Photo and edible USC art by Mish Sukharev, Flickr CC.

Varsity Blues and Lawsuits, Too

A seemingly continuous stream of news about college admissions has flowed across the airwaves in the past several months. Multiple lawsuits against race-conscious admissions policies (referred to as affirmative action) have been levied at Yale and the Universities of California and North Carolina, while one such lawsuit was argued in a Boston court room this past fall in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University. Then came a mind-blowing scandal called “Operation Varsity Blues” in March featuring mostly white, wealthy families including celebrities bribing college coaches and officials to get their children into highly selective colleges, and even paying for higher test scores and changing their child’s race or ethnicity to try and gain additional advantages in the college admissions process. People soon found themselves asking “How could Aunt Becky do it?” That is, how could Lori Loughlin of Full House fame, and other families in privileged positions, try and game a seemingly meritocratic system where the best and the brightest supposedly reach the most prestigious institutions in all the land. However, there is more to consider beyond the scandals and lawsuits. The contributors to this symposium dive into many of the issues underlying a system of inequality in higher education hiding behind the headlines.

– Rashawn Ray, Fabio Rojas, and Carson Byrd

  1. It’s All Part of the Plan Nolan L. Cabrera
  2. When a Test Supports Myths about Racial Inequality Janelle Wong and W. Carson Byrd
  3. Inequality Beyond Varsity Blues Julie J. Park
  4. Low-income, First-Gen, Working Class Students and Left Out of the Admissions Scandal (and Many Elite Colleges) Elizabeth M. Lee
  5. Too Much Selectivity, Too Little Equity Sarah M. Ovink
  6. Rethinking Institutional Priorities and Radical Change in Admissions after #AuntBeckyGate OiYan Poon
  7. Curbing the Higher Education Hierarchy Natasha K. Warikoo
  8. It’s Not Either-Or, It’s Both-And: Or Why We Need Race and Class In College Admissions W. Carson Byrd

It’s All Part of the Plan

by Nolan L. Cabrera

“Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan.’ Even if the plan is horrifying!”
-Joker, The Dark Knight

At this point, you would have to be living under a rock to not hear about the “Varsity Blues” scandal where extremely affluent parents spent millions of dollars to secure their children spots at some of the most elite universities in the country. There was justifiable public outrage at these already privileged families essentially buying spots at selective institutions of higher education boasting of educating the smartest and most talented students. This is higher education’s dirty little secret: wealthy parents have bought their children’s entrance into elite higher education for years. However, because it’s part of the system (or “the plan”), there is no public outrage. Let’s consider a few ways money can buy access to better education.

The tests may be standardized, but the prep for those exams is not. Photo by Thomas Galvez, Flickr CC
The tests may be standardized, but the prep for those exams is not. Photo by Thomas Galvez, Flickr CC

While it is outrageous that people in the Varsity Blues scandal paid people to take the SATs for their children, why is there not an equal amount of outrage for SAT prep courses? In reality, only wealthy parents can afford these for their children as demonstrated by the Princeton Review’s “1400+” class which guarantees a score of over 1,400 if you can afford $1,449. If these tests are actually a measure of aptitude as the “A” in “SAT” explicitly states, then you should not be able to buy your way into a higher score. That’s the problem with these standardized tests. To paraphrase Lani Guinier in The Tyranny of Meritocracy, they are a better predictor of whether or not you were born White and affluent than of future college success.

Privilege compounding privilege is also present in the continuous all-out assault on public education. Consider local property taxes funding public schools. It is not surprising that affluent people tend to congregate among other affluent people, creating a higher tax base which concentrates a disproportionate amount of educational resources among the already privileged. This is more than simply a class issue, but a racial one as well. The massive racial wealth inequalities (not to be confused with income), coupled with the persistence of discriminatory lending practices, mean these areas are structured to not only be affluent but also largely White.

While a number of contemporary educational reforms have been proposed to address expansive educational inequality in our communities, many are particularly regressive. The promotion of “choice” via vouchers and charter schools has not led to meaningful growth in student learning. According to research from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, there was one consistent impact of these initiatives: increasing racial segregation of high schools. This is, in part, because not all people have the ability to take advantage of these “choices” and that ability largely maps on to being White and upper income.

Some might ask, what about the massive amount of outreach that colleges do on a regular basis? Couldn’t that help alleviate some of these disparities in access to higher education, especially among highly selective colleges? The short answer is not only a resounding ‘no,’ but these outreach efforts end up reproducing inequality. New research by Ozan Jaquette and Karina Salazar shows that public universities tend to dedicate their outreach resources in communities that are largely White and affluent. Therefore, not only does the ability to buy into the right neighborhood increase the educational resources available to individual students, but this in turn dedicates a disproportionate amount of recruitment attention on students from these districts independent of their academics.

One last way money buys access to better education exists in the admission process itself at many colleges across the country. Race-conscious policies known as “affirmative action” receives a great deal of attention as being “unfair,” in particular to White applicants but now it has expanded to include some Asian Americans. Noticeably absent from this equation is the issue of legacy admissions, whereby children of alumni at selective institutions of higher education have significantly higher chances of gaining admissions than their non-legacy peers. Legacy admissions was not challenged by people like Bakke, Hopwood, Grutter, Gratz, or Fisher as being “unfair” in admissions processes when they filed lawsuits against colleges for discrimination – in large part because it is part of “the plan” that affluent White folk will have offspring who will grow up to be affluent White folk. Again, this legacy status maps strongly onto being White and affluent given the history of racial exclusion at institutions, and it has nothing to do with individual “merit.” It’s impossible to be considered a possible legacy admit if your parents were never allowed to enroll in the past.

This is not to specifically demonize people who have the disposable income necessary to invest hundreds of thousands (sometimes millions) so that their children will have competitive advantages in the college admissions process. As a recent survey found, people in general and parents in particular think college admissions is rigged for the wealthy, and many would pay to give their children advantages if they could. The point here is to disrupt the narrative that those who got into Harvard are in some way more deserving, more meritorious, than the rest of the applicants. Rather, they were the lucky ones who were set up to succeed because it was “all part of the plan.” This is where the true Varsity Blues scandal is – the structured exclusion of People of Color, particularly low-income families, from these higher education spaces. The system was set up to favor those who already benefit from the system. Varsity Blues may have been a particularly egregious example, but please don’t get it twisted, it is more common than not for parents of means to buy their children’s way into Harvard. We just don’t talk about it because it’s seen as normal – all part of “the plan.”

When a Test Supports Myths about Racial Inequality

by Janelle Wong and W. Carson Byrd

College admissions season is upon us once again. Hundreds of thousands of students are making decisions against the backdrop of a major scandal in which wealthy parents have been indicted by Department of Justice officials for engaging in a multimillion dollar effort involving bribery and fraud to ensure that their children get into highly selective institutions like Yale and the University of Southern California, among others.  While the headlines have focused on sensational aspects of the case, such as bribing coaches to list their children as ‘athletes’ when they are not and even changing their child’s racial or ethnic identification, the charges also provoke outrage because of the blatant ways in which parents tried to game the system using wealth and influence. These parents broke the rules that students should be admitted based on their merits and future prospects echoing the myth of meritocracy. But, the rules and criteria around college admissions aren’t really fair to begin with, particularly at highly selective colleges.

Despite the fact that nearly 80 percent of all college students attend institutions that accept at least half of all applicants every year, the focus on the recent admissions scandal has brought new attention to parents “buying” access to higher education for their children. The effects of accumulated wealth as a factor in admissions through legacy status and family donations are well-documented. But beyond these obvious examples of intergenerational transmission of advantage, it’s important to examine how other factors in the admission process lead to the hoarding of advantages based on class and race when it comes to the benefits of higher education. Here, we briefly touch on how an admissions test can reinforce myths about individual and group merit, as well as further reinforce very narrow views about why racial inequality continues to persist today.

Standardized test scores continue to be the most common elements of the college admissions process, although a growing movement to go test optional at places like the University of Chicago questions the use of these tests. The great appeal of tests like the SAT and ACT is that they allow for easy comparisons across a great number of applicants who take versions of these tests around the same time. But studies show that college admissions tests are relatively weak predictors of college success compared to high school grade point average (GPA). Even research by the organization that provides the SAT to hundreds of thousands of students, the College Board, shows this to be the case. Moreover, one could argue that college entrance exams like the SAT are a better predictor of parents’ income and education than student outcomes. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Asian Americans, a group characterized by the highest average income and education in the nation, also demonstrates the highest average scores on standardized tests.  That resources matter more than race is underscored by the fact that lower-income Asian American groups such as Cambodians and Hmongs do not achieve high standardized test scores on average. The validity of college admissions exams is further undermined by recent research showing that their predictive power varies widely by gender, racial group, and college or university.

Further, racial disparities affect the way that standardized test questions are developed in the first place. According to test expert Jay Rosner:

“Each individual SAT question ETS [Educational Testing Service] chooses is required to parallel the outcomes of the test overall. So, if high-scoring test-takers – who are more likely to be white (and male, and wealthy)—tend to answer the question correctly in pretesting, it’s a worthy SAT question; if not, it’s thrown out. Race and ethnicity are not considered explicitly, but racially disparate scores drive question selection, which in turn reproduces racially disparate test results in an internally reinforcing cycle.”

The point is that college admissions exam scores do not provide accurate or fair information when it comes to college applications. Instead, they lead to advantage that shores up existing wealth and racial inequalities in the U.S.

What happens when people do believe these tests are true, objective measures of academic merit?

You can bring a calculator, #2 pencils, and a lifetime of privilege into your exam. Photo by Ben Chun, Flickr CC
You can bring a calculator, #2 pencils, and a lifetime of privilege into your exam. Photo by Ben Chun, Flickr CC

First, people too often take test-score gaps between different racial groups to mean that white and Asian students are simply smarter than black and Latinx students. These conclusions not only ignore that standardized tests constitute relatively poor tools for measuring aptitude, they also ignore systematic differences in opportunity among different racial groups. They suggest a dangerous willingness to accept the idea that there are innate differences between racial groups in terms of intelligence or work ethic.  And opportunity differences are stark. Asian American and white students are much more likely to have access to high performing schools than black and Latinx students. For example, a 2016 study found that even in similarly poor school districts, those with a greater proportion of white students received higher levels of state funding. Asian American students, on the whole, are much more likely than black and Latinx students to live in places characterized by high property values and high-performing schools.  But among Asian groups that do not live near these schools, academic performance is lower than average.

Misguided conclusions about test scores reflect and reinforce biases that researchers have uncovered in other aspects of the educational system, such as grades. Scholarship on implicit bias shows that teachers have higher expectations for white and Asian Americans students than for black and Latinx students.  A study of more than 10,000 high school sophomores and their teachers found that math and English teachers dramatically underestimated the academic abilities of black and Latinx students with similar test scores and homework completion as their white peers, and that these lower expectations affected student outcomes. With differing expectations combining with the misuse of school policies, white parents are able to hoard opportunities for their children, and reinforce the segregated academic opportunities in even racially diverse schools that lay the foundation for students’ college applications beyond admissions tests.

Further, beliefs that test scores fairly assess intelligence leads many to conclude that certain groups of Asian American students score higher than white students because they value education more or work harder than other students. This fits the myth of Asian Americans as a model minority. However, as Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou painstakingly show, this is far from the case as many Asian Americans’ educational success is not uniform across all families and results from a complicated history and current reality of immigration and other policies. Their research shows that schools and colleges operate as vehicles for both social mobility and inequality as students who do not fit the view that all Asian Americans are successful are cast as racial outliers and failures. Lurking behind this myth is the belief that because Asian Americans as a whole exhibit high levels of economic success, that they do not face discrimination in society.  Recent data from Pew shows that fully 75% of Asian Americans surveyed say they have experienced discrimination or been treated unfairly because of their race. The idea that standardized tests fairly measure intelligence and aptitude fuels the questionable idea that Asian Americans face a higher bar than other groups in term of getting into highly selective colleges and universities. “Someone with lower test scores than me got into my dream school, and I didn’t” is a familiar refrain among some Asian American students. But, as we and others have emphasized in this symposium, test scores are not the strong measure of academic deservingness that many purport them to be.

The fact is standardized tests capture class and racial advantages, and keep paying those advantages forward.  One of the most dangerous aspects of high-stakes testing is that people can use the results to support their beliefs that racial inequality results from a meritocracy where people rise and fall based on their individual efforts and talents. Believing these standardized tests prove intellect means that each entering class can rationalize the underrepresentation of black, Latinx, and Native American students on their own campuses as the result of failure to “hack it.”  That is, standardized tests are seen as a useful tool for sorting students of different talents regardless of race, not a powerful mechanism for accumulating race and class advantages.

As this discussion and the recent college admissions scandal underscores, we as a society have been invested in high-stakes testing toward what is widely seen as the ultimate reward for academic achievement: acceptance to a highly selective college or university like Harvard or Yale.  Parents and students focus on these colleges and universities because they are considered “transformative,” altering the way a student will interact with the world going forward. But, even when college students do interact with peers who are of a different race or ethnicity while they pursue their degrees, these interactions do not mean they will change their minds about why racial inequality exists in higher education or broader society. As Natasha Warikoo’s critical work on how college students connect race, merit, and college admissions in their minds attests, with a standardized test at the forefront of the admissions race, it is quite difficult to get people to fully understand how opportunity and resource gaps can reproduce racial inequality regardless of how hard someone works or smart they may be.

As other contributors to this symposium note, simply because standardized tests are framed as equal opportunity features of the college admissions process does not mean they function that way.  We must question our beliefs about how to gauge merit and who deserves the very best educations before our all of our universities and colleges will be truly transformative for students.

At the "Head of the Charles Regatta," teams from Harvard and other schools row crew. Photo by Christopher Schmidt, Flickr CC.
At the “Head of the Charles Regatta,” an annual crew race that zips past Harvard and Boston University. Photo by Christopher Schmidt, Flickr CC.

Inequality Beyond Varsity Blues

by Julie J. Park

The infamous college admissions scandal “Operation Varsity Blues” seems like a bad made for television movie, perhaps starring Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. The fact that it actually happened is just as shocking, and blows open a door into an entirely different level of corruption and deception in the worlds of admissions and athletics.

As a professor who studies inequality in admissions, I am aware that even apart from the terribleness of “Varsity Blues,” there are numerous deeply unequal, yet technically legal ways that admissions works to advantage the wealthy. Two that have been frequently mentioned in news coverage of the scandal are legacy admissions and preferences given to children of donors. Arguably, both exist in a realm of being less terrible than the outright deception (e.g., paying to have someone correct your child’s SAT scores or photo shopping their head on an athlete’s body) exposed in Varsity Blues—generally, legacy status or donations do not guarantee admission, but both are associated with a higher likelihood of admission—a phenomena which understandably troubles many.

Another area receiving less discussion are the intertwining of race, money, and privilege in athletics. Obviously, athletics has received a lot of attention in the Varsity Blues scandal given that parents literally bought spots on teams for their children (Aunt Becky, how could you!). Never rowed crew or played soccer? No problem, Photoshop to the rescue! Less discussed is how the entire legal operation of preferences given to recruited athletes generally serves to privilege White, wealthy families. The stereotype of athletics is that it’s an on-ramp for African Americans in higher education, but I found that almost 80% of recruited athletes at Harvard are White, and these students receive a notable advantage in admissions. Kirsten Hextrum, an expert on college athletics, notes in her extensive research on the “hidden curriculum” behind athletics how the extensive costs associated with competing at a more elite level greatly privileges middle class and affluent White students.

It’s easy to point the finger at Varsity Blues and be rightfully appalled at the deception that took place. But upper-middle class life is rife with perfectly legal ways that parents work to secure advantages for their children, from paying more money to move into a stronger school district to hiring private tutors or college counselors. In my recent book, Race on Campus: Debunking Myths with Data, I highlight the role of SAT prep and how certain groups—more affluent students and East Asian Americans—tend to benefit disproportionately from these services. At elite private schools, college counselors cultivate personal relationships with admissions staff, creating a pipeline that greatly advantages the wealthy.

All of this to say, even apart from the Varsity Blues scandal, admissions is far from a level playing field. Race-conscious and class-conscious admissions, also known as “holistic review,” are limited but important tools that colleges can use to understand better who a student is and the opportunities that they have received. As I highlight in my book, these tools are especially essential to broadening opportunity for low-income students of color. Given the pending lawsuits at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, one can only hope that the courts will agree.

Photo by College of DuPage, James C. Svehla, Flickr CC
Photo by College of DuPage, James C. Svehla, Flickr CC

Low-income, First-Gen, Working Class Students and Left Out of the Admissions Scandal (and Many Elite Colleges)

by Elizabeth M. Lee

In the United States, we maintain a foundational myth around achievement and education: the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” idea that hard work is what gets you ahead in life and in college admissions. This myth has been exposed both in the recent bribery scandals and also in what is not talked about in affirmative action critiques, namely legacy admissions and how stacked the system is against low-income and many students of color. This myth also allows colleges to appear even-handed in their admissions and allows students who benefit from privilege to not see or acknowledge that privilege; thus, perpetuating the belief that individual hard work (or lack thereof) alone determines our outcomes. Finally, these false beliefs facilitate a denigration of students who fit affirmative action and/or financial aid categories under the pretense that they have not earned their place on campus.

Recent highly-publicized admissions issues obscure the more mundane advantages accruing over time—the ways that students do and do not make it onto a college entrance pathway, and how few resources are available to support low-income, first-generation, and/or working-class (LIFGWC) applicants and most applicants of color. Research shows that selective and highly selective campuses—which have extensive admissions outreach programs of counselors who travel around the US and in some cases internationally—are unlikely to seek students in rural locations and in low-income high schools. As Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery note, this leads to a surplus of high-achieving, low-income high school students who are never considered for admission. In other words, by the time a check has been written or an affirmative action policy designed, many students have long been pushed out of the running simply by who these colleges typically identify as a possible good fit for their campuses.

All of this takes place within the context of meritocracy discourse—i.e., the idea that students get in to college by dint of their own hard work—leaving out the reality that there are more academically qualified applicants than spots available, and the fact that while students admitted to selective and highly selective campuses may indeed have worked hard, it is not only their hard work that has resulted in admission.

What are the implications for the broader higher education system, and for LIFGWC students overall? The stakes for students are clearest when we compare the resources available to them at a highly selective campus versus those available at most public campuses. Public education is underfunded, and universities are no exception. While some flagship campuses have higher budgets than others, many public campuses (and even some private campuses) struggle financially. State financial support provided to campuses is generally decreasing. Federal financial aid programs do not cover much of the cost of education, and most colleges cannot provide additional funds to meet students’ needs. (Indeed, a growing student movement argues that students’ needs are not well calculated even on campuses that do have sufficient funding.)

One answer to this gap is to focus on broadening access to LIFGWC students and to racialized minority students typically underrepresented in selective higher education (Black, Latina/o, Native American, and some Asian American groups). However, the other more foundational answer is to mitigate the gap so that the resources are more equitable. This requires both short and long-term action on the parts of states and the federal government. In the meantime, what should campuses be doing?

My current research examines student activists and, with Janel Benson, intersectional differences among first-generation students along racialized and gender lines. This work suggests campuses need to be much more attentive to students’ needs post-admissions and to be more nuanced in how they support students. Among other things, colleges need to be more attentive to how they talk about issues of merit and deservingness. At many campuses, there are students organizing to tell campuses what they need, and campuses should be responsive to those presentations. Many LIFGWC students and students of color have concerns about more energy spent on showcasing campus diversity and student recruitment than on student support, including mental and emotional health care.

Before getting to that stage, selective and highly selective campuses should open up the pathways leading to college by forming ties with community colleges for transfer agreements and by removing ACT/SAT requirements. Recent data from the Jack Kent Cook Foundation show that community college transfer students perform very well on selective college campuses. This option also allows students to save money, and would catch students who might not have otherwise considered—or even heard of—a selective college that would be a great fit. Removing required standardized tests eliminates a barrier to application for many students, and it’s a barrier that provides problematic data both because these tests reflect educational stratification along race and income lines and because they are not the best predictors of students’ academic potential. Each of these suggestions are actionable within our current system of higher education.

Coming back to the broader philosophical issues, there’s an additional point about power and inequality to be highlighted. The first is that we have a system that sets up some to win and others not to, while telling everyone that it’s about hard work. The second is the laying bare of that myth—the public acknowledgement that there’s another set of people playing outside the already-rigged system. At Ohio University, a public campus in Appalachian Ohio, I teach a masters course on social inequality. One conversation that comes up every year is whether it is better to know that the deck is stacked against you—that the institutions shaping your life, including schools and government, are not built to support you—or to believe that you can work hard and surpass challenging circumstances. It’s a tough question, and it’s at the heart of this second issue. The message is that no matter how hard you work within the system, there is someone working to change that system out from under you in order to maintain their privilege, or skirting the system altogether by writing a check. That’s a terrible message for students, though perhaps one that is not as surprising for LIFGWC students and students of color as it is for White and middle- or upper-class students and observers. People do work hard and beat the system–there are many, many success stories. But ultimately, you shouldn’t need to beat the system: the system should be working for each of us.

Too Much Selectivity, Too Little Equity

by Sarah M. Ovink

As a sociologist who studies and teaches education, race/ethnicity, and diversity at a public university, I like to comb the New York Times for juicy discussion topics most mornings. On March 12th, 2019, the Times did not disappoint: “Actresses, Business Leaders, and Other Wealthy Parents Charged in U.S. College Entry Fraud,” the headline hollered. After discussing racial/ethnicity in the workplace, I asked my students to reflect on implications for racial inequality given the findings of Operation Varsity Blues. I also gave students an opportunity to vent. “What thoughts did the scandal bring up for you?” I asked. My students are smart, they are hard workers, and their wrath practically jumped off the page: “I think this is the dumbest thing,” a young white woman wrote (underline in original response), adding, “Rich white celebrities…are selfish to think that their needs are more important…including minorities who would benefit more from higher education.” She’s not wrong. As Jennie Brand and Yu Xie pointed out in 2010, “individuals who are least likely to obtain a college education benefit the most from college.” As college becomes increasingly necessary for securing a job, the obstacle course facing the “least likely” students on the way to their diploma is increasingly difficult.

My students know that “least likely” college graduates include not only historically underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, but also low-income students, and those who are first in their families to attend college. Students fitting these categories are less likely to benefit from the kind of intensive grooming luridly displayed by privileged “snowplow” parents profiled in the Times. “I was not accepted to VT on my first try,” one of my students wrote. “I had to go to another college, bring up my grades, and transfer in…so this scandal annoys me so much.” Another student lamented, “I followed the transfer rules to a T and was still denied before I appealed it.” The scandal, he argued, “will make it harder for students who follow the process to be accepted,” because “stricter admissions will be implemented” to thwart would-be cheaters.

And therein lies the crux of one of the problems of the intensive coverage: there’s too much hand-wringing over the cheating tactics of the “winners,” and too little discussion over how to provide a leg up for students left out of the game entirely. Out of 39 articles the Times has published between March 12th and April 19th, just one headlines racial disparities in college admissions. One more profiles class inequities at the University of Southern California. Most focus on the perpetrators, the plush world of college consulting, and what elite colleges are doing to address blows to their prestige. A whopping 20%—eight articles—mention Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin, or both by name. Thus, as with Abigail “Becky with the bad grades” Fisher, high-profile, privileged white women become the focus of inquiries into fairness in college admissions. Our attention is pointed toward watching out for the bad apples, but not watching over those whose potential never got the chance to bear fruit. The Times fails to profile an obvious potential solution, leaving it to Monique Judge, writing for The Root, to spell out how we might correct a game that was always crooked: “White privilege, systemic and institutionalized racism and nepotism are some of the biggest advantages that white students have when applying for college… all affirmative action does is level the playing field.” Could affirmative action prevent the wealthy from taking two bites of the apple? Maybe not, but it could at least preserve a slice for those who are truly hungry.

We could also ask why it’s still acceptable that many of my students are working 30 hours per week while overloading on classes, desperate to finish as soon as possible. We could ask, how can we expect that student-athletes, even in lower-earning sports like women’s softball, put in 40+ hours per week of practice just to stay in school, loading up on online classes (which all my students hate) in vain hope of managing an impossible schedule? Instead, we’re rubbernecking Olivia Jade “I don’t care about school” Giannulli’s Instagram and mining Felicity Huffman’s hastily pulled parenting blog for hypocritical gems. We’re telling hard-luck students that they’re learning an important lesson in grit, and that paying student-athletes would spoil their love of the game. We’re busy trying to have it both ways.

What’s more, we place too much focus on elite institutions, which enroll a tiny fraction of the college-going population. “Shut up about Harvard,” groused Ben Casselman in 2016, pointing out that according to the Department of Education, just four percent of U.S. undergraduates attend selective institutions, and less than one percent attend so-called “highly selective” institutions like those named in the scandal. The vast majority of U.S. students attend universities that admit over 50% of applicants. Many begin at two-year colleges. These broad-focused institutions are the backbone of U.S. higher education, and they are scandalously underfunded as compared to previous generations. Whereas it was once was possible to “work your way through college,” most four-year institutions today are so expensive that students would need to be employed at least 48 hours per week to do so. Restoring state funding to 1970s levels would immediately take the burden off a large proportion of students and families, making broad-access institutions truly accessible.

Finally, we focus too much on college admissions processes. As I wrote in 2016, institutions like University of California-Berkeley regularly receive more than 80,000 applications for just 13,000 first-time, first-year spots. It’s ridiculous to pretend that we can create meaningful metrics to choose among such a large pool of virtually indistinguishable applicants. I advocate that we take seriously the suggestion, put forward in 2005 by Barry Schwartz, that colleges incorporate a lottery system to choose among their “good enough” applicants. The lottery idea is gaining traction in the wake of Operation Varsity Blues, with the backing of both the director of education policy at conservative American Enterprise Institute and progressive think tank New America. It’s only a matter of time before multiple Democratic presidential hopefuls roll out lottery admissions as part of their 2020 platforms. Although I’m pessimistic about the chances these solutions will be implemented in the near future, I’m optimistic enough to believe that the outcry over Operation Varsity Blues might at least earn these tactics the airtime and public debate they deserve.

Rethinking Institutional Priorities and Radical Change in Admissions after #AuntBeckyGate

by OiYan Poon

I once read an application for doctoral admission in which the personal statement was barely comprehensible, and the materials generally did not meet the criteria for selection. It was an easy rejection until I realized that the university president had written a letter making it clear that admitting this applicant was an “institutional priority.” My colleagues and I discussed the file at length, and decided it would be politically wise to invite the applicant to participate in the interview stage, where it became clear that we could not admit this applicant without displacing another more qualified student. In rejecting this applicant, we chose to maintain our program’s integrity and academic goals, which were incompatible with a stated “institutional priority.” Although multiple and competing goals are common in higher education, and graduate admissions is different from undergraduate admissions, Operation Varsity Blues spotlighted the deeply unequal system of selective college access. It has also opened an opportunity for enrollment management leaders and scholars to radically re-envision and reinvent college access structures to center public interests.

Overhauling admissions systems rooted in compounding privilege will mean getting creative and thinking beyond the current system. Photo by VIA Agency, Flickr CC.
Overhauling admissions systems rooted in compounding privilege will mean getting creative and thinking beyond the current system. Photo by VIA Agency, Flickr CC.

Even without cheating, bribery, and money laundering, the children of #AuntBeckyGate had already won the lottery of privilege at birth. Economic class and white privilege are built into the system of college attendance and completion, making it much more difficult for working class students and students of color to gain access to selective colleges. The persistence of segregated and unequal K-12 schools, racial disparities baked into educationally meaningless tests often required by selective colleges, a growing college affordability crisis, and continuing public divestment from higher education are just a few ways higher education systemically makes a college degree a distant dream for too many.

Wealthy white applicants are also privileged in an admissions system serving a range of “institutional priorities,” which include building cohorts of students with diverse characteristics including athletic talents, legacy and donor links, and the most significant priority–helping to meet the bottom line of institutional budgets. According to data from the NCAA, approximately 70% of all student-athletes are white. Elite colleges often advantage children of alumni, who are overwhelmingly white due to longstanding segregation in higher education. The mostly white children of donors also often receive extra considerations in admissions. Finally, the continuing decline in public funding for higher education means that most colleges generally must balance their financial statements and admissions decisions between students who require financial aid and those who can pay full tuition.

These systemic privileges were not enough for the Operation Varsity Blues parents, who wanted the social bragging rights of having their children enrolled at brand name schools. They missed the point that college should be a place of education and student development. They cheated on tests and bribed coaches to vouch for their children as recruited athletes, going through a “side door” to purchase yet another commodity for their portfolios. Learning is secondary in the process of opportunity hoarding. The real admissions scandal is that the college access system has always been rigged against those who are not rich and white.

#AuntBeckyGate further highlights the necessity of race-conscious admissions to give students of color, who face and overcome daunting systemic odds, some affirmation that their human dignity will be acknowledged. To be sure, some have argued that this scandal reveals how admissions for athletes and the wealthy represent “affirmative action for the rich.” This is a false comparison. While team coaches each have quotas for recruited athletes, it has been illegal to practice racial quotas since the 1978 Bakke Supreme Court ruling. Race cannot be the determining factor in any admissions decision, in light of the Grutter (2003), Gratz (2003), and Fisher (2016) Supreme Court rulings. Moreover, affirmative action advances ideals of racial equity, acknowledging that racism creates social injustices.

In harsh light of #AuntBeckyGate, we should abolish selective college admissions, as we know it, and generate new ideas to re-center the public interest educational purposes of higher education. Some have suggested the idea of a college admissions lottery. Let’s think farther outside the box. Instead of a decentralized system where colleges compete and recruit applicants to reject more students than they have space for, let’s re-center the goals of education and recognize that students bring diverse educational needs and interests that can be best nurtured at any number of high quality colleges regardless of prestige ranking. Institutional prestige, merit, and “dream schools” are all socially constructed concepts – myths of a nauseating system of hyper-competition – that have no grounding in the purposes of education (i.e., inquiry, teaching and learning).

One idea to revisit is Jon Boeckenstedt’s idea of a national clearinghouse. An independent national clearinghouse could serve as a third party matchmaker between students and colleges. For college matching, a clearinghouse could collect:

  • Longitudinal data (beyond just test scores) on students, their schools and community contexts for evaluation starting in elementary school, and
  • Assessments of participating institutions to understand institutional offerings in curriculum, support services, co-curricular student development opportunities, and climate.

A clearinghouse could be a one-stop shop for prospective students to learn about the many types of college opportunities available, take assessments on academic and vocational interests, and participate in college counseling services for self-reflection. To start the matching process, students would send in personal reflections on their educational identities, goals and interests to the clearinghouse, how far they would be willing to go away for college, and financial information. Based on longitudinal student data and campus assessments, the clearinghouse would provide 2 to 5 choices for each student. The process could prioritize matchmaking between assessed student educational interests, not brand name desires, and institutional offerings. Students would no longer apply to specific colleges or be rejected. A clearinghouse could even disrupt prestige rankings schemes.

I recognize that this matchmaking-clearinghouse process does not address underlying structural inequalities across institutions and funding in higher education. However, it offers one idea that opens up space to generate possibilities for reinventing higher education. A radical rethinking of college access and equity requires a field-wide, critical examination of institutional priorities.

Higher education is so stratified in the United States that it is hard to think about struggling community colleges and other low-ranked four-year colleges as being in the same category as Harvard and Stanford. Photo by Shelby L. Bell, Flickr CC.
Higher education is so stratified in the United States that it is hard to think about struggling community colleges and other low-ranked four-year colleges as being in the same category as Harvard and Stanford. Photo by Shelby L. Bell, Flickr CC.

Curbing the Higher Education Hierarchy

by Natasha K. Warikoo

In the week after Operation Varsity Blues erupted, I had more calls from the media than in any other week of my career. I felt baffled. Britain was about to fall apart because Theresa May’s second Brexit deal did not pass a vote in the British Parliament. The Mueller Report summary was about to land. A second Boeing 737 Max jet had just crashed. And yet, there were the faces of Lori Loughlin, her husband, and Felicity Huffman pictured on the cover of the New York Times. Weeks later, with every new development, I continue to hear from more media outlets, not to mention my non-academic friends texting me with glee about the downfall of some in the 1%. The same was true last fall when the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard admissions trial began. When well over three quarters of undergraduates attend colleges that are not highly selective (i.e., they accept more than half of their applicants), why such obsession with the small set of colleges that are so difficult to get into?

In a nutshell, because Americans are obsessed with status and hierarchy, which leads to devotion to meritocracy. Higher education is so stratified in the United States that it is hard to think about struggling community colleges and other low-ranked four-year colleges as being in the same category as Harvard and Stanford, which raised over fifteen billion dollars in their recent capital campaigns. In other wealthy countries the difference between a degree from a top university to a lower-ranked one is not nearly as large.

Beyond the spread of colleges, income inequality in the United States surpasses inequality in all other OECD countries. That high level of stratification seems to compel elites to work harder and harder to protect their and their children’s social position—if the difference between life in the upper middle class and the lower middle class is so vast (let alone the gap between life as working class or poor and upper class), then it can feel even more urgent to elites that they pass down their status over generations. But how to do so in a country that places so much faith in equal opportunity for all?

They do so through the education system. As Bourdieu observed many decades ago, the education system is a key site through which meritocracy is legitimated while simultaneously status is reproduced. That is, education serves as a foil for our beliefs in equal opportunity. If Bourdieu were alive today, he probably would suggest that the underrepresentation of working class, poor, black, Latino, and Native American students on elite college campuses is not a coincidence—rather, the supposedly meritocratic system of admissions ensures the overrepresentation of students with privilege.

Still, admission to elite colleges can feel less secure to elites today compared to in the past for a few reasons. First, elite colleges have not increased their cohort sizes in proportion to the growing number of 18 year-olds entering college in recent decades. Second, more disadvantaged students are applying to elite colleges than in the past, again widening the pool of applicants for a fixed number of spots. Third, more international students are applying to study in the United States, and the ability of many of them to pay full tuition and to signal a global mindset are attractive to colleges, so their percentages have increased over time, also widening the pool.

So what do elites do when they perceive their ability to pass down privilege to their children via elite higher education to be under threat? Mary Jackman tells us that they will cling ever so tightly to their status position, and this is what we are witnessing today. The upper-middle class observes with disdain when the 1% is caught abusing their privileges in the college cheating scandal. At the same time, they themselves continue to enjoy the privileges of living in affluent neighborhoods where a rich tax base funds excellent schools. They also provide every advantage they can to their children to achieve ever-higher levels of academic and extracurricular achievement, including private tutors, SAT prep classes, private music lessons, and summer camps designed to connect athletes to college scouts. Their faith in the supposed meritocracy of college admissions allows them a sense of security in their legitimate reproduction of status, in contrast to the few uber-elites who broke the law.

Given this system of status reproduction, a real solution to the ongoing elite college admissions controversies would mean focusing energies not on double and triple checking the athletic recruits and coaches, but instead on attenuating the hierarchy of universities in the United States that fuels the obsession with elites in the first place. I have two proposals for doing so.

First, an admissions lottery. I have elaborated this idea in my book The Diversity Bargain and elsewhere, so here I will simply make one point. Some form of explicit, stated randomness built into the admissions system would change the meaning of being admitted to top colleges. In other words, it would crack the ideology of meritocracy, which would make more room for the recognition of excellence beyond top colleges.

Second, elite colleges should support colleges serving more disadvantaged students overall, to flatten the status hierarchy of colleges at least a tiny bit. One way to do this would be to commit to donating a certain percentage of funds raised to other, more struggling universities that serve less-privileged student populations. Colleges with healthy endowments could, for example, have a policy that 10 cents from every dollar donated to the college would go to a different college, in service of the broader field of higher education. In this case, with every major donation there would also be a plan for serving lower-status universities.

Finally, we sociologists should consider how we, too, are implicated in the higher education status hierarchy and faith in meritocracy. We know that jobs at higher-status universities entail more resources, less teaching commitments, and overall more opportunities to conduct excellent research. To what extent does this status hierarchy enable us as a field to build the broadest, deepest understanding of society, and to what extent does that hierarchy constrain our efforts as a field? Would less differentiation between jobs at different kinds of universities produce more insightful sociology? If the answer is ‘yes,’ which I suspect may be the case for some readers (including some in high-status places), then we need to do some serious thinking at our meetings of the American Sociological Association and beyond about how to reduce the inequality in our profession and enable a richer understanding of society. This might mean that senior faculty deliberately ‘sponsor’ junior faculty at universities with lower status than their own, and that as a field we focus less on evaluation and more on collaboration and learning together. After all, this is what brought many of us to sociology in the first place. Have we lost our way?

It’s Not Either-Or, It’s Both-And: Or Why We Need Race and Class In College Admissions

by W. Carson Byrd

The college admissions news is rife with cracks about celebrities bribing sailing coaches, gaining additional testing time and accommodations based on falsified learning disabilities, and many other appalling acts of deceit and fraud. Although people are now calling for reforms on legacy admissions of alumni children as well as the admissions preferences of children of donors, these critiques pale in comparison to the decades-long attack on considering race in college admissions. Perhaps one of the more pernicious arguments amplified by the Varsity Blues scandal and recent affirmative action lawsuits against Harvard, Yale, the University of California, and the University of North Carolina is that we must turn to completely colorblind, race-neutral admissions policies and promote socioeconomic or class-based policies given the contentious political terrain in attempts to be “less divisive.” As the argument goes, by focusing on the socioeconomic status of applicants we can achieve comparable levels of racial and ethnic diversity in selective college admissions without touching the “third rail” of race in public and political debate. Two immediate issues exist with these arguments.

First, focusing on students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds is not the same as focusing on students of color because being black or Latinx does not mean someone is automatically poor. While there is a large racial gap in socioeconomic positions in the US, we cannot dismiss the range of socioeconomic positions within groups that can influence students’ college preparation and experiences, as Anthony Jack’s important research demonstrates. Focusing solely on socioeconomic position would still benefit white students more than students of color because of the segregation of opportunities and resources in the US, particularly well-funded school options.

Second, when people argue that a class-based approach could achieve comparable or similar levels of racial and ethnic diversity on college campuses, there is an assumption that students of color are not underrepresented on campus in the first place. That is, if we are simply seeking to achieve similar levels of diversity, we must recognize that such goals are not the same as making sure that students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds are fully represented on campus. Particularly at the highly selective colleges that the admissions scandal and lawsuits focus on, racial and ethnic diversity is still lacking in many ways. Also, achieving diversity through college admissions does not mean that colleges have “done their job,” rather they still need to cultivate supportive and inclusive environments for students to pursue their degrees – administrators across the nation need to understand that increasing diversity does not eliminate racism from their campuses.

But, what about class-based affirmative action approaches? What if we gave these policies a chance? Couldn’t these admissions policies reduce social inequalities in some way? The short answer is: yes, but with one important caveat. Research finds race-neutral policies are not the best for ensuring that institutions meet goals of either increased racial or socioeconomic diversity. You need to approach college admissions with a both-and approach: we need to consider both race and class to achieve more racial and socioeconomic diversity. As Sean Reardon and colleagues found, an admissions approach giving significant weight to both race and class results in more socioeconomic diversity than one that relies on class-based approaches alone. Coupling a race-conscious admissions policy would result in twice as many students from the lowest income strata enrolling in an institution than one based on economic-class alone. Reardon and colleagues write that, “In tandem, race and SES-based policies seem to improve both race and SES diversity beyond what is achieved using either plan in isolation.” Although these results are perhaps initially surprising, they underscore the fact that students cannot be reduced to simply race or class; you need to consider both to capture the diversity of lived experiences students bring with them to college. These results directly challenge the contention that colleges and universities can best achieve racial and socioeconomic diversity by considering socioeconomic status alone.

Finally, research also shows it is incorrect to assume that affirmative action policies that consider the racial background of a student advantages one student group over others. When we consider the selective colleges at the center of the scandals and lawsuits, their admissions offices consider a wide range of characteristics about applicants because stellar GPAs and test scores do not make a well-rounded student or future leader. A majority of applicants do have good grades and test scores along with many leadership and service activities, and even overcoming difficult experiences that would warrant almost any college to seriously consider them for admission. This is not restricted to just white students, but holds regardless of the race or ethnicity of students. When using a holistic admissions policy, as supported by both research and Supreme Court decisions over the decades, economist David Card noted in the recent affirmative action trial against Harvard that, among student applicants, “[t]here’s an overwhelmingly abundance of excellence.” Pitting diversity versus merit presents a false dichotomy that promoting diversity through college admissions is incommensurable with the existence of broader notions of what academic excellence is in society. However, we need to remove the assumption that a good grade or test score is an objective measure of merit, and the only ones we must consider.

As more news develops about possible changes in college admissions in light of these scandals and lawsuits, avoiding quick fixes to complex problems is a must as these approaches could amplify and reproduce these inequalities rather than resolve them.

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