Apparently, I’m supposed to be outraged that rich celebrities have been buying admission to elite universities for their kids. Instead, I’m basically indifferent — not because I approve of cheating, but because nobody should be surprised.
Haven’t wealthy people always been able to buy their way into things which are “all about merit” — supposedly — for the rest of us? Are we supposed to be shocked that people with money and power (and entitlement) are capable of opening doors which are closed to the rest of us?
I suppose I would be upset if I had ever bought into two myths. But I’ve never believed the same rules apply to everyone in life. And I’ve never believed it really mattered where smart people are educated.
If you look at the “elite university experience” as an elaborate game similar to the Emperor’s New Clothes, it’s hard to be upset that people who see themselves as elites find ways to pay for the privilege of pretending they’re getting fitted for fine new clothes that the rest of us can’t have.
When I was in high school, I scored highly enough on the ACT — that’s similar to the SAT — that most of the Ivy League schools were sending me recruiting materials.
I was naive enough at the time to be impressed, but I never applied to any of those elite colleges. In fact, after the local newspaper offered me a job, I backed out of the scholarship I had to Samford University and went to the local junior college my freshman year. (Working seemed far more educational to me.) And then when my girlfriend decided she was going to the University of Alabama for our sophomore year, that sounded like a great idea to me and I moved to Tuscaloosa.
Economist Bryan Caplan has been arguing for years now that the entire idea of the education system is a fraud as it’s currently conceived. His provocative book on the subject — “The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money: ” — is one you ought to read if you care about the subject. (And Caplan is a university professor, so he’s arguing against his own self-interest.)
In a new article at the Chronicle of Higher Education, an education writer who debated Caplan last year on this subject admits that he’s spent the last year rethinking his assumptions — and he’s coming to accept that a college degree is about “signaling,” not about what people actually learn in their college programs.
In a paper from almost eight years ago, a couple of researchers discovered that if you controlled for factors such as high school GPA and college admission scores, it basically made no difference to go to an elite school, at least insofar as how much money someone later made. If someone with the same GPA and same ACT/SAT score went to a state school, he didn’t make less than someone who went to an elite school.
In dry academic language, the abstract of the paper says, “…[W]hen we adjust for unobserved student ability by controlling for the average SAT score of the colleges that students applied to, our estimates of the return to college selectivity fall substantially and are generally indistinguishable from zero.” [Emphasis mine.]
A college degree today tells you almost nothing about whether someone is qualified for a job, especially outside of technical fields such as engineering or medical studies. For most jobs, a degree simply tells you that a student has had the tenacity to navigate through the hoops of some university’s system and gotten a piece of paper.
But for the vast majority of people, the things they learn in their college programs mean nothing once they’ve started work. The degree is only a sorting mechanism — telling potential employers that these people can follow orders well enough to go through a bureaucratic process well enough to get a stamp of approval.
That doesn’t mean there can’t be any value to the college experience. Students can gain maturity away from home for the first time. They can learn to be responsible for themselves. There’s some value in going to a place where there are more smart people than there were in your high school and where people come from far broader backgrounds.
All of those things can be valuable. But if a university experience is supposed to provide someone with a preparation for life, the way we do college today is a pathetic solution. (For my non-U.S. friends, I’m using “college” and “university” synonymously, as tends to be the case here.)
So what’s the value of going to an elite university? Do those schools teach some secret knowledge which isn’t taught at the state universities which are reasonably selective? No, they don’t.
If you have a reputation that allows you to attract better students, your graduates are going to be smarter people. But is it because you made them smarter? Of course not. It’s because you started with smarter students and you didn’t make them dumber.
The biggest value of going to an elite university is the contacts you’ll make with other people from elite families. Those contacts will get you job offers and business opportunities that you might not get if you went to a state school. That doesn’t mean you’re getting a better education, though. It just means you’re buying your way into an elite social club.
The university system is a mess in this country. In certain fields — especially technical fields — there’s still a lot of great research that’s going on, but that has little to do with educating students.
If you want to be outraged about colleges, be outraged at how the system has been dumbed down. Be outraged that at major universities — including my own alma mater — athletes can be admitted and kept academically eligible for intensive programs which guide students who can’t even speak intelligently through a dumbed-down curriculum.
(That doesn’t mean that all athletes are inarticulate morons, of course. Quite a number are very smart and their colleges tend to celebrate them for their achievements. But athletes at any top athletic program are admitted using standards which wouldn’t fly for anyone who didn’t excel at their sport — especially those in the money-making sports.)
The elites who have been arrested and shamed for their cheating to get their kids into top schools certainly knew they were cheating. I don’t really have sympathy for them. I definitely don’t approve of what they did. I just view it more like the sort of cheating scandal that might go on surrounding some television game show.
These people are proving their morals and ethics are lousy, but it doesn’t surprise me or upset me any more than it would to find out that old ladies at the local country club are cheating at their bridge games.
Until the college system makes more sense for preparing students for the real world, I find it hard to care too much which rich people cheat their way into which schools. I feel sorry for them that they believe so much of life rides on such an expensive and ridiculous decision.