Institutions Of Higher Social Status

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 fraud!

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.

That assumption 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 whole system.

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.

The unstated 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!

And isn't that what we really want?

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