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College Admissions Bribery Scandal Shows How Higher Ed Culture Has Descended Into Signaling

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The scandal is that anybody thinks college admission is actually worth the cost of a bribe. Kenny Xu writes:

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 percentof 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 Stacey 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.

[Kenny Xu, “College Admissions Bribery Scandal Shows How Higher Ed Culture Has Descended into Signaling,” The Daily Signal, March 15]

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