Feature-length documentary: The recent U.S. college admissions scandal is not merely an aberration in an otherwise virtuous system. It lays bare a US higher education culture in which wealth and influence remain the predominant values. RIGGED examines how this obsolete value system favoring wealth in our higher education system grows the disparity between rich and poor and thereby undermines the future of American Democracy.
RIGGED explains how the long prevailing Wealthist value system in U.S. higher education limits opportunity and upward mobility and thus undermines U.S. democracy. RIGGED builds on the historical premise that growing economic imbalance ultimately leads to social unrest, political upheaval, and war. Through interviews with authors, historians, educators, and students, RIGGED shows how the value system underlying U.S. higher education constitutes a major risk factor for triggering these historic consequences and how this value system can be changed.
RIGGED includes compelling footage of innovative and courageous educators who are leading the movement to replace a value system that selects for wealth with one that meets genuinely motivated students where they are and advances them regardless of their economic background — a movement that could transform colleges and universities into new engines for education and social mobility.
RIGGED recalls the origins of the American Dream, when the linchpin of economic opportunity was access to land. Following passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, the federal government doled out over 10 percent of the land mass of this country to individual citizens. While the outcome for settlers was far from guaranteed, the chance for individual economic advancement was undeniably real. Although the dark side of the settling of the U.S. West was the federal government’s forcible seizure of native lands, there is no question the Homestead Act later provided economic opportunity for the enfranchised citizens of the time. This vast federal giveaway of land — what was then the fundamental element of economic opportunity — established the U.S. as the “land of opportunity” and built deep national loyalty and unity among the citizenry.
RIGGED points out that while land ownership remains a symbol of economic power today, we are long past the era in which the fundamental currency for economic opportunity is access to land. As the film explains, not only are we long past the Agrarian Age, we have also raced past the Industrial Age and the Knowledge Age into a new Learning Age. In this new Learning Age, where the pace of change is not only fast but accelerating, the fundamental basis for economic opportunity is no longer access to land, access to factories, or even access to knowledge. It is access to the full and formal development of learning skills, critical thought, and innovation — i.e. the elements for economic opportunity that hard-working students acquire today through any great modern university. RIGGED argues that if these modern elements of opportunity can be made broadly and freely available to all ambitious citizens regardless of their economic background, we can write the new and most important chapter in the story of the American Dream.
As to the difficulty in achieving this, Jim Wolfston, Executive Producer and narrator of RIGGED, offers a thought experiment:
“Imagine that following the nation’s founding during the Agrarian Age, our nation’s land mass comprised 3,000 feudal estates, each run by a board of trustees comprising wealthy notables. Each citizen who desired to develop a parcel of land within one of those estates would fill out an application, provide credentials and letters of recommendation, and take tests whose scores correlated most closely with whether that citizen already came from a wealthy family. Further, for the vast majority of the citizens lucky enough to be admitted to work the land on an estate, each would pay the estate’s tuition by taking on huge, oppressive debt obligations that would follow them for years into their productive careers.”Given that 3,000 four-year higher education institutions largely control the modern currency for economic opportunity in this country today, you can see by parallel the crippling effect this system is imposing on U.S. social mobility. The paradox is that the people with the most power to break this system and overhaul it are the ones who have successfully risen through it and are thus the most naturally inclined to defend and preserve it. Yet because our higher education system inspires the greatest form of critical thought — the power to question one’s own ideas — RIGGED suggests there’s a good chance that more and more of today’s leaders in U.S. higher education will step up to challenge the Wealthist value system, despite the fact that that system provided the context for their own journey to personal success.
The release of RIGGED comes at a time when 70 percent of the students who are admitted to U.S. colleges and universities and 90 percent of their graduates are from above the median income. “Higher Education is the most important asset in the Learning Age,” says Wolfston. “If we can distribute this vital asset across the economic spectrum, we can optimize our nation’s human capital development, prepare the next generation for citizenship, and ensure social and economic opportunity. Most importantly, by rejecting the current trend toward on-campus economic homogeneity, higher education institutions can offer their students the chance to encounter a more challenging mix of people with diverse ideas, perspectives and backgrounds. Collisions with the unexpected and unfamiliar are what best sharpen and prepare innovative minds. Thus, economic inclusion not only promotes social justice and equality of opportunity, it’s also an optimizing strategy for educating tomorrow’s innovators.”