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Can We Just Admit College Is A Giant Ponzi Scheme?


The recently passed academic year teemed with scandals at American colleges and universities. Most recently, Baylor University fired president Ken Starr and head football coach Art Briles over (repeat) allegations they covered up athletes’ sexual assaults. English majors at Yale University are demanding that they no longer have to read white, male authors in a required two-semester survey of—get this—British poetry. Apparently being white is a strike against William Shakespeare.

A wave of physically aggressive mob action cloaked in social justice rhetoric washed over the nation’s “top” colleges and universities, most prominently at the University of Missouri but also hitting schools that have been at the top of “best colleges” lists for decades: Yale, Oberlin, Amherst, Brown, Dartmouth, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, University of Michigan, Tufts, Wesleyan, and dozens more. Students at “top” universities such as Yale, Princeton, and Stanford redoubled demands that colleges divest from companies a handful of students opposed for the crime of being privately owned institutions. Students at Stanford University rejected a push to learn basic Western history as part of their core curriculum.

To everyone who has been paying attention to higher education over the past half-century, this all isn’t really a surprise. These events proclaim that higher education has largely devolved into a scam that bilks taxpayers out of $157 billion a year, employers out of prepared employees, and the country out of capable citizens. The students are right: they’re being exploited and oppressed. They’re just aiming their fire at the wrong system.

If students and taxpayers are the victims, who are the victimizers? Follow the money. Who is making out like bandits from a higher education system that everyone knows (and data shows) financially, culturally, and intellectually handicaps young citizens rather than the opposite? Who goes home at night and sleeps well while young people are intellectually, morally, and physically raped under their watch? It’s the bureaucrats, of course.

Baylor University Is a Prime Example

College sports is a prime example of higher education’s twisted priorities. There is no reason for semi-pro sports to be a part of higher education. That isn’t to say that athletics is not important in the work of character formation that every education institution ought to pursue, but a comment about perspective. Sports as a part-time endeavor is perfectly complementary to the work of a student. Sports can work in symbiosis with academics, teaching perseverance in the face of difficulty, grace in failure, and more practically offering benefits such as teaching time-management and increasing cognitive function. For reasons such as these, research suggests athletics increase academic achievement in K-12 schooling.

There’s a point at which sports displace academics, however, and that kind of perversion of a college’s academic mission leads to other kinds of corruption. Thus the frequent athletic scandals at Big Ten colleges and the like. Athletes at this level typically treat academics as a hobby (given grueling training regimens sometimes they have no choice), and that’s the problem.

At the level of a Division I Big 12 school like Baylor, what we have are colleges acting essentially as farm teams for pro sports. Now, they want to do this because it generates a pile of money for them, for local governments, for sports media, and so on. But sports at this level not only have almost nothing to do with a college’s academic mission, they in fact pervert that mission.

Very little of that money goes to fulfill a college’s academic and civic missions—in fact, sports typically drain money from academics. Their take pads and justifies massive salaries all throughout bureaucracies ranging from those inside the colleges themselves to those inside local governments to those inside accreditation institutions, in many if not most cases for people who contribute not one iota to a college’s academic mission. Bully for them, but not so much for students—not even the athletes.

Structured in this fashion, college becomes a giant scam that exploits players who (besides baseball, generally speaking) have no other options but college for developing their athletic skills in an eventual bid for the majors. They may not be at all interested in college as college, but they have to go because that’s the only way of achieving a sports career.

Many Colleges Are Really Diploma Mills

Fortunately, colleges make enough money off “student” athletes to pay “tutors” and “professors” who assign and complete enough make-work assignments to justify a sham diploma, as we saw revealed in the North Carolina-Chapel Hill athletic scandal last year. There, over 18 years more than 3,000 athletes pretended to attend college while UNC paid people to churn out falsified papers and grades for them.

A subsequent report found the university responded to the scandal by doubling down on admitting athletes whose high-school academic records showed they would not be able to keep up. This atmosphere is not at all unique to Baylor or UNC, according to “Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports,” published in 2015. As UNC’s Mary Willingham writes in “Cheated,” these programs exploit both non-athletes and the athletes themselves:

Students…told her that they had never had to write anything before, and students could barely read being taken out of a Basic Writing class and placed instead into one of the classes known to yield easy A grades…. ‘Recruits are told that they will receive “world-class” educations and that these educations, for all their world-classness, will be easily acquired.’ …Many young men let basic education slide so they can try to attract the attention of college coaches, and then let college education slide while they try to attract the attention of pro scouts, but only a fraction of one percent of them will ever sign a professional sports contract. They don’t think about the costs of ignoring school when they see college stars getting drafted and signing multi-million dollar deals.

This atmosphere and these incentives effectively makes “academic” departments props to sell parents and the public on the fiction that students are receiving a “world-class” education on this exciting campus. Nobody complains until the students graduate from these diploma mills and can hardly add using their fingers. By then, the money is gone.

Why would, as the Baylor report alleges, a college president and local police cover for rather than expel and arrest, respectively, football players who have committed sexual assault? Publicity-wise, there may be a short-term negative effect for admitting the existence of sexual assault on campus, but a long-term positive effect as students and the public see and respect that a college will not tolerate egregious behavior. In whose interest is it to see young women raped and their rapists go unpunished? The people who make piles of money and exciting careers from these rapists’ athletic performances, that’s who.

From Physical to Intellectual Exploitation

Runaway sports structures are only one way in which colleges exploit students. As the Baylor and UNC cases show, higher education corruption is both moral and intellectual, and the two have a symbiotic relationship. Two weeks ago, the New Yorker published an eye-opening account of what passes for student life at Oberlin College, which is rated 23rd in the nation on the dominant (yet idiotic) U.S. News and World Report rankings.

These are the kids who complained that cafeteria sushi and banh mi were racially offensive because the foods weren’t authentic enough, and this the college where a professor can go on a crazy conspiracy-theorist anti-Semitic rant on Facebook and get a pass because she’s black. Oh, yeah, guys: World-class material right here. For comedy. Or tragedy, because it’s really only comedic until you realize these are young people’s lives being mangled by an ideology that only harms their ability to participate in the world as it is, rather than as they have been taught to want it to be.

It’s really only comedic until you realize these are young people’s lives being mangled by an ideology that only harms their ability to participate in the world as it is.

This is heart-rending stuff. Writer Nathan Heller sits down with “Afro-Latinx” student Megan Bautista, who notes, “A lot of people here are the first in their families, or in the position where they really have to be the breadwinners as soon as they graduate.” Yet their campus studies and pursuits do not seem structured to tangibly empower such students through steering them through actual accomplishments that will result in a life of service to family and country. “They didn’t have the luxury of hours for unpaid activism,” Heller writes. Yet they did it anyway, frequently trekking 40 minutes to Cleveland to protest after a police officer shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

They couldn’t do that and keep up with their studies. But rather than decide which of the two was a priority and realize, like adults must, that life offers tradeoffs, Bautista and her friends petitioned the school to inflate their grades because of their activism. Another student, Zakiya Acey, complains to Heller that he “can’t produce the work that they want me to do” because he’s “dealing with having been arrested on campus.” Some, but not all, professors will let him give his exam answers orally, but others oppress him by, presumably, asking him to take written exams or turn in papers.

Note that when “education” structured this way happens at UNC it ends up with a notably impoverished education being given to young people who typically can least afford to learn little. Expressing one’s work in “portfolios” or oral exams is typically less rigorous than doing so in lengthy essays and research papers.

Taxpayer-Sponsored, Unemployable Rabble-Rousers

What, exactly, are such Oberlin students being taught to do or know that will improve their lives and the life of their communities? “Intersectionality” and post-Marxism mind games may be engrossing, but so far in real life their only major consequences have been social strife. Note these two haunting passages:

[Professor Wendy] Kozol noticed something alarming: the students had started seating themselves by race. Those of color had difficulty with anything that white students had to say; they didn’t want to hear it anymore. Kozol took over the class for the spring, and, she told me, ‘it played out through identity politics.’ The class was supposed to be a research workshop. But students went cold when they had to engage with anyone outside their community.

…‘We’re asking to be reflected in our education,” [student Jasmine] Adams cuts in. ‘I literally am so tired of learning about Marx, when he did not include race in his discussion of the market!’ She shrugs incredulously. ‘As a person who plans on returning to my community, I don’t want to assimilate into middle-class values. I’m going home, back to the ’hood of Chicago, to be exactly who I was before I came to Oberlin.’

If this young lady is going home to be exactly the person she was before Oberlin, why has she come to Oberlin? Why are donors and taxpayers supporting her and her fellow students? Certainly not for the service-minded citizens Oberlin and the other “top-tier” colleges like it are producing. These young people are a bunch of uninformed rabble-rousers, not young adults capable of or even interested in contributing to their neighborhoods as parents, employees, Little League volunteers, and so on. Their idea of public service is rhetorically attacking police officers and demanding wealth redistribution, not teaching poor kids to read so they can one day grow up and go to Oberlin. Yet which of these is more tangibly beneficial to addressing racial inequality?

Do you want people like this to have any power over you? Or even as neighbors? Not really. Who knows if one day you might come home and find them protesting on your porch because you cut the grass, and that disturbs the natural ecosystem, which is (obviously) racist, because people of color do not have equal access to untainted ecosystems. And of course sexist, because the Earth is female-spirited. Or something. I can’t even make this stuff up, it’s so crazy.

Stop Subsidizing Things That Are Destroying America

Deconstructionist grievance-mongers have hijacked the liberal arts to provide themselves comfy salaries and low workloads while sucking the lifeblood of the nation’s young. If they actually cared about young people and our country, professors would harness the power of the true liberal arts to teach young people how to transcend their pain. Great works of literature and the great ideas humans have wrestled with across centuries and civilizations bring us out of our petty tribal provincialism; they transcend narrow categories like race and class. They give us grounds for talking and living with each other despite our differences.

They’ve been taught this lazy intellectual entitlement by their parents and teachers, who should know better.

But these students don’t want to be brought up and out. They want to be rewarded for merely existing, for doing nothing. They’ve been taught this lazy intellectual entitlement by their parents and teachers, who should know better.

These students are being victimized by their clearly bankrupt ideology and the mentors who have preached it to them all their lives, but they want to be victimized because in their minds that elevates their position. In our upside-down world, we become superior by being inferior.

Oberlin and its ilk are welcome to use private donations to colonize the minds of their students and render them unfit for life. But it’s time for taxes to stop subsidizing the physical, moral, and mental exploitation of young people through a system whose chief effects are providing sinecures for lazy cowards and actively destroying our ability to live together as Americans. Oh, and saddling the latest generation of graduates with an average of approximately $35,000 in college loans while nearly half of them are working jobs that don’t require a college degree, despite promising them college is a one-way ticket out of having to work your way up a career ladder.

As Milton Friedman says, if you want higher education, you should pay for it yourself (or with help from private donors or investors, who have personal stakes in what their money produces). That’s the only way to align colleges’ financial incentives with students’ needs for substantive learning. Otherwise, higher education is just the old and powerful exploiting the young and weak. Skin in the game is power to influence its outcome.