Money Talks: How Wealth Influences College Admissions

By: Hunter Sullivan ’20

Going to college is a dream for many high school students worldwide and they work towards that goal every day in the classroom and out of it. Students spend countless hours on homework, sports, extracurriculars, service, and more in order to make themselves appealing to colleges. They believe that having a degree from a prestigious university is a one-way ticket to a lifetime of success. For some people, just making it to college is enough. They just want to get accepted and find their place somewhere, furthering their education during the time they spend at an institution. For others, they have more choices but are lucky enough to get into a school they love and can afford.

Elite Schools    

However, for a growing number of students, applying to college becomes a game. Due to social media, popular culture, and other outside factors, students are increasingly feeling like they must attend Ivy League schools or “T20” universities (the best twenty schools in the United States usually pulled from U.S. News). This creates a cutthroat culture where many very successful high school students are vying for a very small number of spots. Oftentimes, students are rejected from these elite schools and their self-worth takes a huge hit.

Laura Hall, a Regis Jesuit college counselor hopes that after being rejected, “I’m helping them to find places where they’re going to be challenged, excited, and successful. I want them to feel like they’re part of a community, to feel like they’re part of the life of the school.” Many students end goal is these major, elite schools but Ms. Hall is attempting to show students that there are many other schools that are better fitting for them if they are rejected from these elite ones. The general atmosphere at Regis Jesuit encourages this competitive culture, which can sometimes be debilitating to students. Many students spend hours perfecting their applications, taking on extracurriculars they are not interested in to beef up their applications, and rewriting their essays over and over again. With so many qualified applicants for this prestigious schools, there are many rejections that follow. This does lead to anguish, as some students believe that the rejection nullifies all the work, they have done in high school for the past four years. Ms. Hall and the other college counselors work to show students that they are more than what they say on their college application.

The “T20” schools are widely known by competitive students, including Ivy League schools and major California schools like UCLA and USC. Sometimes, the parents of these competitive students want their child to go to a school more than the child does themselves, with the parents believing that going to a “name-brand” university is the most efficient way to guarantee success. These parents and students believe that these “T20” schools are the end goal and anything less would be insufficient. This is where the discrepancies and corruption come in.

Driven by the ideas that their child has to be at the best school to be the best in their career, a lot of families will do everything they can to ensure their student gets one of the coveted spots at these major schools. This leads to the wealthy having the upper hand, as they have more means to ensure their student gets there. According to a New York Times analysis, “at 38 of the country’s most prestigious colleges, more students come from the top 1% of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60%.” This list of 38 schools was pulled from U.S. News, the same list that is used when students are looking at what a top twenty school is.

This huge margin comes down to mainly one thing, wealth. These upper classes (including Regis Jesuit students) have more access to tutors, test-prep courses, college admissions counselors, and more means to get them ahead academically. Regis Jesuit is lucky enough to have access to great college counselors, but this is not the case for many other schools.

Private vs. Public

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), only 28% of public schools had a college counselor on staff. Public schools are state-funded, which means that they usually do not have enough money to hire these roles. This is another advantage that having money provides, as the NACAC reports that 49% of private schools have counselors. Private schools are paid for by the people who attend that school and Regis Jesuit falls under this umbrella.

Senior Regis Jesuit student Maxine Fuselier saw this unearned advantage when she was applying to colleges earlier this year saying, “coming from an upper-middle-class background has given me an unfair advantage because I was given the opportunity to go to a private school with very good college counseling resources,” furthering the idea that having a college admissions counselor is a huge advantage private school applicants have over public school ones.

By having the money to pay for a private school, families are giving their children advantages that students at public schools simply do not have much access to. There is also a chunk of students remaining without college counselors. This leaves families scrambling for secondary options. The Balance, a website that focuses on the sharing of financial knowledge to the general public reports that an average “college admissions consultant” will charge over $200 an hour. This is a hefty price to pay and is way more than what most tutors charge (averaging between $30 for low end and $85 for high end per Care.com), meaning that most families will opt out of paying this sum, except for the wealthier ones.

One thing that has been changed in response to this advantage of wealthy families is the elimination of standardized test scores as a requirement for applying to a university. An article published online by CBS Denver dug into the new change by Denver University, that they would not require ACT/SAT test scores for admission. In this article, they interviewed Todd Rinehart, the vice chancellor for enrollment at DU. He describes the change by saying, “oftentimes an ACT or SAT score is more reflective of a student’s economic background and the resources of their school, rather than demonstrating the student’s academic abilities and college preparedness.” By eliminating the use of test scores that are heavily catered towards people with money, DU and many other schools are leveling the playing field and giving equal opportunity regardless of economic background.

Legacies

While being the first in a family to go to college is something schools take into account as it is quite the feat, they take more of a look into if a prospective student is a legacy or not. A legacy means that they had a family member, usually a parent or a grandparent, attend the school that they are applying to. For students applying to prestigious schools, this one factor could be what sets them apart and gets them into the school they desire to attend.

An interview in 2015 with ex-Dartmouth admissions counselor Michele Hernandez revealed a startling confirmation about the benefit of being a legacy. Dartmouth is an Ivy league school that ranks twelfth on the U.S. News list of best schools. With an 11% acceptance rate, it is one of the hardest schools to get into in the United States. Hernandez revealed in her interview that when she was on the admissions board, seeing that a student was a legacy gave them a two to four times better chance at getting in. This means that if a student has an 11% chance of getting in on average, this could be skewed up to a 44% chance simply because someone they are related to went there.

On a national scale, the 2018 Survey of College and University Admissions Directors by InsideHigherEd reported that 42% of private universities take legacies into account when reviewing applications while only 6% of public universities take legacies into account. In general, private schools are more expensive than public schools, which further contributes to the growing divide that wealth brings to college admissions.

The people who attended these schools will usually have good salaries, meaning that they then can send their student to the same prestigious university. This creates a cycle that is very hard to break into if one is on the outside trying to get in. The rich stay rich and get all the advantages to ensure their student gets into a school, while the lower classes struggle to meet admissions requirements because they have fewer resources and less opportunity to get into these major schools. The upper classes have unearned advantages that let them have better chances of attending better schools.

The Doheny Memorial Library at the University of Southern California. Photo by Bobak Ha’Eri

College Admissions Bribery Scandal

On March 12, 2019, a report was released to the public that detailed a college admissions bribery scandal where affluent families would pay the organizer, William Rick Singer, or subsidiaries of Singer’s to ensure their child got into a good college. Singer was paid millions by 33 parents to influence their child’s college admissions decisions. Singer executed this operation through many different means. Singer was in operation from roughly 2011-2018 and he got students into schools by having someone smart take their ACT for that student or by making the students appear as athletic recruits. Many of the parents involved have been indicted along with university staff, mainly coaches or athletic directors. The schools involved were mostly Ivy League schools, “T20” schools, or other elite universities.

When asked about her reaction to this scandal Ms. Hall says “I wish I was more surprised, but I wasn’t. I was surprised that it had actually come to the point that it came to and that it was some high-profile people and so widespread.” This scandal was jarring to the general public, but to people in this field, it was something they already thought was happening. In this case, buying admission to a university was a crime, but in many other cases, it is not.

Although paying to get into a university should be illegal, there are instances when it is not. Ms. Hall described a story of when she worked on an admissions board at a university and they were faced with a challenging task. She describes that the applicant had, “Grandpa’s name on a building and then that was a question of what to do, do we owe it to this family to admit this student.” This shows the common problem colleges face with applicants from wealthy families. Sometimes these wealthy families will donate large sums of money as a mean to get their students into school. The issue is that donating is a legal practice, but it should not decide if a student gets into a school. These admissions boards face the challenges of accepting the money and letting the student in, or not admitting the student regardless of how much money their family donates. The unfortunate part is that in a large number of cases, the student whose family donated will usually get in.

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