Wealth in College Admissions

The bribery scandal highlights the unmerited role of wealth in college admissions.

by Akosua Twum | 4/4/19 2:10am

During the college application period, some parents support their children by reassuring them that hard work and good grades can get them into a good college. Other parents decide to support their children in a more unconventional way. Thirty-three wealthy parents, including Felicity Huffman from “Desperate Housewives” and Lori Loughlin from “Full House,” were recently involved in what the case’s prosecutors referred to as the “largest college admission scam” ever. These parents spent anywhere from $200 thousand to $6.5 million to get their kids into elite colleges such as Georgetown, Yale, Stanford and the University of Southern California.

William Singer, the ringleader behind the scandal, helped his clients’ children get into elite colleges by manipulating entrance exam scores. Singer paid psychologists to falsify disability reports, enabling students to receive extra time on their exams. At controlled test centers, proctors hired by Singer would either correct the students’ exam answers or work with the students to complete the tests. In the end, students received near-perfect scores on their entrance exams.

The effort to manipulate entrance exams was blatantly unfair, particularly given the advantages that wealthier children already have when it comes to academics. Wealthy children have the opportunity to attend the best schools in their state, if not the country — few others ever get that chance. These are children surrounded by the best teachers and the best resources, both of which will help them on entrance exams later on in life. High-performing schools feature programs like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, both of which help challenge and push students. Wealthy students can afford to receive academic and test-prep help from tutors and learning centers; some even turn to high-priced admissions and test-prep consultants. Poorer students often don’t have those opportunities, due to the lack of academic resources, financial support, and even awareness that such opportunities exist. Even aside from the recent scandal, they have to work harder just to compete with wealthier students.

Another key part of the scandal concerned athletic recruitment. Singer bribed college coaches to list his clients’ children as recruits, even though those students didn’t play the sport for which they were being “recruited. Singer even used Adobe Photoshop to artificially place his clients’ faces onto the bodies of real high school athletes.  

Once again, the scandal presents a new low. But its parallels with entirely legal inequalities are eerie. Wealthy students have an advantage when it comes to accessing sports and extracurriculars, beginning with their well-funded schools, which often have access to great sports programs. Wealthy students have the resources needed to train and become actual student-athletes. Some poorer schools don’t have such well-funded and equipped sports programs, so the athletic route isn’t always an option for students. When it comes to extracurricular activities, better-funded schools often have better and more diverse programs that look better on college applications. Even ignoring availability, some less-wealthy students don’t have a choice about whether to participate in extracurricular activities. Many need to work to make ends meet, and some don’t have the means to pay fees and equipment costs. Some have to take care of their younger siblings because their families can’t afford a babysitter or after-school care. All these factors combine to make extracurricular activities far more difficult for less-wealthy students. 

There are other legal, but ethically dubious, ways for wealthy families to help boost their children’s college applications. Parents are allowed to donate money to schools. In a Vice News video, the former associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania said that “what would always help students [was] if . . . their family had a lot of financial resources. You were really looking at seven-figure donations, eight-figure donations. But sometimes six figures, plus a connection with someone on the board, was even more powerful.” She also mentioned that the university reserves spots specifically for students whose parents have donated or intend to donate money to the institution. While donations aren’t fraudulent attempts to deceive the admission committee, their effects are similar: They give wealthier students an unearned advantage.

The college scandal is all the more upsetting given the systemic advantages that wealthier students already receive in the admissions process. Each person implicated in this scandal not only committed crimes, but also took opportunities away from hard-working students who genuinely deserved a spot at these colleges. College impacts a person’s entire life, making a system that blatantly favors wealth all the more unjust. Our society doesn’t fully discuss the role that wealth plays in education, partly because when it comes to college, we still ascribe to the false notion that hard work is the key to success. However, as the recent scandal highlights, it seems like the key to college success comes with a hefty price tag. 

Twum is a member of the Class of 2021.

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