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Peter Morici: A market-based solution to fixing college admissions and student debt

People walk on the Stanford University campus beneath Hoover Tower Thursday, March 14, 2019, in Santa Clara, Calif. In the first lawsuit to come out of the college bribery scandal, several students are suing Yale, Georgetown, Stanford and other schools in
People walk on the Stanford University campus beneath Hoover Tower Thursday, March 14, 2019, in Santa Clara, Calif. In the first lawsuit to come out of the college bribery scandal, several students are suing Yale, Georgetown, Stanford and other schools involved in the case, saying they and others were denied a fair shot at admission.
Ben Margot, AP

The college admissions scandal lays bare the corrupting consequences of American higher education’s most tragic failings — its obsessions with athletics and liberal prejudices that subvert academic standards — and the misplaced value parents often place on prestige schools.

Universities lower admission requirements and set aside slots for athletes, minorities other than Asians, applicants demonstrating commitment to liberal causes and children of alumni and big donors. At more selective institutions, those practices limit opportunities for qualified hardworking middle-class children, and those with moderate or conservative political views.

Graduates in STEM disciplines from elite universities don’t earn more than those from middling schools. A liberal arts diploma from a prestige institution is worth more but that seems more related to the quality of incoming students, and middling schools often do better at lifting skills over four years.

Nevertheless affluent families will spend upwards of $200,000 burnishing their children’s resumes with private-school tuition, trips to Peruvian orphanages and the like to upgrade their children’s chances at a top school.

The really desperate have turned to crime. William Singer allegedly collected $25 million from wealthy parents to bribe coaches and defraud admissions exams.

The upshot is universities with too many unqualified or poorly motivated students, and faculty who dumb down standards. Those produce lots of dropouts and ill-educated graduates, often with few job skills and burdened by terrible debt.

Much of the student-debt problem is a holdover from the financial crisis. Unable to create enough decent jobs with ultra-low interest rates and $1 trillion stimulus package, President Barack Obama took millions out of the labor force by encouraging heavy borrowing by many unqualified students to attend college.

When something is offered so freely, it gets abused. Since 2009, college tuition is up more than double the pace for health insurance or consumer prices generally, and the average student attends classes and studies fewer than 30 hours a week.

Universities spend millions on movie theaters, bowling alleys and other amenities to make four to six years at Club Med as pleasant as possible.

No surprise, more than 40 percent of young college graduates are stuck in jobs that don’t require a degree and pay wages too paltry to service hefty student loans.

Most of the debt was foisted on young folks too young to make sound decisions about investing vast sums of money — I’m for returning the age of majority to 21 from 18.

The $1.6 trillion student debt needlessly slows the economy. Young folks are delaying marriage and buying homes, and having fewer children.

Cynical admissions counselors have duped unqualified students into believing degrees obtained through street demonstrations for social justice, as opposed to classroom studies, would have value in the job market. Consequently, the money to relieve much of this student debt should be raised by suing the universities who defrauded these students.

The universities could cover their losses by borrowing against their buildings — universities own lots of valuable real estate debt-free — and service that debt by cutting back on summer camp activities.

Instead, Democrats want to tax the wealthy to relieve debt and make college free. With universities already admitting too many unqualified students and under pressure to boost minority graduation rates, free tuition would enable them to abandon all remaining semblance of academic standards and responsibility for students’ post-graduate success.

According to a recent Pew Research study, Americans believe high school grades and standardized tests should determine who gets into college and less than one in 10 supports considering athletic ability, race or whether parents attended the same institution.

Going forward, ending all preferences in admissions would be more consistent with our national values than liberal biases, and bringing market forces to bear would better serve students. Universities should be required to mortgage their assets to raise half of the capital needed to finance student loans — if graduates didn’t find decent jobs, they would default and diploma mills would be liquidated.

Self-preservation would compel universities to be careful about whom they admit, uphold academic standards and impart marketable skills, and require faculty to teach and students to show up for class.