Let's talk about the real college admissions problem

Let's talk about the real college admissions problem
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Since news broke of the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice, it seems nearly everyone is talking about the “scandal in college admissions.” 

What these parents did is illegal; but the real scandal in higher education is what’s happening in college admissions that is legal. 

The American dream dangles the promise that, with hard work, anyone can attain success. But in reality, too many students from low-income families are denied access to an elite education, while their more affluent peers are able to buy their way in. 

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This “affirmative action for the rich” has always been a problem — and it’s about more than denying opportunities to smart, low-income students who aren’t wealthy enough to buy 200 points on the SAT.

Legacy preferences, Early Decision preferences, above-board donor preferences — all these and more should be banned, especially if the colleges at issue are not otherwise serving their fair share of low-income students.

Nearly one in six elite college enrollees enter with a legacy preference. More than two in five come in with Early Decision. And you can bet nearly every one of the 1 percenters are getting commercial test prep along the way.

In a study of the 30 top colleges in the United States, legacy students had about 45 percent greater chance of being admitted. Virtually no elite college legacy student is low-income.

Thanks to policies like legacy and Early Decision, there are more students at the 38 highly selective U.S. colleges and universities who come from families with earnings in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from those in the bottom 60 percent. 

This includes five in the Ivy League — Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn and Brown — as well as selective schools like Washington University in St. Louis, where nearly 22 percent of the student body comes from the top 1 percent of the income scale, while only 6 percent comes from the entire bottom 60 percent. 

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These yawning gaps are only exacerbated by Early Decision programs, which prohibit students from applying to other schools in search of the best financial aid package possible. 

And to be clear, there is no “empty pool” argument to be made here. One in five students who score in the 90th percentile or higher on the SAT/ACT come from a Pell Grant eligible family. These super-wealthy, selective colleges should have way, way more working class and low-income students enrolled. 

If an elite college isn't enrolling its fair share of working class and low-income students, there should be tangible, public policy consequences. The public gives these elite colleges tax breaks, access to the $100 billion a year federal student loan program, and a host of other government benefits. 

Colleges that continue to embrace admissions practices that structurally disadvantage students from low-income families and that are inaccessible to talented students from working class and low-income households should face consequences, like losing their charitable tax status

Or, better yet, they should have to pay a fee to participate in the federal student loan program with the funds raised going to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other colleges that actually provide working class and low-incomes students access to higher education. 

For too long, elite higher education has been an accountability-free zone. With a juicy scandal, a host of presidential candidates who want working class votes, a rewrite of the Higher Education Act pending in Congress, and anti-affirmative action cases involving Harvard and The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in the courts, the time is right to dismantle these systemic preferences that undermine diversity, fairness and the American dream. 

Shavar Jeffries is president of Education Reform Now. Previously, he led the New Jersey Attorney General’s Juvenile Justice and Civil Rights Departments, and was an associate professor of law at Seton Hall. Find him on Twitter @shavarjeffries.