College Admissions Must Counter Income Inequality

Think back a couple of years and try to remember racking your brain, attempting to answer the essay question that would supposedly seal your academic fate. Your hand cramps from all the bubbling in you just did on multiple choice sections. But all your effort feels to have been in vain, as it becomes increasingly apparent that money can buy you a spot into some of the nation’s top colleges, both legally and illegally. College acceptance is supposed to be contingent on academic excellence and the painstaking effort it took to accomplish that, not how much money your parents have. Something must be done to protect what exists of America’s meritocracy.

In line with the American dream, merit is supposed to pave the way for advancement in society. Post-secondary education is one of the most crucial ways through which individuals can achieve financial success, and yet money remains a critical component of the process.

The college admissions scandal that broke on March 12, 2019 concerned an illicit route into elite colleges. Around 35 parents contacted college admissions consultant William Singer to obtain access to what he called the “guaranteed side door” acceptance into top-notch universities. Schools involved in the scandal include Yale University (Conn.), Stanford University (Calif.), University of Southern California and Georgetown University (D.C.).

But Singer’s guaranteed side door was opened through blatant bribery. For up to $450,000, proctors could give students more time to take the exam under the guise of a disability; fill in new answers themselves once the students turned in their exams; or even disappear from the room entirely. For another giant sum of money, athletic directors could help fabricate impressive athletic resumes.

As shocking as the story may seem, money has always held the power to sway college admissions. Coupling the importance of college prestige in an individual’s career path and the huge sums of money involved with tuition, it should not be surprising that wealthy parents used money to secure their children’s futures.

Cheating an already broken system is still cheating. There are already legal ways aside from the application itself that can increase the chances of a student’s acceptance. But they aren’t available for every student; legacy status, the ability to pay full price, college visits and test preparation all involve privilege.

Everybody wants results that are proportional to effort. Working hard is supposed to get you where you want to go, no matter where you started. That’s the entire concept behind the American dream of a “self-made” person. But even effort depends heavily on where you started. Whether or not your parents had time to drive you to extracurriculars, if you could afford to take SAT prep classes and even the district your high school was in all affected what you could try in the first place.

Initiatives to minimize this gap are already in place, but they are imperfect. Even affirmative action has faced issues with unfair discrimination against Asian Americans at Harvard University (Mass.), according to a lawsuit first filed in 2014. The underlying ideals clashing against each other in this case are the same concepts at play in the college cheating scandals: equal chances of admissions and unequal starting points.

Without a clear solution to downplay privilege and empower disadvantaged students in the college admissions process, the situation seems hopeless. Some have half-jokingly suggested lottery systems, which would mean pulling names from a hat. But if you look at the existing lottery systems for K-12 schools, there are already ways money can make its way into the picture.

And as long as universities are run like businesses, it will get increasingly difficult to remove money from the admissions process. Getting into college is one thing, but paying for it is another; it is far more expensive to attend college in the United States than it is in any other country.

The first step to level the playing field is to lower the cost for everyone. Colleges need to start scaling back their cost of attendance not just to reduce crippling student loans and help families that can’t afford the current fees, but also to minimize the influence of money in the admissions process. Without more affordable tuition, faculty members and admissions boards will continue to succumb to enormous sums of money from desperate parents in hopes of securing a spot for their child. In fact, this type of “generosity” should never be considered transactional. Universities need to implement policies that clearly state the one-way giving of donations. There’s nothing in return.

Although transparency about unrewarded donations may result in less money flowing into colleges, this is an unacceptable source of funding to begin with, and should be eliminated as soon as possible.

As nonprofit organizations, colleges are required to be transparent with their expenses. Unfortunately, not many people, myself included, pay attention to these numbers. Rising administrative expenses are one potential source of spending cuts.

Instead of finding a way to generate new money, colleges should spend their existing money more responsibly. While some students might receive government support, schools should still focus on reducing costs as much as possible to make attendance more accessible. There should also be a sense of urgency when dealing with these college finances. Without actively cutting spending as much as possible, cost of attendance for students will only continue to rise, widening the gap between the privileged and the disadvantaged.

Grace Yang (22C) is from Vancouver, Wash.