If We Want to Fix The American College System, We Need to Change American Culture

Written by Ryan Fuentes

In the modern news landscape, making Page One demands increasingly dramatic scandal and higher-stakes tragedy. In this setting, a recent story stands out: the largest college cheating scandal prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice. The scandal includes the likes of actress Lori Loughlin and a Yale coach who have been indicted for bribery to get their children into college. The story not only made Page One; it stayed there for days. Amid an endless supply of domestic and global crises, competing for our attention are threatening dictators, climate-related disasters, and a college cheating scandal. Perhaps we might say they all have in common one thing: they are perceived as attacks on our way of life. No doubt, the idea that you can buy your way into college threatens the cherished ideal that, in America, anything is possible with hard work. College, more than ever, is the gateway to future success. The stakes could not be higher. Combining the key elements of celebrities and the rich caught up in scandal, a college admissions process that takes a toll on parents and students, and opportunities of class and race, we are left angry, but riveted. In our enraged, impassioned state, the kinds of solutions that once seemed so radical or unrealistic have a greater platform than ever. Why not get rid of athlete-eased admissions? Make college free? Do away with legacy?

As the reader may know, to the rest of the world, these ideas are already convention. In most European universities, tuition is little or nothing, and there are no legacy or athletic admits. The farther away from America we look, the less radical these ideas are, and the more unjust our system seems by comparison.

But here is the part that we may not have realized. While aspects of the European model – especially cost – will always be appealing to us, they really only work because they fit with other aspects of college in Europe that Americans may never accept. While most U.S. students picture college as a place far away from home, it is much more common in Europe to live at home and attend a local school. In Europe, universities often grant degrees in three years instead of four; they tend to skip out on the general education courses that Americans see as foundational, and course offerings are often narrower. European schools might be more likely to have its students integrate into a city culture than to invest heavily in campus culture. In this sense, it will not make sense for them to invest heavily in sports events to rally students together and bring greater prestige to the school. In Europe, picking a school is often a practical decision regarding a specific program or location. In the U.S., it often comes down to the school’s ranking and prestige or the pull of its vibrant campus life and facilities.

These are all generalizations, but they match up with both the cost of a college education and local culture. For Americans, college is all about academic and social exploration. In a country with great resistance towards universal government-sponsored healthcare, it is not surprising that local governments are choosing to pay less and less for the costs of public university education. Combine this element with the fact that the government does not cap tuition, and universities are effectively encouraged to ask students for more and more money to keep up this all-American enterprise. In Europe, with lower costs and a fundamentally different understanding of who should pay them, the product is entirely different. The point is not that the U.S. education system is inherently better or worse, but that it is just different. The controversy is not whether or not tuition-free institutions are viable or radical nonsense. There are clear and sustainable examples all over the world. But once we realize how closely our university entrance and tuition systems are tied to a uniquely American idea of what college is and should be, a new question arises: are we willing to change the culture?

This question leaves us back where we started, with the kind of anger and hatred we see today towards Lori Loughlin and the Yale coach – and perhaps even the rich and athletic in general. The level of outrage shows that pushing back against our deeply-rooted college traditions and expectations is our increased desire for an equitable, fair society. In other words, where our general values remain the same, our traditions are going to have to be reformed in order to ease the tension. In the meantime, the need for a strong, cheap education might lead to some innovative solutions. What is stopping major corporations like Amazon from setting up their own schools where students attend for free and then commit to working at the company? The U.S. Military, Navy, and Air Force already do it. Anything is possible. But in order for us to move forward, we must be willing to tackle a lot more than just admissions policy.