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Last week’s revelation of a big college bribery scandal among the rich and famous is further proof of the vast inequality between rich and poor and the plutocracy’s willingness to game the schools for themselves while ignoring the educational plight of everyone else. (Photo: Getty)

School Daze: Use That Bribe Scandal to Fight for Debt-Free College

Since 2006, student loan debt has grown 170 percent

Michael Winship

This will come as no surprise to most sentient human beings but we have an education crisis in this country that begins with the Cheeto Benito in the White House and trickles down all the way to households in which a child has never had a storybook read to them.

That my generation, as a wise man once said, is the first to teach the next generation less than we know goes beyond a sad commentary on our growing collective ignorance to reflect a society in which the best education is too often reserved for the scions of the high and mighty, the children of the very wealthy.

As for the rest, there seems a willful effort among many of those in political power to look askance at knowledge or expertise and to keep the rest of the populace as dumb as or dumber than they are. In the minds of our president and his pals, perhaps this makes for a more complaisant albeit angry voter. But it certainly does not yield a better citizen.

Last week’s revelation of a big college bribery scandal among the rich and famous is further proof of the vast inequality between rich and poor and the plutocracy’s willingness to game the schools for themselves while ignoring the educational plight of everyone else. Parents, including Hollywood notables Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, allegedly used wads of cash to cheat on their kids’ entrance exams or to buy and fake their way into university sports scholarships claiming non-existent athletic prowess. FBI Special Agent Joseph Bonavolonta told NPR, “Some spent anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million for guaranteed admission. Their actions were, without a doubt, insidious, selfish and shameful.”

(For sheer, entitled chutzpah, my personal favorite cited in the indictments may be the progeny whose folks allowed several inches to be added to his height – on paper, not surgically! – in order to win placement in a USC basketball program. But the moms and dads who had photos taken of their offspring wearing gear for sports they had never played or had their heads superimposed onto the bodies of real athletes certainly take the prize, too.)

The man in charge of facilitating these various scams, a fellow named Rick Singer, purportedly set up a foundation and admissions consulting service through which were funneled a total $25 million in payoffs. And by running the dodge as a phony non-profit, the well to do also could deduct their bribe money as charitable contributions. One-stop shopping!

But why, you may ask, did the rich parents not try to get their kids into school simply with the time-tested method of writing a healthy check to the preferred university? I started my professional career in college public affairs and development and remember well the clipboard that used to circulate in the office with copies of letters to big donors that essentially said, grateful thanks for the contribution and we look forward to seeing your less than academically gifted son or daughter in the coming year’s freshman class.

Times have changed. The odd million or two to the academic institution of your choice won’t cut it any more. At Washington Monthly, Joshua Alvarez writes:

This yawning gap between the rich and the f**k-you rich has expressed itself in monstrous donations to these elite schools over the past decade. In 2014, Harvard received an individual donation of $350 million, its biggest ever. The next year, it got a $400 million individual donation. It might be safe to say that the cost of gaining a favorable judgment of your child’s application from elite admissions committees has gone up. In other words, only the top .01 percent can actually bribe these schools the old-fashioned legal way. The others have [to] pay off college coaches to lie that their kids are athletic recruits.

Which brings us to the flipside of this appalling tale, the story of the ones not so obscenely privileged – those saddled with massive student debt or with neither the connections nor money to attend college at all.

Outstanding student loan debt in this country has grown 170 percent since 2006, up to nearly one-and-a-half trillion dollars, with a trillion of that owed by those ages 18-29. After mortgages, student loans count for the second-largest amount of consumer debt, even ahead of credit cards.

For many, such a burden means living with parents, not starting a family, and being unable to afford big-ticket items like cars or homes (the Federal Reserve of New York reports student debt is the reason for a 35 percent drop in home ownership since 2007). Thoughts of future retirement are dim at best.

However. Once we get past the late night talk show jokes, the silver lining behind the toxic cloud of this bribery scandal may be that it creates a valuable debate at an especially opportune moment -- when the Higher Education Act of 1965 that regulates federal student loans is due for reauthorization by Congress, the Trump administration is drafting an executive order on higher education (caveat emptor: Ivanka’s involved) and every Democratic presidential candidate is being asked where he or she stands on tuition-free or debt-free college.

The Trump ideas, such as they are, seem aimed more at accounting fixes and ugly cuts that would take the onus off the federal government and perhaps completely end the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program that offers borrowers a payment reduction if after graduation they work a government job or for a qualified non-profit.

But most Democratic hopefuls have suggested slashing or even wiping out student debt completely, covering the cost by reversing the GOP’s 2017 tax cuts. Tuition-free or debt-free college (which would include the cost of books, student housing, food, etc.) advocates include by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand.

According to Mark Huelsman at the think tank Demos, “There is more consensus about the need to go big on college affordability than there has been in previous election cycles.”

Here’s something else that may help – today, 66 members of Congress are saddled with student debt, 44 Democrats and 22 Republicans. One-third of them are new members, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Rep. Mark Takano of California told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, “As a member of Congress with outstanding student loan debt, I am acutely aware of the burdens that high college costs place on students pursuing a degree to advance their careers.”

Awareness is great, action is better. And while we’re at it, let’s insist on a required civics curriculum in every classroom all the way up through the university level, whether history, political science or just the basics of good citizenship.  You know, like putting some of your capital toward good causes and not spending it on, say, influence peddling – or bribing your kids into Harvard.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. 

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