In the States, applying to college can be the most stressful event in a young person’s life. It seems that twelve years of education, numerous extracurricular activities, volunteering, and weekend jobs all culminate in two deciding numbers: a Grade Point Average and standardised test score. However, how much do these factors truly decide college acceptance?
A recent FBI report revealed that wealthy parents, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, have been bribing universities to guarantee acceptance for their children. The report alleged that a third party company, the Edge College and Career Network, also known as the Key, enacted schemes such as faking disabilities to allow students to take standardised tests with proctors who would ensure that they answered correctly, or bribing sports coaches to recruit non-athletic students, all to ensure admission into elite universites.
“There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy,” District of Massachusetts Attorney and head of the securities and financial fraud unit leading the case, Andrew E. Lelling said.
However, a closer look at the history of college admissions reveals a narrative of elitism and classism that shows that the wealthy have always had a separate college admissions system.
Like most institutions, university was designed for the educated, wealthy white male. But we’ve all heard stories, of parents donating a new library or branch of the science school, just in time for their child’s acceptance to a university. In Daniel Golden’s book, The Price of Admissions, he details how wealthy parents could buy their underachieving child admission into an elite university through a large tax-deductible donation.
One alarming example is that of Jared Kushner, whose father reportedly donated $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998, before Kushner’s enrollment at the university the following year, despite testimony from high school administrators who said that his grades and test scores did not warrant acceptance.
Furthermore, elite universities often place an emphasis on acceptance of legacy applicants – students whose parents or family members were alumni, thereby disfavouring students who are the first member of their family to attend university or are first-generation immigrants.
Alongside these barriers for first-generation students, there’s the barrier to actually apply. Most schools make students pay an application fee in order to even apply. Further to this, students have to pay to take standardised testings, including the basic ones like the ACTs and SATs. But most prestigious universities prefer, and even require, additional testing. Whether they be SAT Subject Tests, or AP Tests, these costs add up. In fact, Georgetown University requires three additional SAT subject tests scores.
Once students are accepted into universities, there is still the matter of tuition. The average annual tuition of the Ivy League Universities is $52,234. Most students receive some form of financial aid or work-study in order to afford university, but even then they leave with massive student loan debt. The total student loan debt of the US is $1.57 trillion, and in the Class of 2018, 69 per cent of students took out college loans, and graduated nearly $30,000 in debt.
Some universities have begun to enact need-blind admissions, wherein they evaluate an applicant without considering their financial background. However, there have been questions as to whether the application process can truly be need-blind as admissions still looks at financial aid packages.
Despite the promise of need-blind admissions, elite universities remain a bastion for wealth and privilege. For example, while all Ivy League universities deem themselves need-blind, the average annual income of the family of a student in the Ivy League in 2018 was $182,438. On average, across all Ivies, 68 per cent of students come from families with the top 20 per cent of income (an annual household income of $92,000) as opposed to only 3.6 per cent who come from the lowest 20 per cent of income in the states (an annual household income of $20,000.) In comparison, the median household income in the US in 2017 was $61,372.
While the FBI report has certainly shed light on how competitive the college admissions process has become, it is fair to say that the process has always been geared towards the wealthy. Institutions such as universities that existed long before the proliferation of rights to marginalised communities unsurprisingly continues to favour the communities which built them.
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