College Admissions Bribery Scandal Shows How Higher Ed Culture Has Descended Into Signaling
Kenny Xu /
How much is an elite education worth to you? How about $500,000—and a jail sentence?
That’s how much wealthy actresses, business leaders, and financiers have pawned off to bribe their children off to colleges like Stanford University, Yale University, and the University of California.
According to The New York Times, actress Lori Loughlin and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli have already been indicted for bribery of athletic recruiters and college counselors, with further arrests coming.
The bribery scheme to get privileged children into elite universities is causing parents and teachers across the country to fume with righteous indignation. But the revelations of corruption in the multibillion-dollar college admissions industry is perhaps more indicative of how Americans’ views of college—especially among the elite—are shifting into dangerous territory.
More Americans no longer value college education for its ability to train their children with the skills needed to thrive in adult life. Instead, they obsess over college’s signaling value—the value of a school’s name and prestige.
One can see this trend amid the booming college consulting industry, where consultants seek to do everything legally possible to get their client’s child into the best-name colleges.
The number of professional college consultants among the nation’s elite has jumped from 2,000 to 5,000 in recent years. Nowadays, 26 percent of the students who got into the 70th percentile or higher on the SAT had some form of private college consulting help.
Economist Bryan Caplan puts this inversion of the goals of higher education more bluntly. Imagine if you could get a degree from Georgetown University without attending any classes. Now imagine you could take every class at Georgetown without getting a degree. Which option would you choose? Most likely, the one that signals value—the former.
The irony is that the signaling value of elite colleges is quite misplaced. According to a paper by mathematician Stacy Dale and economist Alan Krueger, if your child is smart enough to get into an elite college, but chose not to go, he or she will still end up making approximately the same as a similarly qualified applicant who did go to an elite college.
In fact, there is no difference in the earnings of similar-intelligence individuals who go or do not go to Ivy League schools. As usual, it’s the work ethic and intelligence of the student, not the name of the school, that determines long-term adult success.
But elite colleges would rather the parents not know this fact. This is because elite colleges stand to benefit from the misplaced worship of elite parents who prize name-brand schools. They can upcharge their tuition (now above $70,000 a year for Ivy League schools) without worrying about a drop in applications, because an elite education is worth a pretty penny to the status-conscious parents of the new elite.
With wealthy parents reliably filling the coffers, elite colleges can give less focus to ensuring a quality learning experience for their students. They focus instead on burnishing the surface-level characteristics that keep their names atop the Forbes and U.S. News lists—characteristics like selectivity and diversity. Hiring the best professors becomes secondary to keeping the admission rate below 10 percent and keeping up with the diversity-obsessed zeitgeist.
There is one way parents and students can begin to reverse this national mania for the signaling value of colleges: They can walk away.
What if, instead of spending millions on bribing athletic coaches to fake-recruit their sons and daughters to Stanford’s sailing team, parents devoted their resources to cultivating a love of learning in their children and to providing life lessons in work and moral uprightness? Maybe their children would have the intelligence and ambition, then, to get into Stanford.
Or maybe they wouldn’t get into Stanford. But in the end, that matters much, much less than you think.