The college admissions scandal that rocked the country on Tuesday is one of the weirdest, most depraved pieces of news in quite some time, even accounting for the fact that the president of the United States is Donald Trump.
As our colleague Anna Merlan wrote on Jezebel yesterday, the case brought by the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts—which resulted in the arrests of actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and some 50 other people—revolves around a scheme in which a former Yale soccer coach named Rudy Meredith and a college prep advisor named Rick Singer allegedly served as middlemen between wealthy clients and college administrators and athletic coaches, designating them as athletic recruits in order to make their acceptance into selective schools. (Loughlin’s daughters were allegedly designated as recruits to the University of Southern California’s crew team.)
In one of the grosser aspects of the whole thing, Singer allegedly funneled the payments through a charity to help “underprivileged students.” As Jezebel noted, that “charity”—the “Key Worldwide Foundation”—took in $3.7 million in grants and contributions in 2016, while paying out around $860,000 in grants and assistance, or less than a quarter of what they took in. It truly boggles the mind how they got caught.
Although there’s no evidence the colleges themselves approved of or are implicated in this—or that the kids actually had knowledge about how they got into school—the whole scandal strikes a pretty deafening blow to the concept of meritocracy, if you were still under the impression that was real. But more than that, the whole thing just puts a sour taste in the mouth of anyone who, like me, did not have help in paying for college, let alone paying to get into it.
I grew up working-class. My dad drove a truck for a frozen food company; my mom worked mostly in healthcare for most of my childhood, and now teaches CPR for a living. Though there were hard times financially, I was mostly sheltered from them. Then the 2008 recession hit, just as I was graduating high school.
My parents had bought a house two years before the financial crash. Their credit was never exceptional, but it was absolutely destroyed by the recession. My mom lost her job, and after buying a new house around the peak of the housing boom, that meant a lot of necessities went on credit cards.
I was a piss poor student in high school, completely apathetic about school most of the time and experiencing what I’ve come to understand today as depressive episodes. I had no ambitions of going to any college except for my state university, the University of Delaware—partially because it was the cheapest option available, but also because it was where most of my friends were going.
When my junior year rolled around, my Cs, Ds, and Fs in multiple classes I didn’t care about came back to haunt me, and I didn’t get in. Well, actually, I did; while I was rejected from the main campus, I was offered a two-year program at a local community college, with the promise that if I kept my grades up, I would eventually get accepted to the main campus for my final two years of school. But community college back then, as it does now, has a stupid and unfortunate stigma that I bought into.
For a few years, I bounced between colleges—a private university that was relatively cheap because all of the professors were adjuncts, that same community college I’d foregone a year earlier, another private university that was extremely not cheap for half a semester—before I got my shit together and decided I should take school seriously. I eventually transferred to and graduated from the University of Delaware. With the exception of that half of a semester in 2009, I lived with my parents all throughout college.
I knew that my parents would probably not be able to help me pay for college, but when I started applying for student loans, I realized something else: they didn’t have the credit to co-sign on my student loans, either.
And so for most of college, my family and I would sit down twice a year and apply for student loans through the federal government, with the knowledge that my parents would inevitably get denied. After that process was over—which I’m sure was humiliating for them—the federal government could then issue me loans directly. Because of this, my lifetime limit for how much money I could borrow from the federal government increased significantly. This, apparently, is considered a good thing.
Fast-forward to the past few years, which is the first time in my life I’ve had relative financial stability. When I began paying back my loans in full last year, the total amount I was spending on student loans per month was around $675 a month. (Thankfully, I live in a relatively affordable city in North Carolina and not, say, New York or Washington, D.C., which is the only way I can both pay my student loans and have a roof over my head.)
Even with a steady income, nearly $700 a month is a ridiculous amount of money, so I recently decided to try to consolidate my loans in hopes of getting a lower payment. A few weeks ago, I sent in my application to do just that. I have $54,000 in outstanding loans; in order to get down to $341 a month, a much more manageable payment, I had to apply for a fixed loan for 300 months. If I’m able to pay $341 every month for the next 25 years—at the end of which I would be 54 years old.
Of course, thanks to interest, the total amount I’d pay in this plan is not $54,000, but over $100,000— on top of whatever else I’ve paid on my loans thus far.
The ironic part is that I actually liked college, and could envision myself in graduate school if I was ever frozen out of the famously stable field of journalism. But knowing that I’m already on the hook for another $100,000 impacts this decision, as it does all other financially-adjacent decisions I could ever make; decisions about housing, about having kids, about moving to a new place, about changing careers, and so on.
All of this because of a decision I made as a teenager and in my early twenties that I would like to have a college degree.
When I read the news about the admissions scandal and thought about it in the context of my own situation, I quickly realized that I’m not angry at the kids or their dipshit parents for what they allegedly did. If the allegations are true, these rich parents simply leveraged the resources that were available to them. If only they had more resources, we wouldn’t be talking about this—they’d have just donated a building.
Really, what’s the tangible difference between Charles Kushner pledging $2.5 million to Harvard over the course of 10 years beginning in 1998, the year before his son Jared enrolled at Harvard? What, is it going to taint the flawless and upstanding higher education industry if someone from Desperate Housewives or Full House gets their kids in through direct bribes involving athletics admissions rather than the old-fashioned way?
Nope. The problem, as it so often is, rests on America’s particularly noxious brand of capitalism. The wealthiest and most powerful people in our society have decided that if you aren’t rich, you must put yourself through hell in order to either get into college, graduate from college, pay it off, or some combination of all three. It is a patently immoral system, and one that a lot of people make a lot of money from. The student loan industry, according to a paper last year by the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute, is one that’s worth $1.5 trillion.
If anything, the college admissions scandal only serves to boost the arguments for both free higher education and student debt cancellation. The more people who learn about what a scam this whole thing is—and that most other countries offer higher education either for free or for around what Americans pay for community college—the better. For a country that has obsessively turned education at all levels from an academic pursuit into a means to an end (i.e., getting a job), its worth is not so clear anymore for a lot of people, especially those in similar or worse financial situations that my family was in when I first enrolled in college.
Through this system, we’ve created a sort of permanent debtor class. And with the costs of tuition still outpacing wages, inflation, and aid, it only promises to get worse if something isn’t done. It also doesn’t help that student loans are not something you can discharge in bankruptcy. (For this, you can partially thank Joe Biden.)
And so anything which threatens the stability of the myths about higher education and meritocracy in America is ultimately a positive development. The more questions that are asked about the dollars and cents value of an education, about what’s required to qualify as a success in America, and about how the deck is so stacked against those of us who don’t refer to William H. Macy or Charles Kushner as “Dad,” the better. Maybe one day all of the outrage will turn into a mass movement that demands the right to an education without signing your life away.
Do you have a student loan story that you want to share? You can email me.