Sunday, March 17, 2019

Money See, Money Do

Yes, yes, the pursuit of money has always been a key component of American life, but the economic gains the wealthy have made since the election of Ronald Reagan borders on the obscene. The upper middle class has done pretty well too, and have been able to partake of the fruits of their success as few generations have in our past. We are awash in references to money and comparing ourselves to the measures that money represents. Think of box office receipts, athletes' salaries, the price of pricey cars and real estate, and of course, the media's fixation on big expensive...everything.

Given all of that, does it really surprise you that wealthy connected parents would use their money and influence to benefit their children? Maybe it's because I work in education and see the nefarious influence that money has had on students and parents. Maybe it's just the zeitgeist. Or maybe we have sold a part of our souls to the gods of capitalism. Whatever it is, perhaps this scandal will cause us to revisit some of our cherished beliefs.

Perhaps. I will not hold my breath.

As long as parents and students and the education system in general sees a university education as a jobs machine, then we will not make any headway in solving the problems that led to last weeks story. Most of my students say that the reason they are going to college is to get a good job. I've tried to fight against that mighty tide for decades, making the point that if that's your reason for going to college, then that's probably the only thing you'll get out of your experience. And you might not even get that good job.

But if you go for an education or an experience that you can't really replicate at any other time in your life, then you might find more pathways to a broader, more satisfying existence. After all, anyone can take a job away from you at any moment, but nobody can take away your education.

That's the real reason for why the pay-for-admission scandal is so distressing. It's right out of the resume-enhancing playbook that values the name and the money rather than the effort and the education. It's also a sad commentary on the trend in K-12 education that says that the goal of a child's schooling is to get them into college, as if all students can succeed in college.

There's a reason why the percentage of adults with a four year college degree has remained relatively steady at around 35% for many years, and why the college dropout rate approaches 50%.  Yes, there are students who cannot pay for their education or have personal issues that prevent them from completing their education, but most of the reason has to do with the nature of college itself. It's school. Difficult school. It demands executive function skills in addition to analytical, writing, and strategic thinking. Not everyone has those skills, yet the K-12 industry has been pushing all students in that direction for at least the last 30 years, sacrificing non-academic skills and learning or sloughing it off to district or county schools of technology.

And given the competition for jobs and status, it's no wonder that some parents will try to subvert the system or gain an unfair advantage. In the end, for them, academic skills or success means little compared to the opportunity to bypass what their child can actually do and focus on the school's name. Admission based on legacy or financial contribution is bad enough. Bribing a coach or having someone take the SAT or change a students's answers is immoral.

The clear lesson here is that pushing college for all students is not a reasonable strategy, nor should it be the goal of our education system. There are many pathways to success, and many measures of a successful life. Only one of them leads to college.

I hope that this is the worst of the scandals, but again, I won't hold my breath. Because I'll probably die.

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