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.

Institutional Racism Series: How it Affected Where I Went to School

I went to a great elementary school from 5th to 8th grade, a high school I loved, and a great college. While I sometimes had small complaints, such as having too much homework or dealing with the stress of end-of-year exams, I was extremely lucky to get the education I received.

However, for several months in 2004, the educational system in New York viewed my family as a family of color (even though we’re white), and the results for a time cast uncertainty over where my younger brother would go to kindergarten.

This uncertainty was the result of institutional racism, or racism that is practiced and sometimes even normalized by social, economic, governmental, and other institutions.

The beginning of this story was during the 2003-04 school year, when my family was trying to get my younger brother into the kindergarten program at the public magnet school I went to at the time (which drew students from districts throughout New York City’s borough of Queens). What happened was that the school changed its “sibling policy”—the school previously had automatically admitted siblings of students already attending the school, but the policy changed so that siblings of students were limited to being somewhere between 10% to 20% of new student admissions.

The justification for this policy was to diversify the school—administrators viewed the school as drawing “too many” students from certain districts throughout Queens and “too few” students from other districts; the “too many” were usually from districts that predominantly had students of color, while the “too few” were usually from districts that predominantly had white students. In order to diversify the school, the sibling policy was changed so that the school didn’t get many more kids from districts drawing “too many” kids (mostly districts of color, as I said earlier). Indeed, as someone at the New York City Department of Education told my parents, administrators wanted more kids from places like Bayside and Douglaston (neighborhoods in Queens that were extremely white). In other words, they wanted more white kids at the school and fewer people of color.

At this point, you’re probably reading this and saying the following: “Now, wait a minute, Brendan…you’re white! You’re not a person of color! So what do you or your family have to do with all this commotion?”

Where we came into the commotion was that the school system viewed my entire family, including my brother, as people of color. Since I lived in a Queens neighborhood dominated by people of color, the system viewed my brother as a person of color and therefore as a person who would not achieve the goal of giving my school a more “diverse” student body (more white people). Basically, the educational institution in New York viewed my family as people of color for several months in 2004, and as a result my brother couldn’t get into the kindergarten program we wanted to get him into. My parents said nothing to argue with this misperception because they didn’t want to use our race to give my brother an advantage on the sole basis of the color of his skin.

Then things changed.… Once the educational powers that be saw me mark myself as “white” on a standardized test, they realized that my brother was probably also white and they suddenly offered him a seat at the school. It was too late, though, because my brother started kindergarten at a Catholic school he loved, and I transferred to that school.

The story ended on a positive note for my entire family because we had the money to pay for Catholic elementary school for my brother and me and avoid the public school system entirely after transferring.

However, as I’ve shared this particular story in talks with friends, I have found out about people who had similar issues in their own school systems, but were not so lucky because they were people of color who came from families without many economic resources. Indeed, institutional racism in education prevents some great kids from having the educational opportunities they deserve.


Note: If you missed my previous two posts in my series on institutional racism, please refer to my introductory post for the series and the post on how institutional racism affected where I (and others) live.