On March 12, news of a massive admission scandal broke in the world of higher education. At least 50 people, including several celebrities, stand accused of paying a consultant named William Rick Singer to get their children into particular colleges by any means necessary. His alleged tactics included falsifying standardized test results and bribing coaches to fraudulently nominate students for athletic scholarships, sometimes in sports they didn't even play in high school.
The revelations have understandably provoked much wailing about the corruption of the university admissions process. But much less notice has been paid to another sea change that enabled this scandal to occur: It is still very hard to get into elite schools, but it's not at all difficult to graduate.
In a different era, obtaining a diploma from an Ivy League school required hard work and real educational attainment for almost any major. The kinds of students admitted through money or connections would often struggle to make it through—hence the so-called "gentleman's C." But the vast majority of those who completed a degree could take pride in their accomplishments and rest easy knowing they were well-prepared to succeed in life.
Not so anymore. Since the late 1960s, universities have increasingly suffered from grade inflation and an emphasis on ensuring that all admitted students graduate. At the same time, schools have become more liberal about accepting applicants based on unorthodox qualifications, from athletic ability to nonacademic accomplishments, disadvantageous backgrounds, and demonstrated social "awareness."
If these changes were simply used to admit a wider range of individuals who in the past would likely have been overlooked but who, given the opportunity, were capable of meeting the strict existing standards, this would be a laudable development. But that is not what has happened.
The old academic criteria, imperfect as they were, were in fact doing a reasonable job of selecting individuals able and willing to handle the rigors of traditional college. The blunt fact is that the majority of people who scored below a 1200 on the verbal and math sections of the SAT would have found it difficult or impossible to handle a curriculum like that required to earn a state-school engineering degree or comparable certification. Today, thanks to grade inflation, such students can and do pass through top schools with top honors, especially in the liberal arts.
There are many ways to achieve success and fulfillment that do not involve attending an elite college. Instead of encouraging people to pursue options well-matched to their abilities, however, we tell young people that their self-worth hinges entirely on the brand name on their college diploma. This creates a perverse incentive to do whatever it takes to get into their dream school, to amass tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, and to select a major based not on the professional opportunities it will open to them but on the ease of the program's academic requirements. Small wonder we now have a generation drowning in debt and struggling to meet the traditional benchmarks of adulthood.