Seldom has anybody's scholarship kicked up so much controversy.

Critics are outraged that UCLA, strapped for cash in California's budget crisis, has awarded a $54,000 merit-based athletic scholarship to Justin Combs, son of hip-hop impresario Sean "Diddy" Combs, who hardly needs the cash.

You don't have to live in California to understand the outrage. Soaring college costs, battered state budgets and shrinking opportunities for rising income are a national crisis.

But, as they say in hip-hop culture, let's be real.

Justin's scholarship money doesn't come from taxpayer funds, UCLA says, and wouldn't even tickle the state's projected $16 billion deficit if it did.

And picking on Diddy's fortune or his son's hard-earned achievements distracts us from the issue burning at the core of the discontent: How do we make higher education more affordable for young strivers who don't have wealthy parents? No question that Diddy is rich. In April, he topped Forbes' latest list of the wealthiest moguls in hip-hop with an estimated net worth of $550 million, which makes Justin's scholarship sound like pocket change. On the youngster's 16th birthday in January 2010, daddy gave him a $360,000 Maybach, which is to cars what Beverly Hills is to neighborhoods.

Yet Justin, to his credit, defies the slacker-rich-kid stereotype. He finished his senior year at Iona Preparatory School in New Rochelle, N.Y., with a reported 3.75 grade point average and football scholarship offers from at least four colleges.

That's why he tweeted on May 30 to all the haters out there: "Regardless what the circumstances are, I put that work in!!!! PERIOD." Indeed, it appears that he did. While a good ethical argument can be made for directing scholarship money to students based on their economic need, another also can be made for motivating students toward excellence with rewards that are based on their own achievement, regardless of their family's wealth or lack of it.

In the best of times, colleges have enough money to offer both. These are not the best of times. With that in mind, we can only hope that Diddy will become a generous football dad, creating new scholarships in his son's honor to show his appreciation. Just a suggestion.

After all, I suspect the rage over Diddy and son largely has been inflamed by the way daddy Diddy symbolizes our society's unresolved issues of income inequality, class divisions and culture wars. The rap music mogul embodies both the "one percent" that Occupy Wall Street protests and the hip-hop industry that outrages cultural conservatives.

Yet, the real source of our national frustration is less glamorous and more widespread. Upward mobility in America is not what it used to be. It's easier to climb the socioeconomic ladder in many parts of Europe than it is in the U.S., according to recent reports from the Brookings Institution, the Pew Research Center and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In other words, today's aspiring youths on average have an easier time moving up the socioeconomic ladder in many parts of traditionally class-conscious Europe than here in the home of the American Dream.

Without some schooling beyond high school, it is becoming increasingly difficult to enter the middle class or stay in it. Yet Washington has been gridlocked in budget fights or simply brain dead about new ideas that could lead to comprehensive remedies.

For example, while lawmakers argue, hundreds of thousands of low-income students will see their Pell Grant assistance either decrease or disappear come July 1. That's because of a little-noticed congressional decision to save billions of dollars over the next 10 years by reducing or eliminating aid to the most effective program for helping low-income students move up the educational ladder.

As we see doors closing on opportunities for advancement, Diddy and his kid's scholarship are only visible symbols of our frustration.

We can't all be leaders of hip-hop or other industries, but we all deserve to have a chance to try. That used to be the American Dream. We hate to see it go.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His email address is

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