Rich People Didn’t Break the College Admissions Process: They Just Made it Newsworthy

A couple of days ago the media (along with pretty much every person who considers themselves middle class) got all riled about a group of rich parents, including a couple of notable celebrities, who got caught bribing and cheating and lying their kid’s way into “elite” colleges.

I’ll admit, I did have my own little moment of HELL YEAH watching people whose plastic surgery cost more than my college education get dragged through the mud and fitted for orange jumpsuits. But it was tempered with, “wait, why is this news?”

I mean I don’t think its news to anyone that the super wealthy are paying their way into certain elite schools. Whether it’s endowments or new buildings or fancy galas and celebrity appearances – there are a million legal ways to finagle your precious crotchfruit into college. Which is why I find it particularly perplexing that these rich folks resorted to such pedestrian methods of persuasion like changing test scores and bribing water polo coaches. Just pay for the damn pool, Felicity! It’s cheaper, and tax deductible! 

But what IS interesting to me about this whole debacle is the conversation that it creates around the “fairness” of the college admissions process in general, and the elite college admissions process in particular. It’s easy to delight in the egregious missteps of uber-rich and often-untouchable celebrities, but it takes a much more self-reflective eye to see the numerous ways in which the middle class has bought and paid for their college admissions, too.

Take, for example, the SAT. While you and I may not have the means (or audacity) to pay off test administrators or retain experts to change our answers, consider the sum spent on SAT prep courses, tutoring, and multiple test attempts geared toward improving outcomes. Are these aids legal? They certainly are. But are they fair?

Not if you are a student whose family can’t afford them.

If a person can pay $1600 for a “guaranteed” minimum score – is that not “paying your way” into college, too?

And then there’s the AP (Advanced Placement) courses – an almost expected line item on any elite applicant’s resume – err – transcript. At $94 a pop just to take one test, a roster of AP classes is an expensive proposition for a family that is perhaps already in need of assistance to feed their student lunch.

And then there’s the cello lessons and dance classes and leadership intensives and study abroad. All bought and paid for by middle class parents who, rightfully so, would like to provide their child with a diverse and stimulating extracurricular life – and college application.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I did all that shit, too (minus the SAT classes because I refused, and have the scores to prove it).

But I’m not suggesting that we stop allowing kids to do anything that costs money because it might not be fair. I’m just pointing out that the entire process is inherently not fair. The college admissions process, like so many other avenues to opportunity, was broken long before Lori Loughlin did a shitty job of trying to cheat it.

I’m also suggesting one other thing.

Please stop obsessing about “elite colleges.”

The selectivity of the college you went to says more about how much money and privilege you have than how many brain cells you have and employers know it. That’s not to say that people who go to Harvard aren’t wildly smart, it’s just pointing out that plenty of people who are also wildly smart – didn’t.

So instead of selectivity, let’s change the focus to fit. To educational merit. To teaching styles and course catalogs and how good the food is in the caf.

If we can flip the script on what makes some colleges bumper sticker worthy and others not – than the need to “pay your way in” anywhere would be greatly diminished.

And just because I got docked like 50 points on my SAT writing test for “failing to present a clear and concise conclusion”…

I don’t have the answer for how to make college admissions fair (although I do think axing the SAT would be an excellent first step) – but I believe that tempering our obsession with elitism is a step in the right direction toward a college admissions process that is focused on fit, rather than exceptionalism.

P.S. English and writing were my lowest SAT scores overall (lower even than math and Spanish). I got my first professional job as a copywriter, and now you’re reading my blog – all the way to the third ending. If that doesn’t tell you something about the validity of standardized testing, maybe you should rewrite your conclusion.



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