- - Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The college admissions scandal lays bare the true weaknesses in American higher education — its obsession with athletics and liberal prejudices that subvert academic standards.

Instead of sports supplementing scholarly pursuits, universities pander to rich alumni who take more pride in a winning football team than a decent physics department. They allocate to coaches admission slots and otherwise impose liberal values by lowering entry requirements for minorities, women in STEM programs, young activists for social justice, and children of alumni and big donors.

Applying to elite schools, hard-working middle class children with good grades and moderate political views face nearly insurmountable odds.

Rich parents, whose offspring may not be exceptionally bright, turn to crime. William “Rick” Singer collected $25 million from wealthy parents to bribe coaches to pass off non-athletes as potential participants in their programs and defraud admissions exams.

The upshot is universities with too many unqualified or poorly motivated students, and lazy liberal faculty who dumb down standards. They 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 a trillion-dollar stimulus package, President 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 less than 30 hours a week.

Universities spend millions on movie theaters, bowling allies and other amenities to make four to six years of Club Med as pleasant as possible. And oh yes, don’t try to find many faculty in their offices or cognizant when you do.

Standardized tests indicate four years of college too often adds little to students’ analytical abilities, and employers report 6 in 10 new college graduates lack the critical thinking skills necessary for entry-level professional work.

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 hoisted on young folks too young to make sound decisions about investing vast sums of money — I am 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 many 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. After all, academics are usually Democrats who abhor the notion of tort reform.

The universities could cover their losses by mortgaging their buildings — universities own lots of valuable real estate debt free — and service those bonds by cutting back on summer camp activities.

Instead, the Democrats want to tax the wealthy, and politically liberal economists, advocating the “new monetary theory,” want to simply print money. Both would compound the waste of social resources by making college free.

With colleges already admitting too many unqualified students and under pressure to boost minority graduation rates, government guaranteed 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 1 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.

• Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.

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