• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Two Worlds

The admissions scandal.

March 14, 2019
 
 

I’ve worked over the years to build a persona as a relatively controlled writer, one who has opinions, yes, but who doesn’t veer off into self-indulgent, profanity-laced tirades.

And then Aunt Becky from Full House pays a half million dollars to get her kids into USC, despite one of them having posted videos saying she doesn’t intend to go to class much.

(tapping fingers on table)

Which happens during the same week that I’m combing the instructional budget to cut a million dollars to help offset some of the latest shortfall.

(foot tapping under table)

Then I read that one trick some rich parents used was fake disability claims, to get control of the SAT testing venue so they could get away with hiring people to take the tests for them.

(ears reddening)

This, the week after a new governor elected on a “free community college” platform proposed a budget with exactly zero dollars of increased operating aid for community colleges.

(tapping gets faster)

Ahem.

--

It’s hard to read about colleges so swamped with applicants that they have to turn most of them away when I work at a college that’s doing somersaults and backflips to avoid layoffs due to declining enrollment and public disinvestment.

Persons so inclined will see the rush to exclusive places as a “flight to quality,” but that’s not it.  If that were it, then our graduates would struggle at those places when they transfer. In fact, they outperform “native” students.  And I really don’t think that Ms. Loughlin’s daughter was weighing academic quality. She certainly didn’t seem too focused on it.

It all feels like morbid and unwelcome confirmation my oft-repeated line “community colleges struggle because they’re trying to create a middle class for a country that no longer wants one.”  The wildly wealthy live in their own world; what Christopher Lasch called “the secession of the successful” has so desiccated our sense of community that colleges for whom community is their middle name are left aside.

The tax deduction on Ms. Loughlin’s bribe would be enough to hire two tenure-track professors here. That’s just the deduction.

--

The interwebs have been filled with thoughtful pieces noting that the real scandal about elite college admissions is how much tilting in favor of the wealthy and powerful is actually legal: everything from access to “good” school districts to certain sports to SAT coaching to the free time to do a slate of extracurriculars comes with wealth, but registers as “merit.”  That’s all true, but it’s only part of the picture.

Colleges and universities exist in a political economy. When that political economy favors the middle, institutions in the middle will thrive.  When it pulls towards the extremes, it’s the places in the middle that feel the strain.

Yes, by all means, let’s throw the wrongdoers in prison. They have it coming. But as long as the economic rewards skew ever more highly to a small elite, it’s not surprising that people will do whatever they think they have to do to get, or stay, among that elite.  If we want a more livable society, in which it’s possible to have a good life in many different ways, we need to make the policy changes to make that political economy happen. Reduce college choice to personal preference, and most of the madness will stop. College admissions madness is a symptom, not a cause.

In the meantime, there are plenty of good seats still available at “access institutions” all around the country, at least for now.  No photoshopped athletics necessary.

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