One of the formative experiences as an undergraduate at Rutgers University back in the late 1980s was traveling to El Salvador with a CISPES delegation during the tale end of the civil war. We toured two universities, the public University of El Salvador (which the army had shot up over the previous decade and which suffered from periodic closures) and the sedate, Jesuit University of Central America, where a US trained death squad would invade the next year and massacre 6 faculty members. When I got back to New Brunswick, New Jersey I realized just how easy it was to get a higher education in United States was, how much “privilege” I had. Dumbass white kids in New Jersey spent four years partying and getting laid before going onto law school or medical school and into the upper middle class. Much smarter and more politically aware kids in Palestine or San Salvador were dodging Israeli and Salvadoran army death squads just to get to their history exams. People in the global south were willing to die to get an education. People in the United States took it for granted.
Higher education is much more expensive now than it was when I was an 18 year old, but make no mistake, the United States has a vast, well-developed university infrastructure and tens of thousands of qualified faculty members. You can get a good education at any one of the top 100 “national universities” on the US News and World Report list. So why in the world would so many wealthy, privileged Americans need to cheat? If their kids want to study physics or history, there’s some place in the United States where they can find someone to teach them. Indeed, there are even fancy private colleges like Sweet Briar in Virginia or Drew University in New Jersey in danger of closing down for a lack of students. The American university system has more spots than it can fill.
The problem is that most Americans, and not only rich Americans, aren’t interested in education. They are interested in a place in the American elite, at the top of the American class system. So while you can get as good an education at Ohio State or Rutgers or the University of California at San Diego, all perfectly accessible for the typical middle-class American with an IQ over 100, it’s not good enough. Your kids need to go to Harvard or Yale or Stanford. They need to make the right social connections. They need access to the children of the 1% (the better to kiss their asses). Above all, upper middle class Americans want bragging rights, something to rub in the faces of their friends at Trader Joes or on the sidelines of their kids’ soccer matches.
The American upper-middle-class are true believers in the American meritocracy. Their kids suffer. All over the country there are innocent upper-middle-class American teenagers spending time they should be using to form a band or get laid or sit under the bleachers smoking pot suffering in SAT boot camps or meeting with “life coaches” trying to teach them how to ace their interview at Bowdoin or Columbia. It’s all such a waste of time and youthful energy. But it does guarantee that the capitalist hierarchy will continue to reproduce itself. If you give up your own youth cramming for your SATs in high school, you want to make sure that when you finally make it into the elite that what you scarified so hard for remains artificially scarce. Felicity Huffman’s big mistake was to expose the scam for what it was, to cheat the upper-middle-class out of a place at an elite private university so her own kid could have time to take it easy and enjoy life as a rich kid.
It’s the reason Bernie Sanders’s perfectly reasonable proposal of tuition free public higher education will never ever happen. We have the capacity to give every American the opportunity to get a college degree. But that’s not what we want. For most people in the United States, if everybody can get it, then it (whether it’s health care or a BA in English) isn’t worth having.