We’re Talking About the Wrong College Admissions Scandal

The college admission bribery scandal is all my friends are talking about the last few days, but I really don’t understand why they all have their knickers in a bunch. Maybe the scandal did involve dozens of seemingly “respectable” families and millions of dollars and did temporarily sully the reputations of some of our nation’s best universities, but the only question that’s of interest to me is why on earth those cheating parents took such extraordinary, blatantly illegal, and frankly stupid measures to get their kids into college instead of using the perfectly acceptable methods like writing big checks and inviting the Dean of Admissions for a weekend at their beach house like everyone else does.

Yes, the families who got caught up in this scandal went well beyond the acceptable means of getting their kids in through the “back door,” but one thing they didn’t do was steal a spot from our kids.

All this tawdry tale really did was give people a villain to blame for the fact that their kid and all the other hard-working, well-deserving kids we know didn’t fulfill their dream of getting into an elite, highly selective college. But the bribes and the blatant lies and falsifying of grades and test scores weren’t the culprit. They’re just another example of gigantic chasm between the promise of America and the reality of life in 21st Century America. Because let’s face it, it’s not like your kid was going to get into one of those schools anyways.

The real villain in this story is the system. And the real scandal is the fact that we have a unfair two-tiered system and no one seems to care.

To my mind, the whole thing is little more than another reminder of the difference between who we are and who we pretend to be.

There was a time in this country when, if you worked hard and applied yourself and played by the rules, you could move up the socioeconomic ladder. That was the promise of America. We called it the American Dream. [Cue the flag-waving and the Sousa march.] Most of the time, the way up was through education. And higher education was exceedingly affordable back in the day. That’s not some modern Progressive pipe dream; that’s a fact. My kids didn’t believe me until I showed them proof, but 30 years ago when I went to college, tuition at the state’s best public university system was free. All I paid was a “registration fee” which was pretty nominal – something like $100 a quarter. That’s the kind of money you could earn over a summer, even at minimum wage.

In today’s America, we still pay lip service to the promise of upward mobility, but there’s a big gap between the promise and the reality. The cost of even a public university is out of reach for most families, and kids from low- and middle-income families take on crushing amounts of debt just to attend.

And then there’s the promise that an elite college education is available to kids if their grades are good enough, their test scores are high enough, and they have that magical combination of extra-curriculars, years playing sports, and that brilliant application essay that highlights their accomplishments, their wit, and their drive. So they bust their butts for years studying, practicing, and joining. But how many kids do you really know from solidly middle-class families who attended public high schools (or even local private schools) who actually got accepted to one of the highly selective schools? Even those with stellar grades and enviable extra-currics? I’m guessing that the number is very low. As in approaching absolute zero. Sure every parent has heard the story of that one kid who made it. You know, like the story of that one guy who tunneled out of his prison cell, through 500 feet of solid rock, and then crawled through the sewer and escaped to freedom! And that one story of that one guy is enough to keep the dream alive. It keeps kids and their families pushing, striving, reaching – to add one more club membership, spend one more late night cramming – and hoping that their inspiring spring break trip helping orphans in Guatemala is going to tip the scales in their favor.

But somehow it never does, and those kids are left consoling themselves with their second-choice school: the best state school in their area or that out-of-state school, and trying to convince themselves that all that work paid off

No, those spots at the elite schools were never going to go to our kids. Those spots are reserved for the kids of the already-wealthy — the CEOs, the rich and famous, the kids of alum, the big donors who can afford to make a meaningful contribution (a new library, a dorm building). Those are the kids at the elite private east coast prep schools whose delightful behavior was on display so vividly during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, and who go on to become Supreme Court nominees. Even the spots at the second-rung schools are going to the kids whose parents can afford to give them access to private tutors (not the one-hour after school in the strip mall kind either), personalized test-prep, or exclusive professional college admission counselors. Or better yet, a combination of all of those things. That’s all well beyond the reach of most families these days, especially the ones who really need their kids to attend college in order to help them move out of the crushing financial despair that is the middle-class treadmill. After all, the kids from the families who can afford all of that extra help are already financially set, and a college degree will do nothing to increase earnings for them. (They’re just there for the “game days and the parties.”) It’s the kids from struggling families who will benefit the most financially from a college degree.

And yet, those hard-working, dedicated, deserving kids are saddling themselves with student loans in order to spend four years studying hard at their second-choice colleges, building up their resumes, and working for little or nothing at summer internships in the hopes of landing that coveted job when they graduate from college, when guess what . . . Well, that’s a story for another time.

No, this scandal merely exposed what we already knew in our hearts but were afraid to say out loud: The college system, like so many other systems in this country, is broken.

The idea that education is key that unlocks the American Dream is an anachronism — little more than a quaint remnant of another time. Like the phrase “the bee’s knees” or “guaranteed pension” or “upward mobility.”

That’s my take. What do you think?

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