the scam

“Y’know, the fact that some of these parents had to buy their kids 400+ points over their real scores on the SAT but were evidently unconcerned that they might not hack it at an Ivy really ought to tell us something about how this whole higher ed thing works”

-from @webdevMason, 12 Mar 2019


Twenty-five years ago – closer to thirty now, sheesh – I was in a comparative education class discussing how systems of education around the world differed from the US model. One thing that stood out was that in much of Europe, there was some means by which you got tracked into different high schools depending on what your likely career path was, making sure you got trained in something useful if you weren’t going to college. And the other thing was Japan, where the model was apparently “bust your ass to make sure you get into one of the right six universities – extra training, cram schools, late hours, do whatever it takes – and once you’re there, it’s coasting because you’ve already done the important thing, which is get that name on your resume for future purposes.”

It’s very difficult to feel like that isn’t where we’ve landed in the USA. The difference being that everyone has to go to college now, of some sort, no matter what. You have to get a 4-year degree “if you want to have a future” (my god, have you not seen what a plumber gets for coming out on Christmas Eve), even if that means you start life $100,000 in debt. It reminds me of the old Star Wars role-playing game from West End in the 80s, where a new character of the Smuggler class had a ship (which you kind of needed) but also started out 25,000 credits in debt to a nameless crime boss.

I can’t remember where I heard this or I would credit it appropriately, but I remember hearing someone say that scandal isn’t about people trying to make a better life for their kids — this is about trying to put a floor under them and ensure they don’t slip down the socioeconomic ladder. Once you’ve established a firm grip on the Whiffle Life, the last thing you want is for your kids to suddenly fall back into a world of consequences. Which sort of shoots the whole “meritocracy” thing in the face. If meritocracy were a real thing, we wouldn’t have legacy admissions, or added weight for big donors, or (if we’re being brutally honest) athletic scholarships. Although you could almost argue that football is there to provide a back door shortcut to school for people whose parents can’t afford to throw tens or hundreds of thousand of dollars at bending the rules.

And if you talk to faculty these days, it’s remarkable the extent to which many colleges and universities are consumed with setting up the country-club life. Luxurious dorms, lazy river in the rec center, yogurt bar in the food court. I don’t know when this became a thing, because it sure wasn’t when I was in school, but there is an increasing sense that the hard bit is getting into college and the ensuing four years is a sort of WASP rumspringa so you can enjoy life and network your way into whatever job you’re going to get (insert here the Silly Con Valley cliche about how most startups only hire from five schools: Harvard, MIT, Stanford, CMU, and wherever the CEO or primary VC went).

The first half of what I learned seemed ridiculous, elitist, unhelpful. Tracking kids based on age 11 tests or something like that, and routing their future accordingly? Seems profoundly undemocratic, right? And yet, what have we done but move the age and the test? We give everyone more or less the same education until age 16 or 17, and depending on their test results (and parental influence and whether they can get free in the open field) route them to whatever higher-ed institution they fit. You can go to the posh private school and switch to glide, or you can maybe go to a big state school and be routed into some great middle, or you can wind up in trade school or community college or some sort of online for-profit thing and hope for the best.

And yet, here’s the thing: I know very few people who actually use the degree they got. I have friends and loved ones who majored in marketing, psychology, environmental science – and my own two degrees in political science – and not one of us is involved in those fields because we’re all in high tech in some form or another. You can argue that college is as likely as not getting you the same sort of general education to underly your first job, after which you’ll build job on job with experience rather than be gauged on your college work (unless you apply to Google, obviously). Which sounds an awful lot like how high school worked until the 1970s or so.

So what we’ve done is to create this new paid layer of gatekeeping. Not particularly rigorous, not exactly essential (I know of an IT director at a corresponding institution who started with a high school diploma and a couple years of undergrad and has long outstripped my rank), but suitable for keeping out those who can’t afford it and burdening those who can with a semi-permanent limp. We are long overdue for a comprehensive rethink of what college is for and what it should be for in this country. And I would say so even if I hadn’t made such a hash of mine.

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