Celebrity college scandal exposes deeper issues in academic system

The recent university admissions scandal has it all with Hollywood stars, scheming millionaires, and sports coaches, all engaged in corruption. It is the stuff of a made for television movie, but it exposes some of the all too real crises in modern higher education. The system is rigged, but it goes way beyond the check that Aunt Becky wrote to get her daughter into frat parties. One crisis, the skyrocketing cost of a college education, is well known across the country. Tuition expenses have nearly tripled in the past 40 years, while outstanding student loan debt now exceeds $1.5 trillion.

For most Americans, paying for college is a burden. But cost is no barrier for many others. The more than four dozen people charged by the Justice Department allegedly paid up to $6 million in bribes to get their children into universities. Actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli paid $500,000 to have their two daughters “recruited” for the rowing team at the University of Southern California, even though neither daughter plays the sport. Their parents posted the $1 million bail.

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For parents with scruples and lesser means, near prohibitive cost is but the start of college problems. The drastically rising cost of tuition adds insult to injury. As college becomes more expensive, it has not actually improved the education students are receiving. Indeed, many worry that academia has been captured by liberal professors who, as Education Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosGOP lawmaker calls for investigation into alleged 'anti-Israeli bias' at Duke-UNC conference The Special Olympics are safe, but what about other programs DeVos would cut? DeVos defends controversial guidance on transgender students MORE suggested two years ago, are more intent on indoctrinating students rather than objectively educating students.

Inside Higher Ed, hardly a conservative publication, recently published a study by Econ Journal Watch that quantified the politically leftward lurch in academia over the years. University history departments had 33 liberal professors for each conservative. The ratio in journalism departments was 20 to one, in psychology departments it was 17 to one, in law departments it was nine to one, and in economic departments the ratio was five to one.

Conservative voices are not only outnumbered on campus, they are being actively suppressed. Conservative speakers invited by students have been disinvited by cowed administrators or conniving faculty. Some have been driven from the podium by force. As DeVos observed, institutions once dedicated to the exploration of ideas now seem bent on “silencing the First Amendment rights of people” with whom those in power disagree.

Why do middle class parents sacrifice so much to send their children to colleges that indoctrinate more than teach? Because when every barista has a bachelor degree, only bachelor degree holders can be baristas. This credentialing arms race has created a big mismatch in the labor market. Nearly half of all working college graduates, or about 20 million people, work in jobs that do not require a college degree, showed data analyzed several years ago at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

It is a phenomenon that has accelerated over time. The researchers found, for example, that just 1 percent of cab drivers in the country held a college degree in 1970, compared with more than 15 percent in 2010. What is the explanation? Is college not preparing students for the jobs they want? Is it not equipping students with all the skills and knowledge employers these days value? Is the system producing too many bachelor degree holders?

Whatever the answer, policies dedicated to the proposition that everyone should go to college make the problem worse. The system pushes people who might be better off pursuing other options to go to college and then encourages them to take out loans to pay for it. The federal government now originates and services about 90 percent of all student loans today.

When students are not able to repay their loans, taxpayers get stuck with the massive tab. Taxpayers also get saddled with generous federal student loan “forgiveness” policies. This means that the majority of Americans in this country who do not hold bachelor degrees wind up helping pay the bills for so many of their much better off college graduate counterparts.

By providing such easy and virtually unlimited access to student loans, Washington has tilted the scale in favor of attending college, Moreover, elitist culture has attached a stigma to not attending college. Parents and students alike feel that getting that sheepskin is essential to getting ahead in life, just as prior generations felt about high school diplomas. However, degrees do not necessarily signal skills attained or knowledge acquired.

People have long been told that a bachelor degree is the only ticket to the middle class. Students work hard to get into college and take out student loans to finance it, all in hopes that it will signal to employers they have played the game. That is the real university scandal. Just think of the high cost, administrative corruption, near liberal monopoly, and free speech suppression. What do these issues have in common? They have allowed the emergence of a separate elite system, while the rest of the country subsidizes it. Perhaps the celebrity scandal will open more eyes to this.

Lindsey Burke is director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Mike Gonzalez is a senior fellow with the Davis Institute for National Security at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.