Equity Suffers in the College Admissions GameBy Linda Baglia -
Last month, actress Felicity Huffman was sentenced for her involvement in the wide-reaching college admissions scandal, known as “Operation Varsity Blues.” This national scandal brought down several other high-profile names, wealthy parents and top coaches at elite institutions such as Georgetown, Stanford, Yale and the University of Southern California. Huffman received 14 days in prison as well as community service hours and a fine. Over the next several months, more sentences will be handed down for those who pled guilty to charges including falsifying SAT scores and bribing athletic directors for admission to top schools. The scandal has brought new scrutiny to college admissions practices and the role that wealth and privilege play in those decisions. Despite the good efforts of states and colleges to enroll more low-income students, do current admissions policies work against students with limited financial means?
For those of us working every day to improve equitable opportunities in higher education for traditionally underserved students, the college admissions scandal was deflating. How can we ever hope to increase access and opportunity for low-income and minority students when wealthier people can simply pay an entrance fee? We need to take a hard look at the issues that led us to this place — first, the necessity of and lack of equity in current admissions policies, and second, a broken system that puts such a premium on degrees from elite institutions that some parents and students will commit felonies in pursuit of one.
College admissions processes were purportedly designed to ensure that a student would succeed in their studies at a chosen institution and earn a degree. Searching for the student who will be a “good fit”, colleges require proof of previous academic success, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, a resume of extracurricular and charitable activities, interviews and the all-important essay. The process has become ultra-competitive at most Ivy League schools and even at top public institutions, which has resulted in limited spots for a growing number of qualified students.
Operation Varsity Blues exposed cracks in the process and raised some important questions — namely, are admissions policies still serving their intended purpose? If a number of underqualified students (as evidenced in the current scandal) are gaining entrance to rigorous, elite institutions by backdoor means and succeeding in earning degrees, what does that say about the usefulness of current admission policies? Do those policies undermine equity by excluding students who may achieve comparable success and could reap huge socio-economic benefits as a result of that degree? Wealthier students have always held an advantage through better K-12 schooling (by virtue of zip code), better access to expensive sports and extracurricular activities, standardized test prep, college advising, and a college-going culture at home and in school. Students without those advantages have to work harder and overcome more obstacles just to get on an even admissions playing field. An admissions structure that is vulnerable to bribery, or even to being swayed by enormous (and perfectly legal) monetary donations or legacy admissions fosters inequity and further limits access for low-income students.
Clearly, universities that want to support equity and diversity in their student bodies must scrutinize their admissions policies and procedures to remove any possibility of monetary influence over those decisions. However, if we look deeper, what does the Varsity Blues scandal reveal about our society and educational system, that a degree from a particular institution holds such value? Are those who attend less prestigious institutions destined for lives of mediocrity or failure? Certainly not. But the myth is powerful and a degree from an elite institution signals exclusivity in a culture that is becoming increasingly stratified. Unfortunately, the price of this exclusivity is that it serves to maintain a class system that keeps underprivileged students from achieving their American dream.