The Real Scandal in College Admissions

Latest news: Rich white people pay millions in bribes to get their children into prestigious colleges. Outrage ensues!

The trouble is that this latest “scandal” is just a more direct and crass way of doing what has always been done: the “best” schools have always been for the children of the upper classes, and their student body, like their faculty and administrators, have always been overwhelmingly white.

Rich people buy their way in to colleges in other ways than just bribery. For example, completely ‘legitimate’ college counseling services charge up to $1.5 million to prep a child from 8th grade so that they will be “ready” when they apply to college.

It’s not just that rich people will do whatever it takes to get their kids into elite colleges: selective colleges also want to admit the children of the rich. Most selective schools take into account whether the candidates are the children of alumni, whether they are children of donors, and whether they are children of just….rich people. At a recent trial over bias in admissions (unfortunately brought by a right-wing billionaire attempting to end affirmative action), Harvard officials revealed that some 33% of its admissions  were “legacy” students (i.e. children of alumni, faculty and donors), and that legacy candidates were admitted at five times the rate of the rest of the applicants. The Harvard Dean of Admissions also revealed that he maintains a “Z-list” of students who would not otherwise be admitted who were from wealthy or famous families.

College admissions officers have been particularly self-righteous about the current scandal and have gone to lengths to assure the public that the selection process is fair and guided by objective standards. Colleges do select students based on grades, SAT scores, extra-curricular activities and interviews, they point out. Those they admit, they claim, are “the best and the brightest,” not the richest and whitest.

The problem is that these so-called “objective” measures of hard work and intelligence are actually very good measures of race and class privileges. And those with the highest grades and test scores and “interesting” extracurricular activities are most often the richest and whitest.

The SATs, in particular, do not predict in any way the likelihood of a high school senior succeeding in college. (The most common definition of success is graduating college within six years). In fact, students with SAT scores of 1500 are no more likely to succeed than students with SAT scores of 850. So, why are they used? Well, SATs are very sensitive to three factors: parents’ income, parents’ education and race. If colleges want a device to filter out poor and non-white candidates, the SAT is as good as it gets.

What about extra-curricular activities? Students with prestigious internships have a real leg up on the competition. But how does one get such an internship? Well, having connections is the best way in, since the large majority of these internships have no formal acceptance criteria. And those with connections are likeliest to be from privileged families. Yet colleges treat internships as measures of “interest” and “experience” as if they had nothing to do with privilege.

And what about grades? Grades allegedly measure how much a student has learned in a given course, and the cumulative GPA is supposed to be a good measure of how hard the student has worked and how intelligent they are. But grades are also a measure of something else: how much the student’s cultural understandings correspond with the culture of the teacher, the course content, and the school. Given the history of racism in education, white and wealthy students with parents who went to college have a much higher chance of sharing the same culture as the school teaches. And, of course, students who are not distracted from school by their family’s struggles with poverty, racism and immigration status (and who, conversely, have small class sizes, highly trained and motivated teachers, extracurricular activities at their beck and call) have a far greater likelihood of achieving higher grades.

And of course, there are interviews. Students who are successful often impress the interviewer (usually white and privileged themselves) with their personal characteristics that “fit in” with the college’s ethos. In colleges with majority white and upper-class student bodies, the interview often becomes a powerful filter for privilege.

Most selective colleges, responding to decades of pressure from civil rights activists, now pride themselves on the growing diversity of their student body. But far too often, this diversity is achieved by admitting upper class students of color, many of whom are international students. And, only a very few selective colleges are willing to admit enough students of color to be more than a small percentage of their overall student body.

In 2019, fifty years after the civil rights movement, many selective colleges are talking about the need to do more than admit more students of color. They regularly hire ‘consultants’ who tell them that they the need to diversify their curriculum, to hire faculty of color, to create an inclusive environment, etc. Yet somehow these changes don’t happen. Schools don’t want to “lower their standards,” be “politically correct,” hire “less qualified” instructors, etc. Most faculty in particular refuse to look at their own teaching styles and academic content to see if they are creating barriers to learning for their own students. (And, if they refuse to be self-aware, they most certainly are creating those barriers).

So, why do colleges and universities resist the changes that would make them more diverse, equitable and just?  Part of the answer lies in the race for college rankings by U.S. News. This ranking system primarily rewards schools for having the most successful (i.e. highest paid) alumni. The best way of assuring that alumni are high-income earners is simple:  admit the children of high-income earners! Colleges are terrified that if they turn away the children of the privileged, they will lose their standing. And, the college ranking system assures that the content of higher education and the delivery of it to students continues to be tailored to the most privileged people in society.

The real issue is not the advantages the rich have getting their kids into college. It is that colleges don’t want to confront racism and class privilege and want to welcome privileged students at the expense of everyone else.

The irony is that the claim that selective colleges admit the “best” students or produce the “best” graduates cannot stand scrutiny. Institutional practices of race and class privilege reject highly motivated and brilliant students of color and working-class whites, confine intellectual inquiry and the production of new ideas, and greatly limit the pool of people qualified to do important work. The real harm done by racism in higher education is to us all: we land up poorly equipped to deal with the world because we do everything in our power to keep the world out. And not just in admissions. These practices of exclusion have kept the ideas of the world out of higher education and have made them into self-referential temples of Western (i.e. white and upper class) thought. Now that is a scandal worth getting mad about!

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