By now, you must be
aware of this week's "scandal," which is that B-tier celebrities and
other folks committed what the police are calling "mail fraud." In
this case, the "fraud" consists of pretending that their kids were athletes
or faking their kids' SAT scores, plus paying a few hundred-thousand dollars,
to gain admittance to universities like Stanford and USC.
Well, I'm not a
legal expert, so I can't comment on the integrity of the legal case against
them. It does strike me as being a little odd that faking your SAT score counts
as "mail fraud," instead of just "application denied." But
melodrama is sign of the times, and calling this turn of events "mail
fraud" helps insulate the reputation of the universities involved. After
all, you can't blame the universities for running a payola college-entrance
scheme if they were poor, pitiful victims of
And there is plenty
more cynicism to go around. Some are calling it "a victory for the
signaling model of education," which states that education is itself
meaningless beyond the system's ability to give you a certificate that says,
"let the bearer of this bond be paid $40,000 per year or more."
Others are saying that colleges brought this scandal upon themselves by
submitting to Affirmative Action; after all, a policy that admits unqualified
applicants for demography reasons is no better than a policy that admits
unqualified applicants for financial gain, or so their argument goes.
For my part, the
question is much different. All of the above commentary is based on the
assumption that universities ought to be
high-status institutions. Even though the majority of college educations
are financed by debt, even though we all know that the average holder of an
English Literature degree is no more intelligent than the average
high-school-educated network administrator, even though anyone can learn any of
this material for free on YouTube, we still cling to the notion that
universities are super-special places where only the best people in society go.
belongs to one of the two competing ideas of what education should be. If we
assume that universities are "institutions of higher status," then
the university model as it currently exists makes perfect sense. Of course you
should fund your education with debt; this is your ticket to the high life! Of
course universities should be extremely choosey about who gains admittance; if
they left everyone in, then we'd never
be able to tell which ones of us really deserve higher social status!
Universities are places for the Beautiful People to go, so that they can learn
how to Be Beautiful. We can't question this assumption without rupturing the
But there is a competing viewpoint, one that I first
encountered some fifteen years ago. I, too, resisted this viewpoint when I
first heard of it, but eventually I got over my resistance and warmed to it.
Here's the pitch: Universities should admit everyone.
By "everyone" I mean 100% of applicants who can pay their tuition.
College, you see, ought to be a place where you purchase lectures and graded
exams, and ultimately diplomas. If you can afford the price, who cares how many
times you fail a class? Who cares what your high school grades were? Who cares
what your SAT score was? If you can afford to buy a seat in the classroom, does
any of that other stuff really matter? Of course not, not if college is just a
place where you can go to buy lectures, grades, and diplomas.
There are usually
two objections to this competing idea of college. The first is raised by
proponents of free college, who warn that by making college a matter of money,
we'll create a two-tiered society of people who can afford to buy their way
into college, and those who can't. Well, gee, take a look at the news headlines
this morning. What do you think you see?
The second objection
is the one I raised when I first heard the idea: If colleges let everyone in,
then they'd run out of space and resources. The answer here, of course, is to
just use the tuition money to build more space. So long as tuition is covering
the cost of doing business, there is no problem. Let everyone in.
assumption behind both objections, however, is the tacit plea that college
"mean something," that it retain its protected position as an
"institution of higher social status." We can't leave it up to crass
things like the ability to pay. We have to keep it exclusive; after all, ever everyone could get an Economics degree, then I
wouldn't be any better than anyone else!