Last week, the nation was enthralled by the tale of wealthy and powerful people – most notably the actresses Laurie Laughlin and Felicity Huffman – who paid exorbitant sums of money to get their children into top universities.

The takeaway for many has been that this is just one more example of privilege. The rich are able to overcome any obstacle with money. But that’s not really news. What we should be asking ourselves is why college is ripe for this sort of corruption. The stakes have become great, and the high-profile arrests of a couple of celebrities and dozens of wealthy “titans” of law and finance will do little to dissuade people from trying the same sort of scam in the future.

For many, a college diploma with a good school brand on the top is not only important – it’s everything.

A college degree has become one of the most essential passports to a middle-class livelihood. Research suggests nearly 65 percent of all jobs in the United States require a college degree of some kind. And those with degrees are likely to earn $500,000 more than their non-degree holding peers over the course of their lifetimes. And with those better jobs and pay come much healthier and happier lives, as college grads live longer and better for a whole host of reasons.

Such is the importance of a college degree that many will do anything to get one. Americans are going to college in greater and greater numbers and have racked up a collective $1.5 trillion in debt. And those college grads are compelled to delay major life events – from starting families to buying homes – as they struggle to keep ahead of massive student debt repayment plans. Unlike other forms of debt, there’s no bankruptcy relief for student loans.

As the economist Bryan Caplan pointed out in his recent book, “The Case Against Education,” America’s focus on college degrees has done little for educating the population or leveling the playing field for graduates. He argues the greatest product of the degree arms race is massive credential inflation. U.S. citizens are being driven to spend more time and money on education to get jobs that don’t honestly require high levels of education to begin with.

Caplan cited a U.S. Dept. of Education assessment of adult literacy in 2003 that showed fewer than a third of college graduates received a score of “proficient.” Colleges are turning out credentials, but they’re not necessarily educating us. Part of that, Caplan argues, is that a lot of people who don’t belong in college are attending. And who can blame them given the advantages a degree carries?

The best way to deal with credential inflation and spiraling college debt might not necessarily be through free college tuition, but from uncoupling the four-year-college degree from every path to prosperity. We need vocational training and other work programs that can pave the way to prosperous adult lives for those who don’t belong in college.

Otherwise, it won’t be long until the next batch of wealthy parents are caught bribing their way into college.

Pete Mazzaccaro

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