What is a premium childhood worth? It’s a bizarre proposition, but we all know it makes some kind of sense. American students (and their families) at all income levels invest tons of effort and often as much money as they can afford in order to contend for acceptance at some of the country’s elite universities. We know how much a working-class or poor student can win in scholarships, and we can estimate the future wages that a particular degree will yield, but one can’t buy an adolescence’s worth of 5 a.m. crew practice and honors classes on the market. At least that’s what they told most of us.
As it turns out, where there’s a will, there’s a guy who can sell you a way. The FBI busted a nationwide fraud ring that enabled wealthy parents to bribe their children’s way into desirable schools. Their methods, according to the Justice Department’s indictment, encompassed the mundane (teachers correcting ACT answers), the inventive (coaches recruiting “athletes” who couldn’t play), and the outlandish (Photoshopped pictures of kids mid-athletic-accomplishment). Fees allegedly ran up to $6 million, and in exchange, ringleader Rick Singer guaranteed success without any work. That’s something no testing tutor or admissions consultant can offer, and it seems there were plenty of eager clients.
Much of the coverage of the scandal has focused on how clownishly disengaged the students in question must have been in order to need their parents to literally buy them paths to admission. The rich have plenty of non-fraudulent advantages, and these kids still couldn’t hack it? It’s true, extremely wealthy people have always been able to legally buy their way into just about anywhere, including universities, by, say, donating a new building to a campus. But such bribes are much higher — higher-ed reporter Dana Goldstein put the shoo-in price at $10 million, according to one source — and, importantly, they’re understood to be part of a direct exchange: donations for admission. Singer’s scheme asked parents to spend money not to buy admission directly, but to buy the appearance of good test scores and enough extracurricular accomplishments to win admission. These rich teen layabouts screwed less savvy students out of spots at prestigious schools, but in their refusal to do any of the work, these families have done us a favor: We now have a rough baseline for the market value of a high-achieving teenager’s years of toil. This baseline can help us to understand some of the central animating mechanics of 21st-century America.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s put the discount/fraud/market price of college admissions success at $1 million, a number within the apparent range — the family of a fake soccer player reportedly paid $1.2 million for admission to Yale. It sounds ridiculous, but when you stretch that million over a half-century of future employment, it makes more sense. Could someone average an extra $20,000 a year by attending Harvard rather than a local community college? Yeah, probably. And if you offer kids a million bucks sometime in the future on the condition that they keep themselves in Ivy-caliber shape, no doubt the youth symphonies will maintain a reliable supply of oboists. These are the basic premises for the American higher-education system. Competitive universities are worth the costs: not just the six-figure tuition bills, but the million dollars’ worth of work that each kid needs to first achieve for the opportunity to attend.
The idea that a high-achieving student is doing $100,000 worth of labor a year won’t be surprising to anyone who knows one. Without huge amounts of time and effort beginning at a young age, it’s incredibly hard to pull together the kind of résumé that’s needed in order to stand out to elite and competitive schools. These teens end up putting in so much labor that they are developing their specialized skills to professional levels before they finish high school. In some ways, the unmediated job market has lower standards than the most exclusive colleges do. The best child musicians and scientists and athletes are working very hard, and what they’re doing has value, too. We know it does, because their efforts are worth counterfeiting.
Student labor has a curious character. It’s unpaid, but the idea is that it will be compensated indirectly later. There are tests that are meant to validate kids along the way, including college admissions and ultimately the job market. A higher grade (in the broader but also in the specific, academic sense) is supposed to lead to a higher wage down the line, something everyone understands implicitly. The value from all that childhood work has to go somewhere; we can think of that place as a sort of internal battery that stores human capital, the skills and abilities that we put to work when we go to work. Counterfeit human capital is what William H. Macy and Mossimo Giannulli were allegedly buying for their kids: the appearance of skills and abilities that didn’t actually exist.
Human capital is an odd commodity because it’s inalienable. You can’t sell your ability to do 100 push-ups or your starting position on the soccer team or your Yale diploma. That means that workers can’t really be said to own their human capital, since it’s not transferable. It’s an abstract substance that can be weighed and compared, but also a relationship between workers and owners — that’s why companies can use it in place of “human resources.” Human capital belongs to workers, but only to be managed and exploited by employers. To monetize their abilities, workers need someone to hire or invest in them. (The number of workers who are able to save up their wages in order to start their own businesses is much smaller than we’re led to believe, and shrinking.) There is no fixed correlation between the accumulation of human capital and pay. You get paid to work, not to be smart.
Because no one is on the hook for compensating any particular young person for their hard work, there’s no reason to set a limit on how much of it they should do. The random distribution of talents and passions and the very predictable distribution of resources have left students with any number of ways to differentiate themselves from each other in the eyes of graders. An arms race arises as students are encouraged to try their hardest, to reach their full potentials, to use every advantage they have. We can see the scale of it in the forged applications: The aforementioned Yale admit claimed to be a nationally ranked soccer player in China, a nation of 1.4 billion people. The admissions committee had no reason not to believe it; I’m sure they see genuine applications like that all the time. There’s always someone who can try a little harder and stay up a bit later or whose parents can pay more. The level of competition gets higher and higher, and theoretically that’s great — as long as everyone eventually finds a job that will repay the investments they’ve made in their own capacities. You can see the problem.
The best thing you can do for your own future employment prospects is to invest in your human capital: learn to code or speak Mandarin or captain your sports team or whatever else the Aspen crowd wants from us this week. Training according to guesses about the notoriously unreliable future demands of rich people is not particularly fun, and it’s obvious why their own kids can’t be bothered. But most of us have to try, and there arises a supply-and-demand problem: If everyone teaches themselves to code and the supply of human capital goes up, it’s suddenly very easy for employers to find coders, and the demand (read: pay) goes down. What’s advantageous for the individual is self-defeating for the class.
The result is workers who have not only taken on an average of tens of thousands of dollars in educational debt, but have also put in what we can now understand as hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars’ worth of unpaid labor. Taking no responsibility for this situation, employers have used the flood of overqualified workers to lower job quality, sometimes so far as to stumble onto the wrong side of America’s meager labor laws. That leaves young people who had planned on higher-quality jobs (as they were told to) underwater on their own human capital. Having invested more in effort and money than their work can command on the market, they’re not in possession of distressed assets; they are the distressed assets. And they’re stuck with themselves.
I can’t speak to why people who will never have to work in their lives care about getting fancy degrees, but I know why everyone else does. As the distance between the rich and the rest increases, the stakes of childhood go up too. Failure at one of the crucial steps (like college admissions) means taking a loss on your investment in yourself, which is extremely depressing. Everyone is compelled to work harder to try to avoid that fate, except the business owners and landlords, who just have to pay higher bribes — which they can afford to do because all those people who are working harder are, in one way or another, working for them. Depending on whether or not you own the means of production, it’s all a virtuous or vicious cycle. For most of us, it’s the latter.