “game days” and “partying.” She quickly apologized for coming off as ungrateful, but the initial statement was far more insightful than she meant it to be.
Some people want to have a four-year long party. This is certainly their right. But we should not conflate this “experience” with an education — and we should think long and hard before we urge students, families, or the government to go into debt to “invest” in it.
Some want to study esoteric subjects that have little practical bearing on any potential profession aside from academia. This too is certainly their right. But we should not assume that this study will benefit our society or culture. In fact, some of these subjects will sow division and strife.
Some want a piece of paper from an ivy-covered institution proclaiming that they are smart. Paying millions of dollars to get one and then getting indicted for fraud would suggest a certain lack of intelligence. But it also illustrates the whole problem with the push for higher education.
As any statistician will tell you, correlation does not imply causation. While elite educational institutions certainly have many amazing resources and can open many doors, these traits are not what make them elite. It’s the other way around.
If Harvard weren’t at one point an elite institution, it would not have been able to put together the world’s biggest endowment. If Yale had not consistently produced brilliant students, firms would not be eager to hire its graduates. And if these institutions continue to rapidly decay in quality, they will eventually lose the very benefits that so many associate with their name.
We saw this generally with college degrees. A college degree, no matter the issuing institution, used to mean something — it had a currency of reputability that indicated education, erudition, and a capacity for critical thought. But when we started pushing everyone to get a college degree, it lost its value. Real fast.
Some people aren’t meant to go to college. They aren’t any less intelligent or hard working than those who are. They just have better things to do with their time and money. And the ones who are wise enough not to be tempted purely by the experience and credentials that a college grants will steer clear. And with enough work they will excel themselves.
Some people are meant to go to college. They aren’t any more intelligent or hard working than those who aren’t. But they know why they’re going to college. And they know they aren’t simply there for the experience, credential, or the promise of higher earnings. And they know that the people who are simply there for these things are ruining the very things that made an education valuable in the first place.
Because a diploma — without the hard work, careful intellectual labor, and painful critical thought — is worth less than the paper it is written on.
Karl Notturno (@KarlNotturno) is a fellow at the Center for American Greatness. He also serves as director of A Soldier’s Home, a nonprofit that helps homeless veterans. He graduated from Yale University with degrees in philosophy and history.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.