Scam and scandal

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Our position: The higher education system in this country generally rewards graft, dishonesty, large fortunes, and other factors over which students exercise no control. The monetary cost of college should fall on students and colleges; taxpayers and banks should not be involved in the process of paying for universities to amass billion-dollar endowments.

 

The last two months have seen a lot of conversation about the college admissions scandal in which actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, along with other super-rich parents, bought admission for their students to elite colleges through fraud and bribery. This should spark a conversation and some reflection about the college admissions system in our country.

The leader of the scam was a man named William Rick Singer according to U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling. Singer ran a counselling company called the Edge College & Career Network and “The Key Worldwide Foundation.” He masqueraded the organization as one that would help students discover their purposes and unlock their potential. Singer’s business really was knowing who to pay and lie to and what standardized test scores to fix in order to get students with wealthy and shameless parents where they wanted to go. Between 2011 and 2018, Lelling estimates that families paid Singer around $25 million for his services.

Following the break of the scandal, two clever Stanford students are filing a class action lawsuit against Stanford, USC, UCLA, Yale, Georgetown, University of San Diego, University of Texas at Austin and Wake Forest. Their claim is that applicants would not have applied to these elite schools, paying about $80 for each, had they known that the real way to get into the school was to pay a six-figure bribe.

This is the part of the story that’s really important because in the grand scheme of things: it doesn’t matter if 33 wealthy parents cheated the system. What they did was wrong and they should go to jail. But what matters more is the fact that this case shows that the college admissions process puts ordinary people, who may be very smart and qualified, at a severe disadvantage when it comes to getting admitted to and paying for college.

From 1988 to 2017, the median family income in the United States grew from a little over $54,000 to a little over $61,000 (about 12.8%), according to the St. Louis Fed. In the 1988-89 academic year, the average private college tuition and fees (including room and board) came out to $24,800, according to the College Board, which was 45.6% of the median family income (all of these figures are in inflation-adjusted 2017/2018 dollars). For this school year, the average private school tuition and fees came out to $48,510, a whopping 79% of the median family income. What’s worse is that so many schools, especially the ones named in this class action lawsuit, come in with numbers like $69,430 (Yale), $63,703 (Stanford), and $69,827 (Georgetown). It’s absolute highway robbery, and they act like they’re doing their students favors when they give “financial aid” that does little, if anything, to make college any more affordable.

This tuition bubble is the root of the problem with undergraduate higher education. Universities, especially “elite” ones, have an inflated sense of the value of their product. Families and students buy into that notion too. So the uber-rich and unprincipled see it as a given that they should do anything in their power to see to it that their children are admitted to these schools.

What is the solution to this vicious cycle? Break it off from where it started. A 2015 report from the New York Federal Reserve details the link between loans guaranteed by the federal government and the rise of college costs getting out of control. According to CNBC, only about 30% of students do not incur debt. That is absolutely insane. It’s only natural that if the government is artificially increasing the supply of credit, universities will raise their prices, even if the government is trying to give loans for good reasons, such as trying to create more access to higher education.

The burden of paying for education should fall on students and universities, not on the taxpayers or financial institutions. That way, schools will need to cut back on useless staff in bloated bureaucracies and actually provide the best student applicants with a valuable product at a competitive price.

Staff vote: 23-1

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