Please, let’s stop pretending that the college cheating scandal is just an indictment of overindulgent, wealthy helicopter parents.
The Justice Department has accused dozens of super-rich parents of making $25 million in illegal payments — and, in some cases, taking a tax break to boot — to get their children into selective colleges.
If true, these parents broke the law. They could face some prison time. But in the coming weeks, a lot of parents and their children, who’ve been legitimately accepted to pricey colleges, will make a move to put themselves in another type of prison.
Certain madness takes over this time of year — between late March and early April — when the college acceptance letters are sent out. Hearts are elated if children are accepted to prestigious public and private universities. Then comes the financial reality: Going to these dream colleges often means taking on substantial student loans.
Outstanding student-loan debt at the end of last year was $1.5 trillion. Education debt ranks second in consumer debt nationwide behind mortgages.
Parents will sentence themselves and their children to decades of debt because they believe attending a select school is a must for their children to succeed. They will trade financial stability for the status symbol of a brand-name college education.
The recent admissions scam has been used to underscore the pressure parents and students are under to get into “better” schools, as if the thousands of other colleges and universities in the country just aren’t good enough. Heaven forbid you suggest a student attend a community college first, if money is woefully lacking. The pushback is typically substantial — and illogical.
Dripping with disdain, parents and students say that if the acceptance to an elite college doesn’t happen, there is always the “safety school.” What’s financially sound and safe about struggling under the weight of enough debt to equal the price of a home?
And the financial imprisonment is even harder for low-income families, particularly minorities. Many students from these homes run out of money before they can graduate. They end up with debt and no degree.
Last fall, I met a mother at a financial-literacy program in Delaware who was very concerned about how to pay her parent PLUS loans. She had taken out more than $100,000 to help send her child to the top-rated University of Michigan to study to be a teacher.
I asked her why she didn’t send her daughter to a school in her home state or somewhere close by so she could commute and reduce the cost of attendance.
“It’s where she really wanted to go, and she worked hard to get into Michigan,” the mom said with pride.
But studies have shown that the determination and hard work that the child demonstrated would have helped her succeed wherever she ended up going to college.
“A sort of mania has taken hold, and its grip seems to grow tighter and tighter,” wrote New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni in his 2015 book “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.”
It’s the “elite edge” that drives many parents and students to put themselves in financial jeopardy, Bruni pointed out.
What about the connections a child will make at a premier institution, you might ask?
Gallup asked 5,100 graduates about the career helpfulness of their undergraduate alumni networks.
Just 9 percent of graduates said the school network has been very helpful or helpful to them in the job market, according to Gallup, which released the findings earlier this year.
Just one in six alumni from schools ranked in the top 50 by U.S. News and World Report reported that their alumni network has been useful to them in the job market.
“While these alumni are slightly more likely than alumni from lower-ranked schools to perceive their alumni network as helpful, the differences are relatively minor and unlikely to offset the significant differences in tuition costs,” Gallup said.
What can markedly make a difference in job success for a student?
What helps tremendously is an internship during college in which a graduate can apply what he or she is learning, Gallup said.
Long before the current admissions scandal, Bruni wrote, “The admissions game is too flawed and too rigged to be given so much credit. For another, the nature of a student’s college experience — the work that he or she puts into it, the skills that he or she picks up, the self-examination that’s undertaken, the resourcefulness that’s honed — matters more than the name of the institution attended.”
Stop the madness. Don’t succumb to admissions mania that can condemn you and your kid to a life of crushing debt.
Michelle Singletary can be reached at michelle.singletary