High Costs of Higher Education

Reflections on the College Admissions Scandal

Being cynical about the state of higher education is a popular pastime, and I hate to add on to the trend—except, of course, higher education seems to insist on inviting such cynicism upon itself!

Take, most obviously, the recent news story about the recently uncovered conspiracy surrounding US college admissions. The scheme, involving bribery, money laundering, athletics departments, test scores, and a slew of other unsavory things, has been so far connected with 50 people who have been indicted, and, according to the ringleader of the operation, was involved with hundreds more—all to help the children of certain wealthy individuals illegally bypass the normal constraints of the admissions process at nine research universities.

This story is certainly depressing, and surely enough to push one over the edge into cynicism. Yet, oddly enough, much of the reaction I have seen to the affair (mainly through perusing the wasteland that is Twitter) has not been outraged shock, but rather a kind of knowing, resigned anger. It does not particularly come as a surprise that this kind of thing is going on.

The reasons for this are varied and numerous. There is an increased perception of most anything in our society as subject to the world of business and financial transactions; there is precedent for scandals besieging universities due to financial concerns (often related to athletics; Notre Dame is no stranger to such things); college degrees are now perceived as absolute sine qua nons. And, of course, as ever, universities find themselves in a constant game of one-upmanship to achieve and maintain cultural prestige.

The solution to the problem is…large, to say the least. One cannot merely stop fraud; one must stop the conditions that lead to the fraud and poison higher education, and these are pretty powerful and widespread conditions indeed.

What is particularly concerning when one thinks about the feasibility of trying to reclaim higher education is the fact that many of the concerning factors involved seem to be actively pursuedas goods by the leaders of universities. Notre Dame thankfully was not implicated in this scandal, but the oft-reiterated ambition to succeed alongside our peer institutions in…(well, this is never stated clearly, but one assumes some sort of fruit of learning and/or cultural capital) will quickly also lead to success alongside our peer institutions in learning that an admissions counselor or athletics director was easily bribed by someone with a fair amount of money.

This is why there is therefore a kind of hopefulness alongside my cynicism. The more the weird mythos around certain institutions of higher education is dismantled—through, among other things, the revelation of cases like this one—the less, I hope, will Notre Dame fear becoming obsolete, and the more we may be able to focus on living out our mission as a Catholic university.

This is not, however, to end on a totally trite and easy-to-wrap-up note. The very same factors mentioned before which have lead to this scandal have permeated more than just administrative decisions, but in the way every one of us thinks about universities. Unless each of us has regularly reflected upon Newman’s writing on Catholic universities lately—and even if we have—the general acceptance of universities as places to network, to get jobs, to ascend in rank is extremelydifficult to shake off for any student. It is very easy to condemn bribery; it is much more complicated to think about legacy students in general and their role at a University, the impact of donors, and many other questions. Any particular formula for thinking up an ideal university is pretty fraught. We have our work cut out for us.

On the bright side, thanks to the scandal, I learned that Notre Dame’s rival USC stands for Southern California, and not South Carolina. (No, I am not joking about that.) So that’s nice.

James Rahner is a senior studying philosophy. He wonders what it would be like to live in a monastery. There is a substantial chance he will try it sometime. Contact him at jrahner@nd.edu.

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