The college admissions scandal should be the populist issue of our time.
Most of the talk in our politics about how "the system is rigged" is incredibly abstract and symbolic. But this is infuriatingly concrete.
On Tuesday, the
In one case, a
This scandal is a staggering indictment of higher education, and American education policy generally. Virtually every constituency in American life has good reason to be rankled. Defenders of affirmative action for various minority groups are rightly livid about this effort, by mostly rich white people who already have every advantage imaginable, to game the system. Opponents of affirmative action who argue that merit alone should determine admissions have every reason to be outraged as well.
For both groups, and for everyone between the two extremes, the pressure to get kids into the best college possible -- and then figure out how to pay for it -- is a source of incredible anxiety.
But the scandal goes beyond just these issues. It is also a searing indictment of the value of an elite college education in the first place (and the ridiculous emphasis schools place on collegiate sports). None of these parents seemed remotely concerned about whether their kids could hack it once they got into their dream schools -- and rightly so.
Imagine you're deposited on a desert island, forced to fend for yourself. Would you rather have the knowledge that comes with taking a survival training course, or just the piece of paper that says you took the course? Obviously, you'd rather know how to identify poisonous plants and sources of water than have a diploma that says you know how to do things you can't do. Now, ask yourself: Would you rather have the
From an economic perspective, the piece of paper is vastly more valuable than the education, particularly in the humanities (and Caplan runs through the numbers to demonstrate this). The paper opens doors and gets you callbacks from employers and entrĂ©e into elite social circles where who you know matters more than what you know. The education might make you a better person, but the parchment is the ticket to opportunity. It's no guarantee of success, but it's a profound hedge against failure.
Parents know this, and parents without special advantages -- wealth, fame, connections -- resent it.
As a matter of public policy, the way we tell everyone they should go to college, even if it means incurring crushing debt, is a scandal. College isn't for everyone, and it isn't necessary for many careers or vocations -- and shouldn't be necessary for many others.
If there's a maxim that should serve as a golden rule for policymakers, it's this: Complexity is a subsidy. The more complex we make a system, the more it rewards people with the resources -- social, cognitive, political or financial -- to navigate them. A system that rewards subjective priorities -- in the name of diversity, athletics, social justice, donations, preferences for legacy students, whatever -- creates opportunities for bureaucrats, parents and students to game the system.
You're never going to create a system where some parents won't do anything and everything to help their kids. All you can do is create a system that makes it more difficult to cheat or exploit loopholes. That requires clear, simple rules applicable to everyone.
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in the media and Washington consider "must-reading". Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.