Life isn’t fair. Not everyone is born into resourced households. Not every child is wanted. Not everyone has loving parents. Some kids have parents who are college professors and others’ parents are gardeners. While neither one is inherently better, the children of the college professors enter the world with more social capital (inherited) to navigate the education world. Annette Lareau has researched and written extensively about the differences between growing up in different social classes (I highly recommend Unequal Childhoods). And while we don’t start out on equal ground, education, to some extent, tries to make up for this inequity. Yet, colleges and universities, for all their pontification about providing equal opportunity to all, have becoming increasingly inequitable.
Ultra elite colleges and universities have few spots available. Institutions like Harvard and Stanford spout rhetoric about their work on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), but they remain exclusive. In her December 2020 New York Times article, Gina Bellafante sums the problem up well:
“It is hard to miss the paradox of an approach professing fidelity to the work of heightening access as it remains fundamentally wedded to the business of rejection. A school’s prestige is embedded in saying no. …In the world of higher education, the real work of diversity, equity and inclusion would demand a radical rethinking of admissions.”
While a 2019 study from Pew Research shows that most universities admit most applicants, there are limited spaces in the roughly top 50 colleges whose admissions rates can be as low as three or four percent. Many of the spaces are taken up by legacy admissions and sports. For example, 36% of Amherst students are athletes. Some colleges have as much as 25% of their freshman class admissions taken by legacy admission candidates. (You can pick up Jeff Selingo’s book Who Gets in and Why for a more in-depth look at this issue). Qualified students often miss out on spots because there simply are not enough spots for the growing population of students and because those spots are given away.
So not only are the odds stacked against most students before they were born, the testing required for admissions is undermined to the point that the tests don’t really tell anything. Both the SAT and ACT have been accused of gender and racial bias. Furthermore, even the College Board, who administers the SAT, acknowledges that test prep can improve scores. Parents from higher income households are more likely to have access to expensive test prep classes and tutors. So, using either test as a factor in admissions is likely to benefit economically advantaged students. Fortunately, many universities (including the University of California system) are beginning to make admissions test optional or eliminate these standardized tests altogether. (NOTE: The uneven access of tests during COVID-19 has prompted many universities to temporarily eliminate them as criteria. It will be interesting to see if the admitted class of 2021 looks different as a result; I doubt it will).
And to add insult to injury, the admissions college scandal (a.k.a. the Varsity Blues Scandal) shed light on the blatant pay for play that has occurred in college admissions. As if the rich didn’t already have every advantage, they bribed admissions officers and coaches and essentially bought test scores so that their children could get into top universities including Stanford, University of Southern California, and UC Berkeley. While we as a society inherently know that the world is unfair, we expect our institutions of higher education to act morally.
Sadly, our higher education institutions have been corrupted with money and power. The elite, in particular, are happy to keep members in and others out. They have created admissions requirements that favor the rich. And the problem is that life is already unfair. Education, and college in particular, provide an opportunity to level the playing field, just a bit. So, when higher education doesn’t invest in that opportunity in a genuine way, we, as a society, are all hurt.