Seven Absurdities of Higher Education in America Today

The college admissions bribery scandal offers an important opportunity to think.

Posted Apr 11, 2019

The recent college admissions bribery scandal among several Hollywood celebrities and wealthy Silicon Valley families have unleashed a barrage of angry commentaries, articles, and headline-grabbing news stories about the many problems associated with higher education in American. These comments also include references to ethical and moral lapses among the most privileged and strategies for both back and side door entrances to American’s top colleges.  Much has been written and many critical judgments have been made since the scandal became public.

As someone who has been a college professor for 30+ years as well as a licensed psychologist in clinical practice and a parent of a recent college graduate, I’d like to reflect on the some of the current absurdities of college in America.  I don’t seek to blame anyone or pass judgment on various elements of society (including the extremely wealthy families or on the colleges themselves) but rather prefer to take a step back and look at what our higher education system has somehow become over time. While there are so many absurdities to select from I’ll highlight 7 that immediately come to mind.

1.      Somehow we have decided that the very top tier colleges in America include only the 8 Ivy League schools from the northeast (i.e., Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, Penn, and Cornell) as well as Stanford and MIT. These are often referred to as the “Ivy Plus” group. These colleges typically accept about 10% or less of their applicants. Then, we have a longer list of top tier schools that include colleges such as Georgetown, Duke, Northwestern, Amherst, Williams, Pomona, the University of Chicago, among a small number of others typically based on overall reputation and admissions selectivity (i.e., acceptance rates of about 20% or so). Next comes the most prestigious state schools such as UCLA, UC Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and several others. Our overall and general evaluation and impression of these schools have nothing to do with the particular needs and desires of individual students but are mostly based on historical reputation and admissions selectivity. Sometimes our perceptions are based on the success of the men's football or basketball programs at these schools.  In a nutshell, these are name brand colleges.

2.      We have also allowed athletics to become a vital and often critical part of the college experience including in admission decisions.  Too many students focus on athletics first and academic last when it comes to their college experience and desires. Some students see college athletics as a ticket to play professionally (again, mostly in men’s football and basketball) while others just want to have the big college sports experience such as attending football and basketball games at top-rated athletic programs.  This is one major reason why students in states like California decide to attend big state schools like the University of Alabama or Michigan paying out-of-state tuition at costly private school rates to attend big state schools far from home. Additionally, we have allowed colleges to act as the development or minor leagues for professional sports (again consider men’s football and basketball in particular) and have allowed the head coaches of these two sports at state universities to become the very highest paid public employee in each state.

3.      We have also decided that everyone should go to a four-year college regardless of their interests, skills, readiness, intellectual and academic abilities, or proposed career path.  We downplay vocational training and perhaps worship STEM majors in particular (i.e., science, technology, engineering, and math). Liberal arts and humanities are out of favor while STEM is idolized. 

4.      Drinking alcohol to excess and especially binge drinking (i.e., 5 or more drinks during a short period of time), attending lavish student parties (such as fraternity and sorority hosted parties), and engaging in drunken sexual hook ups are a high priority for many college students. Drinking and partying occurs during many nights of the week (not only on Friday or Saturday evenings) and many students are focused on the party culture of schools in making their determination as to where to attend.  Many seem to think that movies about college such as Animal House are actually documentaries and should be emulated. It is terribly tragic but not surprising that 20% of female college students report that they have been sexually assaulted on college campuses. 

5.      Colleges, even extremely wealthy ones with billions of dollars of endowment savings (e.g., Harvard claims 39 billion while Stanford claims 27 billion), making chronic fundraising a top priority. If you graduated from college you likely get solicited for donations regularly. In fact, I get daily emails (yes, I did say daily) and often phone calls, texts, and frequent social media posts and messages from all of the universities that I've graduated from or have been affiliated with as well as the one that my son just graduated from too. And those schools with the most resources and largest endowments seem to contact me the most frequently and the most aggressively not taking no for an answer to their donation requests. College presidents, deans, center and institute directors have primarily become fundraisers. College presidents typically no longer actually manage or run their institutions but are constantly traveling and engaging with current and potential donors. This has become true of deans and other high-level administrators as well. Even regular faculty (myself included) are frequently asked to participate in fundraising efforts by regularly engaging with potential donors on and off campus. The fund development departments have so many staff that they often need their own building on campus. 

6.      College has become outrageously expensive with a four-year private college experience exceeding a quarter of a million dollars at most of these schools. Certainly, financial aid, loans, grants, athletics scholarships, and work-study campus jobs all help out but the sticker price is now typically well over $60,000 per year at most selective private schools. And state schools, funded by public dollars, charge private school rates for out of state students. 

7.      Students now experience an alarming increase in mental health problems including anxiety, depression, attention deficit, and obsessive-compulsive disorders with a stunning increase in the number of students needing disability accommodations, psychotherapy, and psychotropic medication due to these psychiatric problems and challenges with their basic functioning. Colleges have become psychiatric clinics with an explosion of counseling staff members needed to handle the demands for mental health and disability accommodation services.

There are so many problems in higher education without clear and simple solutions. Our higher education system at the college level has evolved in this direction due to a variety of complex reasons and it is no wonder that many parents and students try to game the broken system to their maximum advantage. It is hard to blame them for doing so. The current headline news about the college admission bribery scandal gives us an important opportunity to take a deep breath, gather our reflections, and think about ways to improve this terribly broken system. Improvements won’t happen overnight but hopefully, over time, they might with great effort by many and from multiple corners of the campus and from off-campus influences and institutions as well. 

By the way, in an effort to be completely transparent and provide full disclosure, my son was a recruited athlete (track and field) at an Ivy League college (Dartmouth). His high school 400m race time seemed to be as important as his GPA or SAT scores when it came to recruitment and admissions. Additionally, I graduated from an Ivy League school as an undergraduate (Brown) and another one as a clinical intern and postdoctoral fellow (Yale).  I received my doctoral degree from the University of Kansas (a big state school with a top men's basketball team).  I very happily teach full time as a tenured full professor and endowed chair at Santa Clara University and also teach as an adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.  I am very grateful for my educational experiences both as a student and as a professor but these absurdities noted here can be simply breathtaking when you live and interact with them on a daily basis. 

So, what do you think? How can we move towards a better and reasonable path in higher education to minimize or avoid these absurdities and other problems? 

Copyright 2019, Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP