On the Recent College Admissions Scandal

As many of my readers, especially in the United States, may know, there continues to be fallout from a college admissions scandal where wealthy parents of potential students paid gobs of money to a consultant who would do whatever it took for the parents’ kids to get into the colleges of their choice (inflating test scores, bribing college officials, etc.). It’s a disgusting situation that has exposed the extent to which some people can (and have) been able to get kids into college, even through illegal means. 

And yet, amidst people’s collective disgust over what the parents of these kids did, I’m afraid that we’re all missing a larger problem: the United States has an educational system, from childbirth to college admissions, that is stacked in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected having the best chance of getting in (at the expense of the poor and those who aren’t well-connected), whether through means that are legal or illegal.

It starts with childbirth because there are many things about the college admissions process that are determined by which family a child is from. If a child has family who went to the school that he/she/they eventually hope to go to one day, then the child is a legacy; this is a distinction that gives a child a significantly improved chance at getting into certain institutions.[1] If the child has a last name that indicates a connection to power or wealth, then the child has a significantly improved chance of getting into certain institutions. But if the child has neither going in his/her/their favor, then there’s some work cut out for them, to say the least.

As a child gets to kindergarten and goes through the K-12 system, another factor of wealth and connection comes into play: the school district a child is in. If a child is placed in a school district with few resources and bad teachers, that child could easily fall behind and never catch up again. If a child is placed in a district with plentiful resources, that child is often in much better shape. Of course, some families have enough wealth that they can avoid the public school system altogether.[2]

Throughout the K-12 experience, there are numerous things that wealthier families can afford that other families can’t: paying for tutors, getting kids involved in sports or hobbies that cost lots of money but make a résumé look good, being around to help their kids with homework, taking trips to all different parts of the world for educational purposes, and more. Those families who don’t have the resources for all or any of these things often find themselves at a disadvantage compared to their wealthier peers.

However, the issue of money and the chances of quality higher education arguably reaches a fever pitch with the college admissions process. Schools want prospective students to come visit, except visiting costs money. Schools want prospective students to do well on their standardized tests (especially SATs and ACTs), except the test prep needed to ace those exams sometimes runs into the thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars. Schools want prospective students to challenge themselves with Advanced Placement courses, except the Advanced Placement exams connected with these courses cost money as well. Some schools even want kids to take SAT2 tests, which cost even more money. College application fees can quickly add up, too. All told, it probably costs even a family with moderate resources thousands of dollars these days in order to get their kids into the colleges of their choice. For a family with resources, getting a kid into college may be a five-, six-, or even seven-figure endeavor, whether it be through legal (expensive test prep, going to an exclusive private school, having parents who give large donations to the child’s prospective school, etc.) or illegal (bribing, like with the current scandal) means.

Ultimately, while many of us who aren’t wealthy lament how the deck is “stacked against us” in the college admissions process in light of the recent admissions scandal, the fact is that the deck is stacked against the “little person” regardless of the scandal. The entire process of getting a child into an elite school, from childbirth to the admissions process, is stacked in favor of those who are wealthy and connected. And that is not an attack on those who are wealthy and connected—it’s just the fact.

[1] On a side note, during my own college admissions process many moons ago, my family was looking to use to my advantage my legacy status at a place to which I was applying. So I know this from experience.

[2] From 5th grade on, I was able to go to a Catholic school, so I know what I mean here. And, as much of an advantage as these schools gave me, even that advantage is dwarfed by the name recognition, as well as personal, educational, and professional connections and other advantages provided by expensive, elite private schools.

10 Replies to “On the Recent College Admissions Scandal”

  1. You have outlined the issues very well. In the end, it all boils down to neighborhood. Since property taxes are the main source of school income, which automatically limits many districts in what they can provide.Until we end segregation we will have this problem.

    But let’s not overvalue going to a “name” university. To a great extent, the benefits of going to a “name” school is not the quality of education, it is the social and political connections. Does anyone really think that GW Bush or Donald Trump were in the top 10% of American students in the brains department? Anyone think they got into Harvard on their merits?

    There are hundreds of excellent public educational institutions. You can get an education as good, or better , than at one of the “name” schools. IF you do the work and take your studies seriously.

    Also, who actually TEACHES at these “name ” universities? From a 2015 article :
    “The practice of hiring undergraduates to help in the teaching of other undergraduates is an ingrained practice at Harvard, and also a well-kept secret. For over 40 years, these “course assistants” have led sections, graded assignments, and held office hours. With the rapid increase in the number of students studying quantitative fields such as computer science, applied mathematics, and statistics, the number of such course assistants has grown significantly in recent years….”

    Not to be over critical of “name” schools, but in my experience a good student can get a quality education at any state school, if they put in the effort. I know when I went to a state school back in the 1970s (MSU) I did not have even one grad assistant teach any course. All were taught by professors and some adjuncts. . The education I acquired prepared me for life and work.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You raise a lot of good points, Joseph, and even included some things I didn’t mention (such as property taxes).

      To focus more on what you said about “name” schools, you are correct, I think. To further your point about state schools (as opposed to name schools), publics (including the CUNY system, which my dad is in) dominate the bottom-to-top success stories category. Of course, name schools often offer the social connections so many are already in the top 20%, socioeconomically. But still, it’s something worth considering in terms of quality of education and quality of outcomes: https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/2018-02-05/new-york-college-system-pushes-many-graduates-into-middle-class-and-beyond

      Liked by 1 person

    2. As I high school teacher, when my students get upset and anxious over the fact that they didn’t get into that dream school (and these are never “big name” schools for all the reasons listed) I tell them it’s not the name of the college, it is what you do with the opportunities you are given all along the way. I also stress that college is not the end all and be all for a lot of people. The entire education system is insane right now, from how we treat our public educators to what happens in higher education. It is insane.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I agree on all fronts. It’s hard to have perspective when we’ve been denied of the opportunity to go to a first choice school, but being denied by a first choice school is not by any means the end of the world.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Another issue which I forgot to raise. When I went to MSU (grad in 1972) they had a policy that any student who was accepted would be able to attend financially. In my case , being from the lower class, I had some academic scholarships, some Economic Opportunity (poor people) Grants, work study (mopping the cafeteria,etc), summer jobs and then got an RA job. In other words,, by the time I left with a BA I had a total debt load of…..$350. Even for 1972 that was not much money I have no idea how kids today can get by burdened with the massive college debt they acquire.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Speaking as one of the kids today, it’s not easy for many. I’m blessed enough to have a job where I grew up (so I can save money by living with my parents). But if not for that, I don’t know how I’d be able to get by, because wages are stagnant (which really means that they’ve been going down, once you consider inflation).


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