Lost in the outrage about the college bribery scandal is a simple question: Why did these parents pay so much money—and commit federal crimes—to get their kids into elite schools? The answer is that college degrees have wildly different values to different classes of people. Policymakers and politicians love to point out that community college or professional certificates (HVAC, welding, coding, etc.) can offer just as much financial benefit in real terms as a four-year degree. But there’s a very real reason rich kids go to top-tier schools, and it’s all too often not the same reason poor kids want to go to top-tier schools. In a word, vanity.
But first, let’s back up a bit to the year 1938. The Great Depression had chewed up the United States for a decade, and we hadn’t yet invested in the heavy military spending that over the next few years would start to pull us out of it. After a second recession in 1937, the unemployment rate, which had dropped steadily, was shooting back up again to where it would soon top out at nineteen percent. President Franklin Roosevelt, fearing political risk, would pass no more New Deal legislation. But my grandfather, Howard Sollenberger, had managed to get into college. At the end of 1938, however, having just turned 20, and seeing the world that lay around him, he decided to drop out.
He’d later remark that he “just felt it didn’t make sense to sit in school at that particular time.”
About 65 years later, I’d do the same—at a college that my grandfather’s investment in my education almost singlehandedly paid for. (To be fair to myself, I did earn a partial academic scholarship.)
The difference between my grandfather and me is that I left college because I didn’t fit in and wanted to pursue my music career. Leaving was a luxury, and I knew I could always return if I needed to. But for my grandfather, it was something else. He said he quit because “it seemed to me that the kids in college at that time were much too focused on their own problems, and were not aware that the world was on fire. From my point of view the world was on fire. In ‘38 the Japanese had invaded north China and the word that I got back from north China was that the Japanese had implemented a scorched earth policy in much of the area where I grew up. And, of course, things had happened in north Africa and began to happen in Europe. I just felt it didn’t make sense to sit in school at that particular time. So I tried to find a way to get back to China to see what I could do to help.”
A year later—at 20 years old, an age I was drinking Jim Beam and playing rock n roll in a basement somewhere in Northern Virginia—he’d be helping Chinese peasants, delivering money, medicine, and babies behind enemy lines while under pursuit from two different national armies, the Japanese having issued a $10,000 bounty on his head.
Neither of us had to drop out of school, but sometimes other things are more valuable. Over the course of the American Century that separated my experience from my grandfather’s, however, a lot had changed, including a general sense of what’s valuable in America. Chief among those values is a college education.
The recent college bribery scandal gets at the unspoken fundamental lie about college in this country: The real value of a degree. The truth is that an actual education is all too often less important for people who can easily access it than for those who can’t. The scandal is a disgusting but also (so far) relatively narrow crime, but it reveals so much about what is broadly wrong with not just our education policy, but ideology generally. We need to be honest about what an education is in this country, about who needs one, why, and what we’re willing to do to make it possible for everyone to access what they need.
Look: When it comes down to it, we’re not willing to do a lot. The bribery scandal shamed elites, and the headline-grabbing names were all Hollywood. (Democrats and Republicans were among the indicted.) This is ready-made right-wing outrage: The rich, entitled snobs who preach equality publicly actually game the system in their favor. And yes, that’s exactly the correct outrage to have. Except now pull back a step: That’s how millions of underprivileged American kids feel about their education prospects every day in this country.
And it would sort of make more sense if the indictees were middle-class parents who took on a second job or took out a second mortgage in order to afford a Ivy League bribe. College education makes a huge difference for them, in terms of opportunity and salary. These parents, though? Millionaires. It makes practically no difference which school their kids go to, outside perhaps their own egos. These crimes are all the more revolting when you realize it’s all done for vanity. There’s nothing to be gained, and these kids take the spots of kids who really do need a leg up.
But what the scandal makes clear is what we don’t say out loud: For millions of well-off Americans, the implicit value of a college degree isn’t in the economic opportunity we all give lip-service to—there’s also a very real intrinsic social value, and this value increases with the prestige of the institution. Privileged kids do face an incredible amount of pressure to attend elite schools for precisely this reason, and they and their parents are as—and often more—competitive about getting accepted for social reasons as their less well-off peers are for economic reasons. This, again, is not part of the debate, because it would force us to examine the much more complicated and possibly unresolvable issue at the heart of the American education crisis: Turning a blind eye to the fact that privilege and vanity have displaced opportunity and necessity.
A college education is, of course, critical. Salary correlates directly to education level. A Georgetown University study found, on average, college grads earn about $1 million more in the course of their lifetime than people who don’t graduate. The Pew Research Center found college graduation means a $17,500 difference in median yearly income. Here are average weekly earnings, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
-High school diploma: $712
-Some college, no degree: $774
-Associate degree: $836
-Bachelor’s degree: $1,173
-Master’s degree: $1,401
-Doctoral degree: $1,743
-Professional degree: $1,836
But at the same time, upward mobility in America shows signs of sclerosis. Statistically, children from poor families are today more likely to remain poor as adults than they would have been in the past. Department of Education data, however, indicates a college education still plays the role of an equalizer. First-generation college grads—kids whose parents had no college experience—have on average comparable employment rates and salaries as college grads whose parents did have a college education. Combine that with the salary stats above, and it’s clear that the people who benefit the most from college are people low on the income ladder, and—related—people who come from families without much educational experience.
Note that this doesn’t apply to someone like Olivia Jade Loughlin, daughter of Saved by The Bell actress Lori Loughlin who was just indicted for paying $500,000 in bribes to get her kids into the University of Southern California as fake members of the crew team, 80 years after my grandfather took a steamer from California back to Shanghai. Olivia Jade said on her celebrity-ish YouTube channel: “I don’t know how much of school I’m gonna attend but I’m gonna go in and talk to my deans and everyone, and hope that I can try and balance it all. But I do want the experience of like game days, partying…I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.”
And we shouldn’t really expect her to. We also shouldn’t really care about her education. Outside of perhaps her own experience of self-improvement (or game-day partying), it doesn’t matter. Olivia Jade doesn’t need to go to USC. Plenty of other kids, however, who do understand the implicit value of a college degree, do need to go to upper-tier schools. Or just school to begin with.
Kids need bachelor’s degrees. That’s where the big jump in income is. Look: Only six percent of the lowest income earners in America hold a bachelor’s degree, but 40 percent of the highest-income earners do (Fitzgerald and Delaney, 2002). But what we face isn’t just a college access crisis, but a completion crisis. Our solution these days is “community college.” Make it free or basically free, and open a door for people to go to school. But the National Center of Education says only 11 percent of students who start off at community college end up earning bachelor’s degrees. About 90 percent of poor first-generation students—the ones we need to keep on track—end up leaving college within six years, without a degree. More than 25 percent of those students leave after their first year. That dropout rate is four times higher than the dropout rate of higher-income “second-generation” college students.
So the people for whom a degree is most valuable are the ones who don’t get them. What kind of system is this, that we allow this to happen? The average cost of tuition has, per the College Board, more than doubled since 1986. The tuition increases have outpaced increases in household earnings for middle- and lower-class Americans. College is increasingly a luxury for people who increasingly have less of a proven need for a degree.
This shouldn’t shock us, but it’s awful: Americans who make less money have a harder time staying in college, because they simply can’t afford it. And it’s not just tuition increases, either—it’s everything else concomitant to college: Living expenses, utilities, groceries, gas, fitting in a day job, etc etc. And if you’re a non-traditional student who already has a family to take care of? Good luck. Tuition-free policies alone won’t incentivize you to stay in school if you can’t afford to build your life around attending. The rich kids whose parents were so deliciously indicted don’t have to worry about money, period. They just had to get in. What are we doing for the people who can get in, but who can’t afford to stay? No wonder we have this massive student debt crisis. For low- or middle-income Americans, the only thing worse than not getting a college degree is going, paying, and not finishing.
This means that those massive differences in earnings between high school and college graduates actually leave out a massive middle ground: The students caught in the middle, who pay but don’t finish.
There’s also the barrier of standardized tests, which affect both sides of the ledger here: How a student looks on paper in a college application; and an education system increasingly overly-dependent on standardization that prepares that student for college, but which fails them when they get there and find those superficial skill sets have left them drastically under-prepared to succeed.
We need to dramatically overhaul higher education policy in this country, and giving away tuition won’t cut it. We need to talk about what a degree really means, and face the fact that it means entirely different things to different classes of people. Some things are worth more than a degree: For my grandfather, it was public service during a war and economic calamity; for me, it was hanging out for a few years playing a lot of guitar; for Olivia Jade, it’s likes or clicks or whatever. The American cultures that contextualize those values are nearly inarticulably different. The market value of a top-tier degree comes in different forms: Is it a means of upward mobility, of self-improvement, to boost an ego, or make social connections? We can’t solve the problem if it looks like such radically different things to different Americans.
The world is on fire, as my grandfather observed, but do we see that fire as an existential threat, or as something to gather around, roast marshmallows, pound beers, and commemorate for the eyes of our internet peers as the blaze of our own good fortune?