Charlotte Reed '23
The 2019 college admission scandal, “Operation Varsity Blues,” revealed the extent to which people go to obtain admissions to nation’s elite undergraduate institutions and sparked significant debate about wealth, privilege, and access to high-ranking institutions. Rick Singer, the ringleader of the scandal, accepted payments from parents in exchange for inflated standardized test scores and admissions obtained through bribes to college officials. While the Varsity Blues scandal was discovered and brought to light—providing some titillating news fodder as celebrities were caught in the mix—even the resulting legal actions are not a fix for the larger system issue at stake. The truth is that wealth provides an advantage in college admission, predominantly in ways that are legal. While Operation Varsity Blues serves as a scandalous example of how higher education admission practices favor the elite, it should serve as a stark reminder that nothing is equitable about the college admissions process. So, how can we fix this?
To start, schools, especially those who serve students who are underrepresented in higher education, need access to funding to hire more college counselors. Jackson-Reed High School (Wilson) has close to 2000 students and ten counselors, but only one of these counselors specializes in college admissions for Jackson Reed’s nearly 1000 juniors and seniors. Compare this to our NCS counseling system, where one counselor is assigned to approximately 50 juniors and seniors. College counselors can disseminate information about the application process, access to financial support, school options and other college information that not all students have the ability to readily access.
Second, while standardized testing remains a key factor in college admission, we need to include more test and college prep as part of the standard classroom curriculum. While we do not want a system that exclusively “teaches to the test,” we should have a system that offers some core preparation—on testing, college admissions essays, and more—rather than assuming that standard classroom learning is enough to support success. In the current environment, wealthier students can obtain this sort of prep outside of school through private counselors and college preparation programs. This provides an extreme advantage—a student from a less privileged background who is working to support their family simply cannot devote this sort of outside time or money to college preparation.
Third, we need to address the multi-million-dollar standardized testing industry and eliminate standardized testing because of their classist nature. Students pay at least fifty dollars to take each test, and additional testing-related costs arise from transportation, test prep materials, and tutoring. Students with families in higher income brackets can take these tests multiple times to achieve the score they want. Seeking higher scores, these students can pay thousands of dollars for test prep. A study done by the College Board on the effects of family income in relation to SAT scores shows a clear trend: the higher the income, the higher the test score. Although there are some free test prep resources, like Khan Academy, it is still evident that wealthier students who can access more resources perform better on tests, most likely because of private test prep.
It will take changes in private and public schools to combat the inequality in admission to institutions of higher education. Changes that address the disparity resulting from the socioeconomic backgrounds of students and that provide equal conditions for access to counselors, college prep and test prep will not only promote greater economic diversity in college classes but also will level the playing field in college admissions.
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