The College Admissions Scandal: How Do We Level the Playing Field?

The recent revelations from the FBI concerning the largest college admissions cheating scandal the Bureau has ever prosecuted shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone working in higher education nor to most Black and brown Americans who’ve had to navigate the college admissions process. That the majority of those involved in the scheme that helped underqualified students get admitted into some of the nation’s top schools are wealthy, White elites should be even less shocking. Why? Because the college admissions process has always been rigged to favor the White, wealthy and privileged, while disenfranchising worthy Black and brown applicants who the system was never intended to accommodate.

The student populations at elite U.S. universities don’t reflect the very real racial demographics of America, so for me, it’s clear that the college admissions process is at best flawed, and at worst undeniably biased against students of color, especially the Black and Latinx ones.

Grades and test scores, which admissions officers rely on heavily to assess a student’s academic prowess, are inextricably linked to a student’s family situation and socioeconomic background, especially in school systems where low-income, mostly Black and brown students have fewer libraries and other academic resources. A 2012 study by the Center for American Progress, shockingly revealed “that schools with 90 percent or more students of color spend a full $733 less per student per year than schools with 90 percent or more white students.” These disparities in funding mean students of color are given less challenging curriculum, have less experienced teachers and receive less college prep — which are all needed for students who want to be competitive in the college admissions process.

Students of color are uniquely burdened by social and economic inequality and as a result have fewer opportunities to ascend to the highest levels of education more than 60 years after the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, ruled separate but equal schools unconstitutional.

A lawsuit filed in February revealed that a Vietnamese woman paid an admissions consulting company $1.5 million to coach her daughter through the process of applying to colleges. The arrangement only came to light because the company is suing the woman after she failed to pay the second half of the contract amount. Black families have just $5.04 for every $100 in White family wealth. How can the average Black kid compete in the college admissions process against students whose wealthy parents hire tutors, pay for SAT prep courses and enroll them in private schools with plenty of resources?

Even Black and Latino students who should have better odds of admissions due to their legacy status are at a disadvantage when competing against other applicants for spots at elite universities. For example, as part of the court case Students for Fair Admission, Inc v. Harvard, Duke professor Peter S. Arcidiacono conducted an analysis of Harvard’s admissions data for students from the classes of 2014 through 2019.

Arcidiacono found that at Harvard the preference given to legacy students disproportionately favors White students. According to Arcidiacono’s analysis, more than 21.5 percent of White admitted students were legacy admits compared with only 4.79 percent of African American and 6.96 percent of Hispanic students admitted who had a legacy status. The acceptance rate for legacies at Harvard is over five times that of non-legacy applicants.

So how do we begin to fix an obviously broken system that disenfranchises our Black and brown youth:

1) The opponents of affirmative action can start by acknowledging that students of color earn their spots at elite universities just like other hardworking students and any unfairness in the system exists because wealthy families can still buy their way in.

2) Schools like Harvard, Yale and Princeton need to admit more students. While it pays to be a selective university, it just doesn’t make sense to admit roughly the same number of students each year despite exponential increases in applications and the college age population. To fairly determine who gets in, top schools can initiate a lottery system that draws from all applicants who meet admissions standards. In this way, we eliminate the ability of the wealthy few to use their money as a bargaining chip in the admissions process.

3) We can continue to advocate that reparations be paid to the specific populations that have been disenfranchised as a result of the actions of the U.S. government in perpetuating educational inequality. These groups include the descendants of American slaves and indigenous Americans, among others. Reparations are needed to right the wrongs from years of racism institutionalized by the government, and those reparations must include access to education as a means to finally level the playing field for Black and brown Americans.

— Joy G. Turner (pictured), was a first-generation college student. Today Turner is a private admissions coach and blogger writing about how to make access to college more equitable, especially for Black students. She is the creator of Koodoos — a website and blog that offers expert advice, tips and strategies to help de-mystify the craziness of the college admissions process.

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