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Commentary: Let’s Not Pretend Gaming College Admissions Is New

The federal indictments announced this week against nearly 50 people for allegedly lying and cheating to get wealthy students into college demonstrates an extraordinary example of the fast-track to success the privileged have always enjoyed. As a father of college-aged children, and as a leader of a foundation that strives to ensure more learners are ready to succeed in college, I looked at this scandal with disgust and with determination.

History demonstrates that the children of the well-off are all but guaranteed to retain their privilege into adulthood. What the parents who were implicated this week were seeking — and what corrupt education officials were guaranteeing — was an assurance that their kids would further expand their privilege at the expense of others.

As if students not born into wealth needed stronger headwinds working against their already minimized chances at post-secondary success, now this; wealthy parents competing against themselves, crowding out each other, not just those already on the outside.

When the system is gamed like this, those who lose first are the students who were led to believe that the system was fair in the first place. Because our future and our children’s future are dependent on a more equitable distribution of opportunity and success, we all lose ultimately. But those of us who enjoy engrained privilege due to social status will be fine in the end.

Let’s acknowledge the reality that while this week’s scandal constitutes an unconscionable fraud, there are a litany of perfectly legal privileges that unfairly tip the scales in favor of wealthy kids and away from everyone else.

As if students not born into wealth needed stronger headwinds working against their already minimized chances at post-secondary success, now this.

Nick Donohue

Wealthy and educated parents contribute to their children's achievement by supplementing their children's education in a variety of ways. Their families have easier access to necessary educational materials like text books, computers and Wi-Fi access. Wealthy students have greater access to cultural enrichment opportunities, tutoring services and extracurricular activities. To be born into a middle- or upper-class family in the United States disproportionately means a high-quality, better funded school in a safer and healthier neighborhood, not to mention the higher likelihood to afford higher education at all.

Racial disparities persist in higher education access, as well. Higher education admissions are weighed heavily on secondary school performance, which disproportionately privileges those from higher quality high schools. Black and Hispanic graduates, for example, are more likely to have attended schools that have less money to spend on offering a quality education.

White students graduate high school at rates dramatically higher than their black and Hispanic counterparts. Racial disparities are reflected in test scores, enrollment in gifted and talented programs, dropout and graduation rates, and in student discipline data.

These factors do not even begin to take into account legacy policies in college admissions, inflexible application fees and favoritism to the children of donors.

Lower-income, black and brown students of this country face innumerable barriers to higher education. And now this.

We live in country that promotes the myth of a meritocracy in higher education, where the moment of the fat envelope arriving in the mail and the images of a child excitedly opening the results of their future occupies entire channels on YouTube. And we fail to see the perverse nature of such a system, where opportunity comes to those who can afford it, and where such status is as definitively predicted by the neighborhood and family one is born into as ever.

Breaking down the seemingly intractable barriers to post-secondary success for those who do not already enjoy extraordinary privilege is a national challenge worth pursuing. It is right and justified to be outraged at the latest scandal in higher education. It is short-sighted, however, to look past the systemic, historic, and racist structures — accentuated by this latest pay-for-access scheme — that have been here all along and that deserve our action and attention just as urgently.

Nick Donohue is president & CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

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