Editor's Note: This column was authored by Natalie Dowzicky.
Twitter was aghast after it found out that actress Lori Loughlin, best known as Full House’s Aunt Becky, had cheated the college admissions system in her kids' favor by writing big checks to bribe admissions officers. She, along with so many other American elites, was so concerned about where her children would attend college that she hired a master manipulator to pay off a college admission staffer at the University of Southern California (USC) $500,000 to ensure that both her daughters were accepted. Aunt Becky’s pretentious attitude is not unique, as 33 other parents were charged in this national scandal.
It’s a huge shame, and makes us question the integrity of our universities. But there’s a larger question at hand: Why didn’t these kids flunk out of the schools they weren’t good enough to get into? It’s now clear the college admissions process at many schools is so cutthroat that it no longer signals who has the ability to succeed and instead in many cases reflects who can best play the admissions game to their advantage.
Could it be that the name of your school no longer matters?
When my parents decided to continue their education by going to college in the 1980s, they knew that having a degree was a distinct advantage in the workforce. Back then, when you earned a college degree, it meant that you were optimistic that you’d achieve something more. But where you went to college wasn’t the focal point of your entire young adult life.
In today’s world, as many as 200 colleges across the U.S. offer a similar level of education. This should actually ease the college admission process for students, but interestingly enough, it has had the exact opposite effect. As the playing field among great higher education institutions evens out, the stress of prospective students has unexpectedly increased. It’s true that competition for admission has increased in the last 30 years, yet the anxiety that the students experience is still misguided. So much emphasis is placed on the name of a particular school that many people aren’t even questioning if it’s where their children will best succeed.
What if Olivia Jade, Lori Loughlin’s daughter, didn’t want to go to college? Why was such an elaborate scheme to get children into a particular school deemed important to so many rich people? Sure, she can coast through school, even at USC, by enrolling in advanced basket-weaving or some other easy classes.
But according to recent Gallup surveys, future employers do not care as much about where you went to college as they do about your actual skills. Where a job candidate received his or her college degree was ranked “very important” by 9 percent of top business leaders, whereas the amount of knowledge the candidate has is “very important” to 84 percent these executives. Therefore, attending class at some fancy college you bribe your way into— but not gaining any meaningful knowledge—is, perhaps, not the best use of $200,000.
So schools should think twice about allowing students to take classes that are designed to specifically not be challenging. Universities should be designing curriculum to challenge students to gain the knowledge they need for the working world, if they want to uphold an extremely selective admission process. High-income parents are desperate to find the right colleges for their kid, when it really should be the opposite: the highest-income colleges should be desperate to find the right students to ensure that their classrooms stay challenging sites of inquiry—not simply places focused on partying and game day.
Loughlin and others were merely paying in to the ego of these top-tier institutions by assuming their children would be better off with a degree from USC rather than UC San Diego. This just isn’t the case.
In fact, Princeton economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale followed the careers of 19,000 college graduates and concluded, “whether you went to Penn or Penn State, Williams College or Miami University of Ohio, job outcomes were unaffected in terms of earnings.” So if the end result is close to the same, and even students without much academic merit can perform just fine in these elitist schools, then perhaps what a university is called really doesn’t matter after all.
Natalie Dowzicky (@Nat_Dowzicky) is a Young Voices contributor and a researcher at a D.C.-based think tank.