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Why did it take a celebrity scandal to talk absurd college costs? | Opinion

All this noise about what happens at the most selective schools distracts from the real issues facing most college students.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, left, is founding director of Temple University's Hope Center for College Community & Justice, where Abigail Seldin, right, is a board member.
Sara Goldrick-Rab, left, is founding director of Temple University's Hope Center for College Community & Justice, where Abigail Seldin, right, is a board member.Read moreCOURTESY GOLDRICK-RAB AND SELDIN (custom credit)

The new admissions scandal is another sign of a badly broken system. For decades, fearful parents have invested in their children (test prep tutors! “Volun-tourism” to poorer countries!) with their hopes pinned on admission to just a few of our country’s fine colleges and universities. These parents will jump through every hoop — and spend every dime — to stack the odds in favor of a child’s admission to an elite school. The rich and powerful, celebrities among them, are falling for this nonsense.

Beyond being a study in bad parenting, these folks are ignoring two critical facts: There are many great colleges in America, and attending a rich or well-known school matters most if you come from an underprivileged background.

The admissions game — used to maintain and market the elite status of a small percentage of our nation’s schools — doesn’t actually signal anything about a given school’s educational quality. Demand by students and their parents is what drives school acceptance rates down. This demand is not linked to educational quality, but to a desire among American parents to secure their children a place in the elite.

Pursuing this aristocracy is worth millions to some: In 2016, Daniel Golden reported that Jared Kushner’s father donated $2.5M to secure his admission to Harvard. The recent affirmative action case, expected to make the Supreme Court, has revealed tracking systems assigned to applicants with the potential to drive dollars to Harvard — a tactic used by many elite schools to varying degrees.

The New York Times editorial team was correct in noting that there’s a right — or at least legal — way to buy your child’s place in college. These parents were arrested because they went about it the wrong way.

As parents spend ever more (e.g. for SAT tutors), the demand for admission to “top” schools will grow. As a result, even institutions with limited academic merit, but strong name recognition from sports or clever advertising, have become more selective.

All this noise and stress about what happens at the most selective 50 schools in the U.S. distracts from the critical issues at the other 3,000-plus colleges and universities — where most Americans are educated. For these college-bound students, what matters most is whether a college offers a good quality, high value education at a reasonable price. A good college is one that can take any minimally qualified student and help them learn. Their missions focus on the communities they serve, the students they teach — not future alumni whose donations they plan to collect. The estimated lifetime earnings bump from a college degree is a million dollars over a career. For many, attaining an affordable degree is their best shot at the middle class.

Alumni from elite institutions should consider donating to these schools instead. They do great work, and your dollars will support the hardest-working students in America. Most students today, especially at institutions like Temple University and Community College of Philadelphia, work multiple jobs while attending college just to cover their basic needs. More than one-third of these students contend with hunger and homelessness. A recent study found that the median family income for a student at Harvard is $168K a year — three times the national median. Students at elite schools typically have more resources, both at home and school. Elite schools don’t need those donations — and stories about them don’t really need as much news coverage as they received the last few days, either.

So, instead of Felicity Huffman, what if our headlines focused on the daily crises faced by homeless college students across America? What if the federal hearings on student aid and the costs of college — also happening this week — broke through the news cycle? How we respond to these issues will decide our country’s future. We deserve better than to have celebrity bribery dominate discussions about the price people pay to go to college.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is professor of Higher Education Policy and Sociology at Temple University and founding director of the Hope Center for College Community & Justice. Abigail Seldin was cofounder and CEO of College Abacus, a higher education price transparency website. She is a board member at the Hope Center.