When people who seemingly have it all — and their equally advantaged children — are gaming a system that is already set heavily in their favor, it’s easy to become cynical about the college admissions process. Much of what came to light recently was unsurprising to most: Of course, rich, well-connected people have “alternative means” to get their children into top colleges. While the celebrity aspect makes this an attractive news story, we should treat the facts of this case as a symptom of a larger societal problem.
Many familiar with the admissions process are acutely aware of the role that money and power play in elite college admissions. Those with well-connected parents are often given special consideration, even when their credentials fall far below a school’s standards for admission. Sometimes, hefty donations are what tips the scales. In 2015, Michael Lynton, at the time the CEO of Sony Pictures, made a $1 million dollar donation to Brown University. His daughter was later admitted to the class of 2019.
But we know that it’s not only the ultra rich or those willing to break the law who have an advantage in college admissions. Many with the means will do all they can to ensure that their children get into the best college possible. Often, this means spending money on standardized test prep.
Many believe standardized tests, like the SAT, are the enemy to low-income students. And it’s true, the SAT scores for low-income minority children tell an awful story: that generally these students aren’t adequately served by the public school system. However, the SAT also gives low-income students the unique opportunity to directly compete with their affluent counterparts. While they might not be able to compete in expensive extracurriculars, offerings for AP or advanced classes, or other factors of the college application process that are intimately tied to family income, they can perform well on a test that is supposedly confirms their intellectual capabilities.
Performing well on the SAT opens doors to elite colleges, and it is often only the elite schools that are able to offer need-blind admissions and comprehensive financial aid. Low-income students at elite colleges (which tend to have already higher graduation rates) graduate at almost the same rate as affluent students and end up earning almost as much on average as affluent students who attend the same college. There are 29 colleges with graduation rates over 90 percent for black and Latina students. All of them are private, and all of them are highly selective.
What’s the alternative? Low-income students might end up at a decent state school if they’re lucky. The not-so-lucky ones might end up at a predatory for-profit institution that leaves them with crushing debt and, even if they are able to beat the odds and graduate (23 percent graduate at for-profit institutions), a worthless diploma.
Baltimore Polytechnic Institute (Poly), where 59 percent of the student body is eligible to receive Free and Reduced Meals, boasts a 92 percent college acceptance rate. In fact, all of Baltimore’s magnet high schools do a good job of sending low-income students off to college. At Poly, the average SAT score is 1102 (the Baltimore City average is 876; the national average is 1068). Imagine the effects organized test prep could have on these highly capable students.
Now, imagine a world without the SAT. Would students from underfunded public schools even have a chance at gaining admission to elite colleges? Or would all of the spots go to students at elite private schools with decades-long reputations of prestige? The SAT doesn’t level the playing field, but it could, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. We can wait for a meritocratic admissions process (we might be waiting a while) or we can empower Baltimore’s top students and invest in programs that offer pro bono test prep so that they are able to gain the benefits of an elite education.
Ian Siegel is CEO of Streamline Tutors; he can be reached at email@example.com.