The FBI charged a list of well-heeled parents, including actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, with fraud on March 12. Their alleged goal: to get their kids into top schools, including Yale and Stanford. The public reactions ranged from outrage to cynicism. The outrage: These parents think they can buy their kids anything. The cynicism: These parents could have done the same thing legally by “charitably” funding a new building or two. All this aside, the admissions scandal is an opportunity to separate the lofty mythology of college from the sordid reality. Despite the grand aspirations that students avow on their admission essays, their overriding goal is not enlightenment, but status.
Consider why these parents would even desire to fake their kids’ SAT scores. We can imagine them thinking, I desperately want my child to master mathematics, writing and history — and no one teaches math, writing and history like Yale does! But we all know this is fanciful. People don’t cheat because they want to learn more. They cheat to get a diploma from Yale or Stanford — modernity’s preferred passport to great careers and high society.
What, then, is the point of sneaking into an elite school, if you lack the ability to master the material? If the cheaters planned to major in one of the rare subjects with clear standards and well-defined career paths — like computer science, electrical engineering or chemistry — this would be a show-stopping question. Most majors, however, ask little of their students — and get less. Standards were higher in the 1960s, when typical college students toiled about 40 hours a week. Today, however, students work only two-thirds as hard. Full-time college has become a part-time job.
If computer-science students slacked off like this, employers would soon notice. Most of their peers, however, have little reason to dread a day of reckoning — because, to be blunt, most of what college students study is irrelevant in the real world. Think of all the math, history, science, poetry and foreign language you had to study in school — if you can. Indeed, you’ve probably long since forgotten most of what you learned about these subjects. Few of us use it, so almost all of us lose it. The average high school student studies a foreign language for a full two years, but, according to my own research, less than 1% of American adults even claim they gained fluency in a classroom.
Why do employers put up with such a dysfunctional educational system? Part of the answer is that government and donors lavish funding on the status quo with direct subsidies, student loans and alumni donations. As a result, any unsubsidized alternative, starved of resources, must be twice as good to do half as well. The deeper answer, though, is that American higher education tolerably performs one useful service for American business: certification. Most students at places like Yale and Stanford aren’t learning much, but they’re still awesome to behold if you’re looking to fill a position. Ivy Leaguers are more than just smart; when tangible rewards are on the line, they’re hardworking conformists. They hunger for conventional success. From employers’ point of view, it doesn’t matter if college fosters these traits or merely flags them. As long as elite students usually make excellent employees, the mechanism doesn’t matter.
So why cheat your kid into the Ivy League or a similarly elite school? For the lifelong benefits of corrupt certification. When I was in high school, my crusty health teacher loved to single out a random teen and scoff, “You’re wanted … for impersonating a student.” If you can get your less-than-brilliant, less-than-driven child admitted, he’ll probably get to impersonate a standardly awesome Ivy League graduate for the rest of his life. Of course, the superrich parents the FBI is accusing could have just let their kids skip college and live off their trust funds, but it’s not merely a matter of money. It’s also about youthful self-esteem — and parental bragging rights.
As a college professor, I’ve spent years blowing the whistle on the wasteful system that employs me. When the FBI went public with this case, many of my Twitter friends declared victory on my behalf. Yet truth be told, this salacious scandal proves next to nothing. It just illustrates the obvious. Though we casually talk about our “institutions of higher learning,” little learning is going on. Sure, college is an intellectual banquet for the rare students with a passion for ideas and the energy to locate the also-rare professors with a passion for teaching. The vast majority, however, come in search of a stamp on their foreheads that says grade a — and leave with little else. If the parents accused by the FBI are guilty as charged, don’t say they failed to understand the purpose of a college education. Say they understood its purpose all too well.
This appears in the March 25, 2019 issue of TIME.