How Can We Make College Admissions More Fair?

On Tuesday, news broke of what should be a wake up call for college admissions. To date, 50 people in six states have been implicated in a large-scale college admissions fraud.

Reactions ranged from ridicule of wealthy parents to shock at the $1.9 billion dollars Americans spend each year on educational consulting to blame of our country’s “broken” college admissions system.

These headlines are attention-grabbing, but let’s not pretend this is really shocking to anyone, especially to those of us who work in education. Wealth does indeed give students a leg up in college admissions—but mostly in ways that are perfectly legal.

The desire to do more for one’s children transcends wealth and class. Growing up in New York City as the daughter of immigrant parents, I remember overhearing conversations about borrowing a relative’s address so that I could have a shot at attending a better public high school. Gaming the system is not exclusive to the elite.

I’m not an apologist for what is undoubtedly both unethical and illegal behavior. But I don’t think it serves anyone to pontificate about what we already know.

Educators and nonprofit leaders like myself do what we do because we have firsthand experience in high schools where the majority of students have little to no opportunity to talk with a college counselor but still want to go to college. Despite their ambition, only 60% of high school students in California take the SAT, and still fewer receive any formal preparation for the test. Public school counselors—often a student’s sole source of information about college—juggle an average caseload of 470 students and spend only 21% of their time on college advising. This leaves counselors with only 38 minutes per student each year to talk about college.

For high school, we didn’t borrow an address. We changed addresses altogether. My family moved back to Korea, and I moved to Connecticut to live with my aunt. I took a test that qualified me for a scholarship to attend a private day school—the third-oldest independent secondary school in the United States. It was the perfect place to learn about wealth and privilege.

My first lesson: college prep happens at home, not in school. It was clear to me that my fellow classmates knew more about what to do and had been preparing for college all along.

My second lesson: I was not as smart as I thought I was, and maybe going to Harvard was not going to be as easy as my parents thought.

I did poorly on the SATs and wasn’t shining in my classes either. In the words of Felicity Huffman, “Ruh-Ro.” It shook my confidence because I had been a straight A student my entire life. I still applied to Harvard and Columbia because those were the only schools my parents ever talked about. Lightweight envelopes arrived quickly.

Luckily my school had a college counselor who taught me about the Common App and had just returned from a college visit out West; she really liked a school called Scripps College and mentioned that it might be a good fit for me. I wasn’t getting much guidance elsewhere, so I followed what she suggested. Good thing I did, because I ended up getting a full scholarship to attend Scripps. So I packed my bags and showed up for orientation across the country in Claremont, CA suitcases in hand, sight unseen. I’m fortunate she had more than 38 minutes to advise me about college—and that she had the resources to do college visits on behalf of students.

It’s easy to read Tuesday’s news and lament that college admissions is rigged or that the SAT and ACT are unfair if a high score can be bought. And I do think many aspects of our current education system are flawed and inequitable.

But what is infinitely more meaningful and harder than vilifying bad actors or “the system” is making the commitment to support solutions. We will never eliminate the advantages of wealth and privilege in education, but there are many practical steps we can take to give all students a fair shot.

First, we could hire more school counselors, particularly ones who specialize in college and career readiness. This is particularly important for schools who serve students who are underrepresented in higher education.

Next, we could build college preparation into the curriculum rather than assuming that excellence in core subjects will automatically translate to a good test score or a good college essay. We must be honest with students about the extra work beyond academics that is required to get into college. Imagine if all students had access to dedicated classes offered during the school day that explicitly covered all portions of the college admissions process, from how to prepare for the SAT and ACT to how to write a personal statement.

Finally, we could invest more money in training and fairly compensating the teachers and staff who spend every day shaping our children’s futures.

Perhaps, once we did all of this, we could begin to close the gap between students competing for Ivy League slots and those struggling to access the most basic college preparation resources.

Unfortunately, the shelf life for a story like this is short. I’ve been racing to write this before the spotlight turns to yet another scandal, restarting the cycle of public outrage, the flurry of think pieces, and the silence that will follow all too soon. But many of us will continue to live this story—both those of us who work in the college access space, and, more importantly, the millions of students who are working hard to get into a college that would open up new opportunities for them. We will continue to do our part to ensure the ongoing, stubborn inequity in college admissions doesn’t fade from public view—will you do yours?