Admissions scandal is an affront to higher ed’s role as ‘equalizer’

Dr. Patricia A. Gentile

The recent scandal of wealthy parents purchasing fraudulent services to ensure their child is accepted to an elite college is upsetting and outrageous. We like to think that access to higher education is based solely on individual merit and that non-wealthy students have the same chances as those who come from wealthy families to land a seat in a prestigious institution.

In our country, higher education is touted as the great “equalizer” providing a pathway for a poor or middle income kid to get the credentials, skills and knowledge to have a chance to move on up to bigger incomes and have a better quality of life post-degree. A recent study by Georgetown University showed that on average getting a college degree does lead to higher lifetime earnings — over $1 million more for the person with the college degree compared to the lifetime earnings of a person with a high school degree and no college.

Notice I didn’t say that it’s the elite college degree that leads to these higher earnings. It is “a” college degree. Although a degree from a prestigious college has been shown to open some doors that might not have been opened otherwise, there isn’t any evidence that the higher the cost of tuition and “prestige” level, the happier the degree holder and the bigger the return on investment. A 2014 Gallup Poll documented that graduating from an elite college does not correlate with work or life happiness.

The college application process is anxiety-inducing enough for most folks without adding the worry caused by the burdens of high cost and very low acceptance rates. Although it is natural for a parent to want the “best” for their child in selecting a college, the “best” may not be (and often isn’t) an elite, highly selective and very expensive college. The best college choice happens when the academic programs offered match what the student is interested in pursuing for a career. The best college choice is one that supports the student well through the education pathway to the successful completion of a degree.

Many folks also believe that this college experience needs to be relatively affordable and one that doesn’t overburden the student or family with high student loans. College is not, and should not be, considered a “luxury” item that can be judged as high quality solely on price, i.e. the higher the price the better the product. In fact, a recent Globe article on the low graduation rates of small but pricey private colleges clearly illustrates this fact: Price does not equal quality; a high selectivity (many applicants denied admittance) does not equal a high quality and great college experience for those accepted.

Research by The Equality of Opportunity Project documents that those institutions excelling in social mobility aren’t the elites. Higher social mobility is found in the public institutions and community colleges with large numbers of working-class students, like North Shore Community College. NSCC outperforms Harvard University in the social mobility index.

As president of North Shore Community College, I can vouch for the high quality and affordability of public college education. High quality because there is the larger mission of a “public” good and faculty and staff know that they need to be accountable to the student, the families, and the taxpayers. Affordable because public funds reduce the price the student pays. It’s a taxpayer-subsidized value that increases the return on the student’s investment of time and money.

As for selectivity, public four-year colleges and universities do not accept everyone who applies either, but in general, they accept two out of three applicants. I am happy to announce that at North Shore Community College we accept the top 100 percent of applicants! Why is that important to announce? Because we are open access, we stretch and grow to meet the needs of the students who enroll — and we meet our students where they are and challenge them to take advantage of the transformative process a higher education offers. There’s an enormous value proposition to be had in earning a public college credential.

Check out what public colleges and universities offer when you are doing a college search. Don’t get mired in the prestige trap. Gain a broader perspective of what higher education actually offers … an opportunity to think, learn, and prepare for a rewarding career as well as preparation for life as an engaged citizen and productive member of society.  

Dr. Patricia A. Gentile is president of North Shore Community College.

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