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In 1934, Kirk Douglas (yes, that Kirk) hitchhiked with a friend up to St. Lawrence University. Douglas couldn’t afford the tuition given his family’s impoverished circumstances, but he brought his transcripts, essays, and a letter of recommendation from one of his teachers. He managed to get a meeting with the school’s Dean, made his case, secured a loan, and matriculated. The following semester he won a scholarship.

Important about the story is that there were no federal student loans at the time, which meant Douglas’s odds of attending St. Lawrence had been low. Which was the point, and is the point now.

It comes to mind as New York Times columnist David Brooks writes that we should “Smash the College Admissions Process.” He argues it’s “bonkers” that colleges choose people “based on their ability to be teacher-pleasers from ages 15 to 18.” Fair enough. What’s learned and achieved in class has very little relevance to career and life, so why the focus? Except colleges need some way to measure brains, one supposes, and "book smart” can translate well to career.  

At the same time, Brooks is clearly skeptical about race-based affirmative action despite rejecting the meritocracy arguments made by affirmative action opponents. As Brooks sees it, it’s not all merit when the well-educated and well-careered marry each other, produce kids whom they send to all the right schools, provide them with all the right tutoring, after which lucky-sperm club members are positioned for entrance at the best schools.

In which case Brooks calls for preferential admission not based on color, but based on class. While Brooks is seemingly unsold on the idea that education makes us career-wise, he notes that “whole industries” look at where individuals went to school as “a marker” of whether or not they should be hired. Insert class background into admission decisions to mitigate class divisions.

The view here is that the Kirk Douglas anecdote shows why the solution misses the point. It’s once again not about the education, and it arguably never was.

What used to lend college attendance heft was the difficulty of attaining a degree academically, followed by the financial challenges of attaining one. Only for federal student loans (they were introduced in 1958) to muddy the picture. Nowadays college attendance is a financial given, and because it is, graduation is increasingly a slam dunk. Really, what customer-serving business is going to run off students with unlimited access to funds?

The above ideally sways at least a few to an unsung truth about federal student loans: they're paradoxically most damaging to those on the wrong side of the class divide that Brooks aims to bridge. If we accept what’s true about the learning in education not being terribly relevant, what used to give those without means a leg up was not their attendance at Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, but their graduating from any college against high academic and financial odds. “I paid my way” or “I worked my way through school” used to mean something. Now it doesn’t, only for the well-brought-up to gain an advantage they formerly lacked.

No doubt the well-reared have the high schools, tutoring and SAT prep to get into the best schools, after which businesses don’t have time to interview everyone. So they let the hardest-to-get-into schools do the culling for them.

What’s important is that the above isn’t going to change. What’s also not going to change is unlimited federal funding of college education. That’s too bad. It robs today’s Kirk Douglas’s of the one “marker” that could set them apart from their peers, and arguably position them to leap over the class divide.    

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Vice President at FreedomWorks, a senior fellow at the Market Institute, and a senior economic adviser to Applied Finance Advisors (www.appliedfinance.com). His latest book is The Money Confusion: How Illiteracy About Currencies and Inflation Sets the Stage For the Crypto Revolution.

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