By now you, along with the rest of America, have heard about the college admissions scandal setting higher education ablaze. Federal authorities charged dozens of people this week with participating in a scam to sell admissions slots at some of the country’s most selective universities. The brazen scheme featured grifting college advisers, crooked test proctors, and unethical athletic department officials. Grasping parents, responding to the worst signals sent by American higher education, made it possible.
But once you move past the salacious details (Famous actresses! Weird photoshops! College athletic officials taking bribes to help non-athletes!), the fundamental problem is revealed. These wealthy parents responded to incentives and commonly shared beliefs that, although distorted—and wrong—have become so pervasive it’s hard to imagine higher education without them.
Yet these incentives and ideas are critical to understanding this scandal and this moment in American postsecondary education. In the eyes of the accused parents, a slot for their child at a nationally “elite” institution was the onlyworthy path for their offspring. This is the lie at the heart of everything.
The truth: there is no winner-take-all pathway.
America’s colleges and universities are much more than a set of rankings published by a fading national news magazine. A college education, broadly defined, remains the single best engine of opportunity for individuals and a civic and economic driver for society, as study after study has shown.
When the nation’s colleges and universities fail to deliver on this promise—as the elite institutions in the criminal cases at hand have shown—higher education reinforces privilege. What these colleges and parents valued was money and status, not the learning a college education is supposed to signify. As long as people continue to conflate preserving their wealth and privilege with what should be the true aim of a college education, the American public will continue to lose faith in higher education.
Amid the tarnish brought by the criminal inquiry, respect is due the nation’s community colleges, regional public universities, minority-serving institutions, and innovative private colleges and universities—they are the real talent engines in our higher education system. While the numbers of students educated at elite schools is relatively minuscule, it is instead these other largely unsung schools that launch students up the socioeconomic ladder. It is colleges like Georgia State, which has closed attainment gaps for students of color; and Morgan State University, a public HBCU that contributes hundreds of millions each year to Maryland’s economy.
The students at these schools, today’s students, are the ones we should be talking about—not those students who benefited from this admissions scandal. Today’s students are older. They’re often the first in their families to attend college. And they are more diverse than ever before, because that’s what today’s jobs call for. These students are working, caring for family members, and meeting a host of other obligations outside of the classroom. Many struggle with homelessness and food insecurity. The institutions that serve today’s students truly deserve the accolades we often reserve for elite colleges.
The vast majority of today’s college students attend institutions that admit nearly everyone who applies. And, many of those students not only can’t afford $500,000 bribes, they struggle to afford $100 textbooks. And, at a time when the country desperately needs more highly educated workers and citizens to meet the rising demands of a technologically sophisticated and globally connected world, far too many students simply cannot afford to attend college.
In the days ahead, as this tale of wealthy families behaving badly unfolds, remember there’s a better story. It’s not scandalous. It highlights the hard work, true merit, and amazing potential of our higher education system and the many millions of students it serves. It’s a story about the places and people that show the best of American higher education, not the worst.
America is a nation full of potential, populated by exceptional people doing their best every day to meet the challenges before them. We should stop fooling ourselves into believing that talent can be developed only in a small handful of places. We should celebrate the enormous diversity of pathways to opportunity available to us. This is a story we should all want to hear.