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The real college admissions scandal

The University of Southern California is at the center of a college admissions scandal involving the rich and elite.
The University of Southern California is at the center of a college admissions scandal involving the rich and elite. TNS

I’ve been thinking about Nick Reeves ever since I read about him in the Charlotte Observer six weeks ago. Nick is an Olympic High senior with a 3.9 GPA and a passion for designing robots. But, according to the article, he can’t afford to pay for college, so he’s hoping to get an apprenticeship with a leading Charlotte company and parlay that into a full-time job.

Nick’s story worried me. Surely we all benefit when talented kids advance their education. My concerns were reinforced by a report published the following day. It said North Carolina’s growing economy requires a huge increase in educated workers. Many of the new jobs will require certificates or two-year associates degrees, but a large number will require college-level education and beyond.

I wanted to speak with Nick to learn more, but he was working round-the-clock on a robotics competition and couldn’t talk. I was impressed by his dedication. I said I’d call later.

The delay gave me time to find data on access to college, and I quickly learned the topic is controversial. Some top CEOs question whether a college degree is worth the cost. The tech industry in particular now fills some jobs with talented high school grads, and some of those will earn more than your average college grad.

But while I was doing the research, Google News kept showing me Hollywood celebrities indicted for buying their kids’ way into elite colleges. Clearly some people think that degree is valuable.

When Nick and I finally spoke, I learned his SAT scores were a few points shy of what he needed to get into N.C. State, and his family couldn’t pay the tuition bill anyway. But Nick was optimistic that with his experience, he’ll get an apprenticeship and a good job. His salary will cover tuition at a two-year community college, then he’ll transfer to a four-year school.

Nick’s plan is a good one; other Olympic grads have pivoted from apprenticeships to good jobs with middle class salaries. But I worry about talented kids who don’t have Nick’s options, because the data show the best way to a good salary is still a four-year degree.

Anthony Carnevale of the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce hopes Nick can stick to his plan, because the chances of getting a diploma declines by 25 percent every year a kid delays. Experts say this is part of the “leaky educational pipeline” to a college degree, and it turns out the pipeline is much leakier for kids from poorer, less educated families.

Kids from less privileged homes are less likely to graduate from high school and have a lower chance of getting good SAT scores. If they get into college, they’re more likely to drop out during the first year. And without that degree, it’s less likely their children will be successful. Because it turns out that a parent’s education is now the biggest factor in determining whether his kids will move up the economic ladder.

That’s no surprise to University of Texas chemistry professor, David Laude. He found he could predict his student’s final grades simply by looking at their parent’s education and income. So he enrolled kids from less privileged families in smaller classes with peer mentors. That erased any difference between their grades and those of their more privileged peers, and the university has increased graduation rates by replicating his experiment.

The implications are huge for Charlotte and Raleigh, which lag the nation in social mobility. But it’s not about filling good jobs or even reducing social divisions. It’s about developing the talent and ideas and creativity that benefits everyone.

In the end, I’m not too worried about Nick. With his talent, determination and apprenticeship, he’ll probably be okay. It’s the rest of us I’m worried about.

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