College admissions: Taking privilege down a notch?

Why We Wrote This

Should U.S. colleges make admission more fair and equitable for all? Here’s how some schools, students, and lawmakers are challenging a system often warped by wealth.

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Marisa O'Connor (left), senior college access adviser, works with high school student Hamza during a counseling session at Bottom Line on Aug. 15, 2019, in Boston. The organization helps low-income and first-generation students navigate college and success.

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As a new college application season gets underway, leaders of selective colleges maintain that their admissions policies are sound and backed by integrity. Many spent the summer patching weak spots exposed in the spring by “Operation Varsity Blues,” a set of criminal cases involving parents and a consultant who bribed coaches and manipulated test scores to help students gain admission to top schools. 

Among concerns in the aftermath is an ever-growing sense that entrance into elite institutions, even public ones, is stacked in favor of the wealthy. The pressure is on to consider deeper changes to make admissions more equitable – putting less weight on “legacy,” for instance, and more on legwork, like a teen’s part-time job to put food on the table.  

What colleges do next, says Jim Jump – a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and author of an ethics blog – may determine whether the process “inspires public trust … or makes people feel like it’s not a meritocracy, it’s a privilege-ocracy, if you will.”

Last year’s college application season was marred by headlines about wealthy parents behaving badly.

Over the summer, college officials, athletic departments, and testing companies have been working to patch weak spots exposed by “Operation Varsity Blues,” a set of criminal cases involving parents and a consultant who bribed coaches and manipulated test scores to help students gain admission to top schools. 

At the University of California, for instance, the first of three planned audits did not uncover any widespread fraud, but the public university system announced it would improve the documentation trail for admissions, strengthen verification of applicants let in for a “special talent” such as athletic ability, and address potential conflicts of interest.

With the new college application season underway, leaders of selective colleges maintain that their admissions policies are sound and backed by integrity. But a bigger concern could be the ever-growing sense that entrance into elite institutions, even public ones, is stacked in favor of the wealthy. The pressure is on to consider deeper changes to make admissions more equitable – putting less weight on “legacy,” for instance, and more on legwork, like a teen’s part-time job to put food on the table.  

“We all know that in the world at large, those who are wealthy have advantages. The question for college admission is, do we want that institutionalized, or do we want to actually be the exception to that?” says Jim Jump, a dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s, an independent prep school in Richmond, Virginia.

What colleges do next may determine whether the process “inspires public trust … or makes people feel like it’s not a meritocracy, it’s a privilege-ocracy, if you will,” says Mr. Jump, a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and author of an ethics blog. 

But it’s also important that this narrative of privilege not become too dominant, he and others caution, because that could prompt less-privileged students to believe there’s no point in even trying to get into top schools, where scholarships and other benefits might have been awaiting them.

Hamza, a student from Malden High School just outside Boston who asked that only his first name be used, sees some of that discouragement among fellow students. They were frustrated to hear about families buying their way to better SAT scores and easy acceptances.

“I’ve seen kids that are smarter than me [who] do not have the motivation to apply to any of those [elite] schools,” because they think they can’t get in or they can’t afford it, he says.

But Hamza craves a competitive environment, and he plans to apply to the University of Pennsylvania and several other “reach” schools. “I’d rather just take my chance and get rejected than just always think about ‘Oh what if I applied?’” he says. “Maybe it could happen.”

Tempering the prestige myth

Since only a tiny percentage of students are accepted at the most popular schools, it’s also important not to fall into what Mr. Jump calls the “myth of prestige,” the idea that “if I don’t go to an elite college I can’t be successful.” At the average four-year college, two-thirds of applicants are accepted, NACAC reports. 

Some applicants may indeed be giving lesser-known schools a stronger look if they are turned off by the picture of privilege at the elites.

One California student who toured the University of Southern California last winter was eager to apply there. But after hearing about Varsity Blues a few days later, he crossed off his list that and any other schools affected, one of his parents noted on the College Confidential website, in response to a query from the Monitor. Now the student is considering other California campuses and giving out-of-state options a closer look: Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University in Jupiter might be able to entice him with a scholarship.

Ben Margot/AP
Students walk on the Stanford University campus March 14, 2019, in California. Stanford is among those schools involved in the Varsity Blues investigation, which has prompted class-action lawsuits.

Although they likely won’t be hurting for applicants, many schools with more competitive admissions have audits underway in response to Varsity Blues, and several have announced changes.

In addition to a review of athletic admissions, Yale will examine the role of commercial admissions consultants, create a new code of conduct and ethics training for athletic recruitment, and give more scrutiny to recruited athletes who fail to make it onto a team, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports

Other Ivy Leagues, such as the University of Pennsylvania, have announced similar bolstering of ethics policies.

A closer look at the system

Still, a type of honors system prevails. Most of the 40 top colleges contacted by The Wall Street Journal recently do not have a policy of randomly verifying what’s reported by students in their applications. 

Admissions officials themselves have not been implicated in Varsity Blues, but the admission counseling group has treated it as a “teachable moment,” says NACAC president Stefanie Niles, who oversees enrollment at Ohio Wesleyan University. Early this fall, NACAC will release an online ethics course for staff from development, athletics, alumni, and other departments involved in admissions.

In response to public outrage, some lawmakers have been trying to make sure taxpayers aren’t subsidizing wealthy families who manipulate the system. A bill proposed in California would retroactively remove charitable tax deductions for any money that families convicted in Varsity Blues cases donated to colleges or foundations as a cover for bribery.

Illinois lawmakers and the U.S. Department of Education are also looking for ways to close legal loopholes that dozens of wealthy families reportedly used to transfer legal guardianship of their teens in order to get financial aid designed for independent students. 

But the extremes of criminal and unethical behavior make up just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the influence of wealth, advocates for greater access and diversity say.

The student body presidents of USC, UCLA, Stanford, and Yale penned a column recently about “the many ways in which we have personally benefited from this system of privilege.” 

Such inequities start early in unfair funding for K-12 schools, they wrote, but they urged their universities to take steps within their control – such as following the example of the University of Chicago in making the SAT/ACT optional.

This is not a new conversation in higher education, and some campuses have already been making changes. Over the past decade, Johns Hopkins has put less weight on legacy status and more on access and diversity. For the class that started in 2018, 3.3% of students there had a legacy or family connection, while 15.4% came from families eligible for Pell grants, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. When it comes to students who receive Pell, some top-ranked universities are as low as 10% while several others go above 20%. Critics say the rates should be higher.

Hamza, who works at Target, says he’ll definitely need financial aid. He’s had two meetings with an adviser at the nonprofit Bottom Line, in Boston, which helps low-income and first-generation students navigate college access and success. The Houston native already has an idea for his college essay topic: the time he spent as a student in Morocco, his father’s home country, and why he hopes to help its development after he earns his degree.

He still has a long way to go in the admissions process, but leaning back in his chair at the Bottom Line office, Hamza seems unflappable: “If I fit into what they want, I’ll get accepted; if I don’t, I won’t.” Even if he ends up at one of his “safety” schools, he says, “I would definitely be happy.”

Hands-on with college applications? Why this mom now says ‘yes.’

Robin Benson Barnes’ son was waiting to hear back from several colleges last March when news about the Varsity Blues scandal broke. She had also been peeking into the world of elite admissions practices by following the federal discrimination trial in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, in which a judge’s decision is pending.  

The snowballing effect left her feeling somewhat “jaded” about the role of wealth, she says. “The fact that legacies are still getting a tip, and that athletes are still getting a tip, and that the children of influential people are still getting a tip – and then on top of it … you’re also going to cheat?”

When college counselors at their magnet high school in Austin, Texas, encouraged parents to let students take the lead last fall, she and her husband felt relaxed about it, though they knew some parents would micromanage.

Their son ended up at his first choice, a strong private university out of state, with a scholarship that made tuition similar to the in-state public rate – and they were all happy with the result, she says. But in retrospect, she thinks she could have helped more. 

They didn’t know, for instance, that some engineering programs have separate deadlines, so they were scrambling in October. On the other hand, he didn’t apply early action to any of his “reach” schools, but if he had done that, and if he had taken an SAT subject test, he may have been better positioned for more options, she says.

For child No. 2, Ms. Barnes plans to be less hands-off. Her daughter, currently a high school sophomore, will still make the key decisions, she says, but “I feel more comfortable taking more of a lead on the deadlines and logistics. ... The process is quite complicated, and it’s quite a bit for a 16- or 17-year-old to manage on their own.”

With many students from their high school applying to competitive colleges, “it is hard not to get caught up in the elite school thing,” Ms. Barnes says. But she also sees students turning down top brand names in favor of lesser-known schools that offer better financial aid. 

She thinks more now about systemic inequities. “Kids without organized middle-class parents at least slightly familiar with the process are at an extreme disadvantage,” she says.

Plenty of her peers paid an outside adviser to help their student go through the application process. Some did it mainly to keep the peace by not having to be the ones nagging about deadlines, she says.

“I’m still not planning on paying anybody to do it, although I don’t begrudge people who decide to do that. At first to me that seemed kind of silly, and I don’t think it’s as silly anymore.”

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