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Inequity in college admissions is a threat to US prosperity

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At the initial news conference announcing indictments in the Varsity Blues scandal two years ago, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling summed up the case succinctly: “The real victims in this case are the hardworking students” who were displaced in the admissions process by “far less qualified students and their families who simply bought their way in.” 

His comments underscored the broader cultural reality behind the scandal, in which dozens of wealthy families used more than $25 million in bribes to manipulate athletics admissions processes at several elite schools so their children could get unfairly enrolled. 

Netflix’s new documentary about the scandal reopens the wounds of this deceit and greed, but doesn’t confront the systemic problems at the root of this situation. The ongoing pandemic, however, has done that for us. It has shown how much economic inequality stacks the deck against the college dreams of talented low-income students.  

As the CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, an organization of 22,000 admission and counseling professionals, I know all too well that the admissions system favors the wealthy. And that is mostly because of how we fund colleges and universities.  

In 1967, then-newly elected California Gov. Ronald Reagan summed up the approach that has led us to this situation when he said taxpayers should not support “certain intellectual luxuries.” He later announced budget cuts to the University of California, which until then had been not only premiere but free. Across the ensuing decades, as state after state did the same, higher education increasingly has been treated as a private rather than a public good.  

Meanwhile, America has experienced a rise in economic inequality that is far greater even than it was 100 years ago, in its Gilded Age. Now, to balance budgets, schools turn to the wealthy, not only for full-pay enrollment fees for their children but also for philanthropic support. Until we confront how higher education is funded, the admissions system will continue tilting toward the upper-classes and away from highly qualified students from other backgrounds.

The pandemic has starkly shown us why change is needed. Its financial impacts on low-income families have been far worse on average than for other families and as a result college applications across lower-income families have declined dramatically. Without systemic changes, these disparities will continue worsening.

This is not simply students’ personal problem, either. It’s a societal one. College graduates disproportionately boost the tax base, build entrepreneurial enterprises, generate high-income opportunities for other works, serve in community leadership and contribute to family stability.  

In short, America’s long-term economic prosperity requires a comprehensive transformation in our national approach to higher education. As during other times of technological and social upheaval that have transformed admissions processes, the time for institutions to act is now. Important steps to create this change include:

  •  Funding higher education as a national good. Several Republican and Democratic governors are promising more funding for public colleges, including for historically black colleges and universities, but they have a long way to go to make up for significant cutbacks from the past decade. The nationwide benefits of such an investment require this to become a national priority.
  • Changing the reward system that tells colleges and families what society values about higher education’s work. For example, rankings, like U.S. News and World Report’s and bond ratings like Moody’s should reward institutions for successfully enrolling and graduating talented students the system is currently stacked against.
  • Empowering students. Today, colleges and universities drive the selection process — they buy students’ names from testing companies, flood them with institutional solicitations and make students react to their complex pricing models. Can we create an easy-to-navigate national database that lets students screen for their interests, bring broad national comparisons of attendance costs and — as the Common App does at the application phase — drive student information to schools that should be recruiting them regardless of family economics?

To reverse the growing inequities in college access, we must own up to the public good that higher education is — and surrender the illusion that it simply serves individuals. When we make national needs and individual ability the primary focus, we will redefine college opportunity and the America all its people build. 

Angel Perez is the CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Tags Academia College admissions bribery scandal Education Issues in higher education in the United States Netflix Operation Varsity Blues University and college admissions

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