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. 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.
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.
 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.
 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.