The immorality of college admissions

Wealth is the overriding factor for college admissions, making a farce of institutions that boast of diversity.

"True merit cannot be bought - and admission should not be either," writes Kendzior [AP]

On October 6, New York magazine published an article on the demise of “ethical parenting”. A new generation of parents were encouraging cheating, doing their children’s homework, bribing powerful officials, and sabotaging their children’s rivals.

“Parenthood means you cannot possibly behave as though society’s rules and norms apply equally to all,” writes the author, Lisa Miller. She describes a social order where the ends are believed to justify the means, regardless of who gets hurt. Miller attributes the rise of unethical parenting to a declining economy: “The accoutrements of middle-class stability and comfort feel like they’re slipping away, even to those of us living smack in the middle of them.”

What Miller never explicitly says is that every act of lying, cheating and cruelty she describes is directed at one goal: Getting a child into a prestigious college. Nothing else drives the immoral behaviour depicted, making one wonder – is it the parents who are unethical? Or is it higher education itself?

Miller’s article is one of many trend pieces showcasing how parents sacrifice both their integrity and their bank accounts in the quest for college admission. The New York Times alone has run dozens of articles on high schools that cost $40,000 per year, preschools that cost $43,000 per year, and SAT tutors who charge $35,000 per student.

The luxurious world depicted in these articles is unfamiliar to the average American family, which makes $52,000 per year. One might wonder why the struggles of wealthy parents are covered so closely when they represent such a tiny percent of the population. That is, until you look at who comprises the entering classes of America’s “need-blind” universities.

Students who shell out for exotic volunteer trips abroad compete with students of what C Z Nnaemeka termed “the unexotic underclass” – the poor who have “the misfortune of being insufficiently interesting”, the poor who make up most of the US today.

Faux diversity

“Diversity” is a cherished value of American schools – so long as that diversity does not include students whose families earn less than the tuition fee. Elite universities favour those willing to pay to play – and play again until they win.

Only 3.8 percent of American families make more than $200,000 per year. But at Harvard University, 45.6 percent of incoming freshman come from families making $200,000 or more. A mere 4 percent of Harvard students come from a family in the bottom quintile of US incomes, and only 17.8 percent come from the bottom three quintiles.

“We admit students without any regard for financial need – a policy we call ‘need-blind admission’,” Harvard’s website proudly proclaims. Harvard charges $54,496 per year for tuition, room and board, but waives the fees for families making less than $60,000 per year.

This would be a laudable policy were Harvard admitting low-income students in any significant numbers, but they are not. Instead, they fill their ranks with the children of the elite portrayed in Miller’s article – elites who drop hundreds of thousands of dollars on private schools, exorbitant “enrichment” activities, and personal tutors that almost no Americans can afford.

Harvard’s admission is “need-blind” only in that it turns a blind eye to actual need. Like many universities, it increases its number of aid recipients by inflating its price tag. With tuition higher than the median US household income, students from families making $200,000 are now deemed poor enough to qualify for financial aid.

“You can afford Harvard,” the admissions site boasts, noting that 70 percent of students receive assistance. They neglect to mention that this 70 percent represents some of the wealthiest people in the country.

This is not to say that a family making $100,000 or even $200,000 does not merit financial aid to attend Harvard. They do, but only because Harvard charges obscenely high tuition, despite having an endowment of over $30 billion. Their price tag functions as a social signifier and a “go away” sign, a sticker designed to shock – and deter.

Harvard is but one of many US universities whose admissions policies ensure that the entering class is comprised of the ruling class. Studies by the New America Foundation note that most merit aid goes to wealthy families, and that “merit aid policy is associated with a decrease in the percentage of low-income and black students, particularly at the more selective institutions.”

While universities like Harvard keep out the poor by redefining wealth as poverty, others practice more blatant discrimination. At George Washington University, students who cannot pay full tuition are put on a waitlist while wealthier students are let in. In 2012, less than 1 percent of waitlisted students were admitted.

Like Harvard, George Washington had advertised itself as “need-blind” until revelations of its admissions process came to light. It now defines itself as “need-aware” – a phrase which implies they are aware of need, but seemingly unconcerned with fulfilling it.

Aptitude is a quality measured by how much money you can spend on its continual reassessment.

Wealth as merit

Defenders of elite universities argue that the poor are not a target of discrimination, but are simply less qualified for admission. They point to lower SAT scores, a dearth of extracurricular activities, and lacklustre standards of achievement at impoverished public schools.

What they are defending is a system in which wealth is passed off as merit, in which credentials are not earned but bought. Aptitude is a quality measured by how much money you can spend on its continual reassessment.

Students whose parents pay tens of thousands for SAT tutors to help their child take the test over and over compete against students who struggle to pay the fee to take the test once. Students who spend afternoons on “enrichment” activities compete against students working service jobs to pay bills – jobs which don’t “count” in the admissions process. Students who shell out for exotic volunteer trips abroad compete with students of what C Z Nnaemeka termed “the un-exotic underclass” – the poor who have “the misfortune of being insufficiently interesting”, the poor who make up most of the US today.

For upper class parents, the college admissions process has become a test of loyalty: What will you spend, what values will you compromise, for your child to be accepted? For lower class parents, admissions is a test failed at birth: An absence of wealth guised as a deficiency of merit. In the middle are the students, stranded players in a rigged game.

It does not have to be this way. Imagine a college application system in which applicants could only take standardised tests once. Imagine a system in which young people working jobs to support their families were valued as much as those who travel and “volunteer” on their parents’ dime. Imagine a system in which we valued what a person did with what he had, instead of mistaking a lack of resources for a lack of ability.

Imagine a system in which a child’s future did not rest on his parents’ past.

A higher education system that once promoted social mobility now serves to solidify class barriers. Desperate parents compromise their principles in order to spare their children rejection. But it is the system itself that must be rejected. True merit cannot be bought – and admission should not be either.

Sarah Kendzior is St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.

Follow her on Twitter:  @sarahkendzior