College has become a scam in America.
We have all heard the horror stories of crippling student debt and graduates who are lucky to land minimum-wage retail jobs. But one part of the college scam that is not receiving much attention is the admissions process.
No longer are good grades and good test scores enough to get you into a desirable university. No, it takes greater resources, time and existential insight. These new conditions favor the affluent and unscrupulous.
Rich students dominate most top universities. These bastions of higher learning claim to want "diversity," and generally are ethnically, religiously and even geographically diverse. Socioeconomic differences, however, are sparse.
You can point out that lower-income families are either intimidated by the possible cost of those schools, or simply are ignorant of the financial packages available for their children, but that tries to blame the family/student rather than the problem inherent in the system. That problem is the ever-increasing cost of jumping through the right hoops and creating the appropriate narrative in order to gain admittance.
You can pay $30,000 or more a year per child to send them to a top prep school. There they will be properly challenged, get to play a second-tier sport like lacrosse, and be offered the chance to build orphanages in Africa so their resume looks properly polished for an Ivy school.
Unless you are among the 1 percent, your child is not going to such a prep school.
But there is still hope. In public school, you can push your daughter to focus on one particular subject, which she studies in her spare time — the more obscure the better, like the molecular biology of Surinam cockroaches — make her play a sport or two, enroll in every other extra-curricular, and send her on a summer trip to build a well in Guatemala.
On second thought, that does not seem like a thrifty alternative either.
Many of the paths to the best schools require unpaid internships, founding charities, academic camps, and excellence in sports. The average child and parent are unlikely to be aware of such requirements, much less have the resources to pursue them.
What this system has become is affirmative action for rich families. Only they can afford to meet these stipulations, or pay others to help their children meet them.
Unfortunately, if your child studies hard to make good grades and test scores, that is not enough to get into one of America's elite colleges. Children have to have a narrative arc, like a TV show. There must be an epiphany involved, and not one about the teen himself, but rather about the plight of the world and how the suffering has touched you enough to make you devote your life to everyone else.
Teaching youths altruism is not a bad thing, and I definitely encourage it. But there also has to be a realistic expectation about the probability of having such grand revelations at that particular age. Rather than accepting thousands of teenagers that saw the light on the road to Damascus, universities are inadvertently encouraging candidates to be unscrupulous.
Tell someone that they need to set up a charity to get into a school, they will set up a charity. The actual effectiveness of the charity is of no consequence; it is about good intentions. Tell a child that in order to get into Harvard, he needs to write an essay about the plight of third-world children and how he will dedicate his study of cockroaches to ending world hunger, and he will write that essay. Neither motivation nor truth is as important as perceived nobility.
Encouraging children to go through the motions of charity is not teaching them the value of helping others. Rather, this teaches children how to fake sincerity. Charity without the resources and drive to make a real, measurable difference is hollow and worthless.
Universities now actively rebuke applicants from announcing a desire to make money. They claim it is base and empty pursuit at least until they hit you up for contributions.
Today — all other things being equal — a hardworking, responsible teenager from a lower economic class who is taking part-time and full-time jobs to help himself and his family is worth less to Harvard than a well-to-do student whose parents had the capability to found a charity in their child's name.
Teens can no longer have a childhood, they cannot be themselves, and they cannot take time to figure out what they want. Instead, they must be pushed and forced into the mold of a proper applicant. They must, at the very least, pretend to be globally conscious and proclaim their altruism.
The process degrades our children and cheapens adolescence.
Unless we recognize and revise this new layer of undisclosed, pricey prerequisites, higher education will only become further unattainable for the vast majority of Americans.
• Armstrong Williams is the author of the book "Reawakening Virtues." Join him from 4 to 5 a.m. and 6 to 7 p.m. daily on Sirius/XM Power 128. Become a fan on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.