The controversy surrounding the recent US college admissions scandal has failed to hold the larger problem accountable. Yes, Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman, and the countless others involved should be prosecuted for their crimes. But their crimes misrepresent the larger problem. The problem isn’t the rich cheating their way into elite colleges with their deep pockets; the details of the scandal are extreme at best. The problem, instead, lies within the college admissions process itself and the undeniable connection between this process and economic privilege. Across the board, whether it’s academics, extracurriculars, or standardized testing, the rich continue to have an edge from the beginning of the college admissions process that only seems to be growing.
Academically, the advantage is obvious. Higher income allows families to move to richer neighborhoods with better education systems or even further allows parents to send their kids to private or boarding schools. Lower income families, on the other hand, are forced to send their kids to local schools, which tend to have poor funding. These circumstances create an uneven playing field in the admissions process. Coming out of high school, students from higher income families have been granted a better education, whether through the public or private school system and often times can tout higher level courses such as AP and IB classes. Less affluent students, on the other hand, often times enter the admissions process with a less reputable education and are frequently not granted the opportunity to take similar courses some of their richer counterparts may take.
Moreover, more affluent students repeatedly have more opportunities to further their education by taking classes outside of school or during the summer, something often seen as unaffordable for their peers. As a result, low-income students continuously fall behind over the summer, as their richer counterparts widen the achievement gap while school is not in session. In his 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell concluded that low-income students experienced a significant net-loss in academic ability in contrast to their middle and high-income counterparts. His study found that contrary to traditional thought, all students, regardless of economic status, gain academically at similar during the school year and it is during the summer where the achievement gap occurs. Gladwell found that by 5th grade, middle and high-income students’ cumulative gains are 27 and 202 times higher, respectively, in comparison to low-income children and attributed summer reading as the primary reason for the significance of the gap. Another study done by the National Summer Learning Association found that, by 9th grade, summer learning loss during elementary school accounted for 2/3 of the achievement gap between low and middle-income students.
These differences seen academically between higher and lower-income families often seep their way into extracurriculars. In most cases, richer students have more opportunities to pursue extracurriculars to put on their resume. While this section of the application is very subjective, monetary backing allows students to take part in art classes, travel soccer, and a magnitude of other activities that sometimes can be unaffordable for some.
Arguably the most obvious way family income impacts college applications can be seen in standardized testing. Standardized testing, in the form of the ACT and SAT, has become an integral part of the college admissions process due to its ability to separate students based on scores. However, its ability to differentiate students has come at a cost: both tests show economic inequality at its worst given the importance of the test in college admissions and even in the workforce. According to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, students in 2014 in every income bracket outscored students of a lower income bracket. On average, the richest students (family income of 200k+) outscored the poorest students (family income of <20k) by 398 points. The disparity of these results comes as a result of a couple of factors. For one thing, richer students are able to afford SAT/ACT prep classes that can run upwards of $150 an hour. In addition, the disparity roots back to a students’ education, whereas upper-class students are better prepared to take these tests given their educational background.
Throughout the college admissions process, whether it’s standardized testing, academics, or extracurriculars, the rich continue to have an obvious advantage that must be addressed. Given the magnitude of the problem, however, there is no easy solution to this growing issue. That being said, it would be unwise to pursue solutions that attempt to level the playing field between different income brackets as higher affluent students will always have some advantage in academic and extracurricular opportunities, in addition to standardized testing.
The solution, instead, must fall on colleges themselves. In the future, while colleges should continue to be need-blind, colleges should also consider one’s economic privilege in the admissions process, given how the closer relationship between economic privilege and opportunity. This should come in the form of a policy similar to affirmative action, however rather than looking at one’s minority status, colleges would look at one’s economic background instead. To address the worrying connection between standardized test scores and economic inequality, colleges should continue to look towards other ways to judge and even go test-optional, to further level the playing field. While these measures would not make the playing field completely even, it would be the right step in granting the economic underprivileged a fairer admissions process, while simultaneously depleting the advantage the rich have in this process.