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The Real College Admissions Scandal

What we need to do to promote fairness, equity and merit.

March 29, 2021
 
 

The political pundit Michael Kinsley coined a couple of adages that speak to our time. There’s the Kinsley gaffe: “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth -- some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”

Then there’s Kinsley’s law: "The scandal isn’t what’s illegal. The scandal is what’s legal."

The Varsity Blues scandal is a textbook example of Kinsley’s law at work. Outrage followed reports that wealthy families cheated to get their kids admitted into prestigious colleges and universities.

Bribery and fraud and falsified test scores and manipulating admission of athletes are not just disgraceful; they’re illegal. But a recent article in The Atlantic by Caitlin Flanagan reveals the real travesty:

  • Although less than 2 percent of the nation’s students attend private schools, 24 percent of Yale’s Class of 2024, 25 percent of Princeton’s and 29 percent of Brown’s and Dartmouth’s did.
  • That the nation’s most prestigious and expensive prep schools sent extraordinary proportion of their students to the Ivy League: about a third of the students at Dalton and Spence. Harvard-Westlake sent 45 students to Harvard; Noble and Greenough, 50.
  • Of the 25 high schools that sent the most students to Princeton, just three were public schools in which at least 15 percent of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
  • A student at Lawrenceville has nearly seven times the chance of getting into Princeton as a student from New York City’s top-ranked Stuyvesant High School.
  • Over half of the low-income Black students at elite colleges graduated from top-ranked private schools.

The problem goes well beyond the children of donors or legacy preferences or favoritism toward athletes in sports that disproportionately attract the wealthy. The legitimacy of the system of admissions is at stake. Admissions needs to be fair and equitable.

Were these elite colleges serious about admitting a truly diverse class of students, they’d do some of the things that Ryan Craig suggests: they’d significantly expand capacity or assess applicants on “distance traveled,” that is, what they’ve achieved as well as what they’ve overcome. They’d significantly expand bridge programs targeting talented high school students from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds.

There was much scoffing when the College Board proposed including adversity scores along with standardized testing results: one score for the student’s school environment and another for the neighborhood’s poverty and crime rates.

Critics argued that advantage or disadvantage could not be reduced to a single number, and certainly, disadvantage should take account of factors that the College Board apparently omitted, such as parents’ education and income.

That said, I’d agree with Craig and argue that given the number of applicants to highly selective schools, we need quantitative measures that identify students who have demonstrated their abilities while overcoming disadvantage. After all, aren’t grit, resilience, persistence and drive among the factors that almost all of us would agree are drivers of future success?

The real college admissions scandal, as Sunwoo Hwang put it, is “not just rich kids getting into schools they don’t deserve, it’s low-income students who can’t go to the schools they deserve” due to a lack of support, guidance and funding.

Funding of higher education is at least as inequitable as funding of public schools, with historically underrepresented students concentrated in the least resourced institutions.

A 2012 study by Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery found that 43 percent of high achieving low-income students were “undermatched” -- enrolling in a college or university less selective than their qualifications would permit.

Sure, some modest steps have been taken to tackle this problem. There’s the American Talent Initiative to enroll and graduate an additional 50,000 lower-income students at the 334 colleges and universities that consistently graduate at least 70 percent of their students in six years.

Then there are advising programs -- run by the Posse Foundation, College Advising Corps, College Possible, QuestBridge and ScholarMatch -- that find talent for elite colleges.

What would it take to do more? Some steps strike me as commonsensical, like more aggressive outreach and recruitment of low-income and underrepresented students, automatic admission for students at the top of their high school class, facilitating community college transfer, and providing more financial aid for low-income and working-class students.

Here are some other strategies:

  • Simplify the process of applying for financial aid, which, even after the most recent reforms, remains riddled with roadblocks.
  • Better fund the broad-access institutions that serve most college students, allowing them to provide the intensive advising and support services that are keys to student success.
  • Implement structured degree pathways of synergistic courses and supplemental instruction to bring more students to success in high-demand fields.
  • Create “honors cohorts” in the arts, humanities and social and natural sciences at broad-access universities, including honors and research-focused programs for transfer students.

But maybe something more radical is called for: upending -- or at least expanding -- the current educational hierarchy.

During my lifetime, a host of institutions joined the elite: Duke, Emory, NYU, Tulane, Vanderbilt, to name a few of the privates, with North Carolina and Virginia among the publics. A host of other institutions made great reputational strides: Arizona State, George Mason, Houston and Northeastern, among others.

But given the quality of faculty nationwide, we need to mimic the California example and ensure that there are multiple highly competitive research institutions in each state. One way to accomplish this is to encourage universities to forge a distinctive identity. The University of Texas at Dallas pursued this strategy to great success. Its STEM focus, with special strengths in brain science and arts and technology, has attracted remarkably motivated students who have among the highest board scores in the state.

A colleague pointed out a recent interview that McKinsey, the management consulting firm, published with Beth Cobert, the current head of the Markle Foundation and previously McKinsey’s U.S. chief performance officer. She calls on industry to “Look for skills, not credentials.”

Is this a joke? Many top companies only recruit from the Ivies or their equivalents. Cobert herself earned degrees from Princeton and Stanford.

It’s time to act on our professed belief that talent is broadly distributed and ensure greater access to opportunity.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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