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The college admissions scandal is tantalizing. Keeping higher ed open to many a must.

Coaches, celebrities indicted in college admissions bribery case

Court documents released Tuesdays shows dozens of celebrities and coaches have been charged with participating in a college admissions scam to get their children into prestigious schools.
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Court documents released Tuesdays shows dozens of celebrities and coaches have been charged with participating in a college admissions scam to get their children into prestigious schools.

For those of us who are connoisseurs of stories chronicling the misbehavior of the rich, famous and powerful, the past week’s breaking news of the college admissions pay-to-play scandal has been highly entertaining.

To recap: Parents desperate to get their progeny into name schools resorted to such tactics as having the kids pose as athletes (with the collusion of coaches of teams the offspring wouldn’t be playing for) or having someone take admission tests for them. To cheat their way in, the desperate parents were paying sums of money far in excess of what a diploma from a standard-issue, low-prestige, land-grant state university would cost.

Sex is about the only element this story is missing, and who knows, maybe that too will make an appearance at some point. We also don’t have a local element — yet — unless you count the West Coast as local, and then a number of coaches at California schools have been implicated, including Stanford’s sailing coach — sailing? It should be noted that none of the schools themselves are said to be involved in the schemes, just individual coaches who were paid to help game the admissions system.

In the meantime, we can enjoy the spectacle. If we’re required to get serious about it, to come up with some bigger theme about what it all means, to get academic about academics, we can do that, too.

Behind the chuckles and smirks are some less amusing aspects of the story, namely the mess we’ve made of the college-education system.

That’s too bad, because higher ed has been, and continues to be, one of the successes of the American system. It’s been a huge and powerful engine of economic prosperity for the American economy, at the individual and macro level. Reasonably priced college educations were a significant element in lifting millions into the middle class.

University research generated the new technologies that in turn produced new companies, industries and jobs. Never mind the occasional story of some outlandish survey or research project; pick up a publication summarizing the latest tech or medical research and prepare to be dazzled by the innovative ideas pouring out of institutions across the country. (Those economic contributions are why every time this column discusses long-term economic-development strategy for Tacoma, building and leveraging the region’s higher-ed capacity is listed as a vital component.)

So if college works so well for so many, what’s the problem?

Not one problem, actually, but many. College has gotten increasingly expensive. Americans have taken on headache-inducing levels of student-loan debt they cannot afford. Administrative staffs and budgets have become bloated. Big-time athletic programs further distort budgets as well as the purpose of universities. Higher ed is slow to adapt new ways of educating students. Too many students who don’t fit in college feel they have to go anyway and that when they do, the name on the diploma is what really counts.

We won’t get too starry-eyed about dear old Groves of Academia U. when compared to today’s institutions of higher ed. The campuses of America are littered with buildings named after donors who contributed large sums to ensure that family members, no matter how thick-headed, got in. Nor is the brand-name aspect of shopping for a college degree anything new. The Ivies have had a head start of several hundred years to establish market position, begrudgingly making room for such recent upstarts as Stanford. College has long been pricey, and there have been plenty of occupations that didn’t require a four-year degree but did lead to a middle-class life.

Much of that isn’t going to change. But colleges do need to change if they’re going to continue to be contributors to American prosperity. That won’t require them to lower standards or be even more elitist. It will require them to adapt to realities in technology, demographics, the job market and students’ ability to pay.

Higher ed is experimenting and attempting to innovate, albeit tentatively, with much of that coming from a long overlooked segment, the community, two-year and vocational-technical schools. With no ivied legacies to protect and no fat-cat donors buying their way in, that slice of higher ed has been freer to restructure itself.

One way they’ve been doing so is by adding four-year bachelor’s degree programs. At its February meeting the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges approved four more applied bachelor’s degree programs, including cybersecurity at Clark College, interior design at Clover Park Technical College, integrated design at Highline College and applied business management at Pierce College. Another 12 such programs are being reviewed. In the 2017-2018 school year, 3,960 students were enrolled in applied bachelor’s programs in Washington’s community colleges.

The four-year schools, public and private, have their own initiatives. Pacific Lutheran University recently announced the introduction of an innovation studies minor, to give students the tools to transform ideas into entrepreneurial ventures. The University of Washington Tacoma wants the Legislature to approve expansion, in faculty, facilities and programs, of its engineering education.

The dirty secret of college education is that you can with the right faculty, programs, courses, and fellow students, not to mention your own drive and competence, put together a more than serviceable college education that doesn’t cost several lifetimes’ worth of savings but which does open avenues to building that sort of wealth.

The college education that most people wind up with need not be prestigious enough to attract graft and bribery. For the economy to continue to thrive, however, those schools and the system as a whole need to be good enough that students and society see value in the time and money they’ve invested in it.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at
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