Jeffrey Selingo is the author of “There Is Life After College” and a special adviser and professor of practice at Arizona State University.
In a few weeks, selective colleges will announce their application totals for the year along with the usual superlatives to describe their recruits. The talking points will be familiar: The number of applications went up, and the acceptance rate reached an all-time low for yet another group of “amazing” students. Once again, anxious parents and disappointed applicants will be left to wonder just what else they had to do to get into their dream school.
The admissions scandal that broke Tuesday shows the extreme efforts that some people will employ to claw their way into elite college circles. Among those charged were 33 parents who were accused of paying bribes to get their children into selective colleges. But their logic, along with their alleged morals, is off-kilter. When you are wealthy, where your children go to college really doesn’t matter. These rich and powerful parents — like so many of us — seem to think that getting into the “perfect” school is the most important thing. College certainly matters. But the notion that a specific college is going to transform your child’s life, especially when you’re already rich and powerful, isn’t borne out by any research.
If the actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and the other super-privileged parents considered for a moment the potential return on their allegedly criminal investment, they might have realized what a bad deal they got — that is, beyond the possibility of an orange jumpsuit.
Going to an elite school has little impact on the material outcomes of graduates, especially for those with the financial means and professional networks to pave the way for their children. And most of all, the college search is supposed to be about finding the right fit — academically, emotionally and socially. If the indictments are true, these parents simply bypassed making the best match for their kids so they could brag about their offspring’s elite college education at cocktail parties.
And yet it seems everyone, including Hollywood stars, are obsessed with elite schools. Last spring, Eric Furda, the dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, told me he spent part of early April responding to emails, phone calls and letters about admissions decisions, mostly from parents whose children were denied entry. (Penn accepted only 8 percent of applicants last year.) What he noticed was that some parents started their inquiries by questioning the accomplishments of a student they knew was admitted rather than espousing the merits of their own child.
This anxiety reflects a perception that economic stability is increasingly scarce, and so are slots at the big-name, elite colleges that are supposed to guarantee it. That perception isn’t entirely wrong: At many schools, class sizes have stayed stable even as applications have skyrocketed as higher education has turned from a local industry to a national and even international one.
In pursuit of this economic insurance policy, parents sign up their children for travel soccer teams and piano lessons, hire high-priced SAT and ACT tutors, and pull out all affordable stops in pursuit of college acceptances.
Never mind that we don’t know exactly what a prestigious degree really means in terms of quality. Parents believe it buys access to a certain set of careers and the ability to rub shoulders with widely connected classmates and eventually alumni. It’s not because the education is so much better at those places; it’s because of the network. Research shows that lifetime earnings for students of comparable academic abilities is basically the same whether they went to an elite school or not.
What I found in the reporting for my last book is that how students go to college, from the majors they choose, to the research opportunities they pursue and the internships they get, matters more to success after graduation than the college’s name on the diploma. The problem is too many students go to all kinds of schools, including elite campuses, and treat college like a spectator sport. By surveying tens of thousands of college graduates, Gallup and Strada Education Network found that undergraduates who engage in the campus around them by working closely with professors, taking on research projects and participating in outside-the-classroom activities were more likely to have a passion for life and work after graduation.
Without good measures of what makes a college good, we fall back to the power of popularity and exclusivity. The more applications a school gets and the more students it rejects, the better it seems. Those numbers are simply based on inputs, just like the standardized test scores the parents accused in the admissions scandal paid to fake for their children.
What really makes a college good is what it does over four years to turn adolescent students into adult graduates. It’s pretty hard to see how children whose parents cheated and bought their way into school are ready take on the challenges once they get there.