Opinion

College admissions scandal sparks national debate over opportunity in education

Wealth gives some students a huge advantage over others during the college admissions process. 

Image By: Jeff Miller

Some students grow up dreaming about how they will spend their college years: studying on the quad, proudly wearing their school colors at football games, and eventually walking across the stage at graduation. They wonder if will they go to college in their hometown, where mom and dad did, or if they will go somewhere out of state. But for many students, these thoughts will remain dreams forever. 

In the United States, we want to believe that we live in a meritocratic society — that any student who works hard can go to college if they want to. Instead, events like the indictment of 33 adults charged with bribery and fraud relating to college admissions force us to confront the uncomfortable truth that no amount of hard work can equal the impact that money and class status have on higher education. 

Varying from thousands to millions of dollars, parents meddled in the college admissions process in order for their children to be admitted into elite universities within the United States, including Yale, Stanford, UCLA and USC. Whether it’s editing photos to make their children look like top athletes or changing SAT/ACT scores, celebrities and wealthy business owners were willing to go as far as it takes to help their children get ahead. 

After the news broke, there was considerable outrage on social media, and for good reason. Americans don’t like cheaters, elitists or criminals, and the people involved in this scheme are all three. 

This scandal is news for a few reasons: one, there are a lot of people involved, two, some of the people involved are celebrities, and three, anywhere laws are broken, there’s news. We are further uncomfortable with this situation because the bribery that took place has a broad effect on others. Somewhere, a student who desperately wanted to attend USC is wondering if they were denied admission because Lori Loughlin’s daughter took their spot instead. And we will never know if that is true. 

The reality is that “cheating the system” of college admissions happens all the time, and since it occurs within the law, we don’t hear about it. 

We have decided as a nation that bribery is wrong and made laws preventing it, but isn’t paying thousands of dollars for an SAT tutor or a private soccer coach the same kind of unfair advantage, accessible only to those with considerable wealth? 

We can hear the criticism already: people are allowed to spend their money as they please. If someone has built a successful life for themselves and they are able to provide their child with services that will help them in the future, and they do so within the law, no one should be able to stop them. And we agree. 

However, if this is what is necessary to go to college, then there is clearly a problem with the education system as a whole. 

Take standardized testing as an example. Scores on college entrance exams demonstrate a student’s ability to take a test more than they demonstrate actual intelligence. The emphasis here should be on standardization — college entrance tests are designed to be equally difficult for all test takers. But using that design also means that the types of questions mostly likely to appear on the test are predictable, making the test easier to beat through tutoring and rigorous preparation. The process becomes less about proving that you can do trigonometry and more about being able to test well.

This is only one of the obstacles that the college admissions process is fraught with, many of which appear insurmountable, scaring some students away before they even have a chance to apply.

The root of the public’s frustration with college admissions fraud stems from the fact that children from wealthy families have automatic access to the best of everything - the best universities, the best connections, the best careers. Coming from a prosperous background paves a path of privilege, that, in cases like the fraud scandal, simultaneously inhibit others from moving upward.

In a country founded on the ideals of social mobility, scandals like these prove once again that measurable discrepancies exist between social classes. It doesn’t matter if students work hard or spend months preparing for admissions testing or even write outstanding personal statements, because in the end, money will always win.

To call education the great equalizer is simply untrue. The system of higher education in America actually perpetuates social inequalities by keeping those that are privileged at the top, and kicking away the ladder for those at the bottom. Wealth is the sole silencer of the populations wishing to prosper. 

Access to education must be reformed. State governments in coordination with the Department of Education must come up with innovative ways to lessen the influence of money on higher education. A college degree is one way of achieving social mobility. It is time we provide this opportunity to all people, not just those coming from a background of privilege.

Kavitha is a sophomore studying sociology and political science. Izzy is a sophomore studying political science. What are your thoughts on the college admissions scandal and the US education system? Send thoughts to opinion@dailycardinal.com.

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