We call education an “investment,” which typically refers to money spent with the eventual expectation of a return. My rough calculation of the number of students and the average cost of tuition indicates that over $400 billion is “invested” in college every year. For scale, with that money you could own JPMorgan Chase, Facebook or Johnson & Johnson and still have the equivalent of Alaska’s GDP to spare.
This week, dozens of parents and administrators were arrested on fraud charges in relation to a sprawling scheme for admission to some of the nation’s top colleges. These parents “invested” six- and seven-figures to cheat on standardized tests and manipulate the athletic admissions process to ensure their children’s acceptance.
Nobody is shocked that the college admissions process favors the wealthy. Nor should anyone be shocked that these types of backchannels exist. We should, however, take pause at the amount we are willing to invest to achieve some imagined return.
To explain why Americans have determined that the return on a degree is worth the substantial initial investment — despite empirical evidence to the contrary — one must return to the basics of the economic system within which these decisions are made.
The fundamental activity of any market economy is exchange between buyers and sellers. Buyers have an upper limit on their willingness to pay and seek to maximize utility. Sellers have a lower limit on their willingness to accept and seek to maximize price. Such exchange underpins all market interactions, including the one between the employers and prospective employees.
Though free-market enthusiasts frame the labor exchange as a contract between freely participating individuals, the reality is that there are far fewer employers than there are workers, and the disparity grows greater every year. The structural nature of our system gives workers the short end of the stick.
As a result, prospective employees must compete against one another for labor opportunities and maximize their worth to employers to improve their odds. The natural consequence of this utility-maximization has been earlier and more substantial investment in human capital.
The primary concern of parents across all K-selected species is providing a child the best possible chance for survival. No different for humans — it’s just our nature. In the modern era, this desire has manifested in utility-maximizing behaviors that just a few decades ago would have seemed ludicrous: cutthroat competition for spots in exclusive preschools, a billion-dollar test-prep industry, the requirement of relevant internship experience for entry-level positions and the booming child-rearing industry peddling tips and tricks to maximize your baby’s potential.
This week’s scandal — and “donations” more generally — account for only a small fraction of the billions upon billions invested in children’s future labor capacity every year. The investment in grooming begins in infancy and culminates in a diploma, signaling to the market the human capital a young adult has to offer.
Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, thinks the admissions scandal reveals how high the stakes really are. “If these people could buy entrance for a high price,” Harris explained to me via email, “that means the kids who earn these slots are producing equivalent tons of value. It’s not just the athletes who are working hard for free.”
In other words, each admitted student is worth far more to a university than the sticker price of tuition. The fact that only a small fortune can replace a carefully cultivated child reveals how much human capital is really worth.
The material consequences of childhood’s systemic commodification include increasingly competitive college admissions, skyrocketing rates of teen mental illness and the ever-compounding nature of generational inequality. The most significant implication of this trend, however, is the revelation of the extent to which we quantify the value of a human life.
In the vernacular of American mythos, “success” is widely understood as a euphemism for wealth. Quantifying achievement has always been fundamental to our national character. But in the late 20th century, people in power decided that all aspects of human interaction would be better if we prioritized individual freedom and structured all of society as we do markets. This ideology, known as neoliberalism, became entrenched — not only in public policy but in private life.
Scholars of the subject suggest that our era is defined by the simultaneous increase in emphasis on individual responsibility and decrease in opportunities for individual success. The system makes our failure more likely, yet insists that those who fail have some personal moral deficit. The onus, then, is on us to maximize our marketability at any cost, lest we be seen (or see ourselves) as worthless.
That’s why the parents embroiled in the scandal happily spent vast sums for the security of a college acceptance. That’s why the average American has $30,000 in student debt. That’s why job applicants are more qualified and workers are more productive while we are facing an underemployment epidemic.
We will pay any price to improve our market value — because it is now indistinguishable from our intrinsic value. The real return on investment is the sense of pride in having made something of ourselves.
Higher education, like most other institutions, is designed by and for the interests of the wealthy; no amount of reform can extricate it from capital’s grip. Most of us already know that. But few of us know how to navigate life outside these market parameters. Without external cues, few know how to value themselves.
At least for now, there is no end in sight for the self-optimization arms race. Human relations will become increasingly quantified at the expense of our happiness. The game will still be rigged. But perhaps if we push back — if we assert that some parts of life are beyond measure — we might finally figure out what we’re really worth.
Jade Pinero is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at email@example.com. Jaded and Confused runs every other Thursday this semester.