What the college admissions scandal says about racial inequality

Stanford University
Stanford University (pictured) is just one school grappling with the college admissions bribery scandal. But the education issues highlighted by the scandal go much deeper. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

America’s broken education system fails poor black and Hispanic students well before college application season.

It’s been one week since federal authorities announced that 50 people — including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman — participated in a massive scam focused on getting wealthy children accepted to elite universities.

The scandal has sparked an intense discussion about wealth, privilege, and access to America’s most selective schools. But the ongoing fallout, and other recent stories about race-conscious admissions at Harvard and growing racial disparities in New York City’s selective high schools, provide a chance to examine a larger issue: how racial, educational, and economic inequality and discrimination collide to create a system where low-income students of color — particularly black and Hispanic students — struggle to access a quality education.

The college admissions scam stands out for the extent of its deception. A 200-page FBI affidavithighlights the (often absurd) lengths parents allegedly went to to cheat,from paying SAT and ACT proctors to change answers on standardized tests to faking learning disabilities to get additional accommodations for students and, in some cases, presenting children as recruits for college sports they’ve never played.

And the FBI report notes that parents didn’t balk at spending large amounts of money. Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli, for example, allegedly spent an eye-popping $500,000 to get their daughters into the University of Southern California by bribing a school official who falsely presented the girls as recruits of the crew team.

The college admissions scandal has gotten attention for its participants’ brazen willingness to break laws, but observers note that it is far from the first time wealthy parents have tried to give their children a leg up in college admissions.

And the scandal is far from the first to highlight issues with race and education. Last year, a trial over race-conscious admissions at Harvard University included arguments that the school is discriminating against Asian-American students while admitting other students with lower scores, finding that the children of donors received the biggest advantage.

And this week, it was announced that New York’s ultra-selective Stuyvesant High only accepted seven black students and 33 Hispanic students in a freshman class of nearly 900, suggesting that many low-income students of color struggle to gain entry to elite schools well before college.

The three stories call attention to the ways educational inequality and racial inequality intersect. But they also highlight an extreme difference in how the public has historically discussed financial donations and legacy admission programs that benefit wealthy students, and programs like race-based affirmative action, which is aimed at helping underrepresented minority groups, especially black and Hispanic students, access institutions that were not made for them.

There’s plenty of evidence of the former influencing college decisions, but it is the latter that often comes up when we talk about merit and who “deserves” to attend certain colleges.

“It’s so written into the American imagination that these spots (at prestigious institutions) are for white people, and anytime a black student or a Latinx student gets in, it’s taking a spot away from them,” Anthony Jack, an assistant professor of education at Harvard University and the author of The Privileged Poor, recently told CNN. “That’s not what’s happening.”

The past week has been a potent reminder that students of color and other marginalized groups are often locked out of the systems that help their wealthier peers. And the gap between these groups raises bigger questions of how merit has historically been defined, who that definition leaves out, and how continued inequality has made a broken education system worse.

Wealth influences a student’s education well before college application season

The bribery scandal has been a clear reminder that low-income students and students of color are far less likely to benefit from legacy admissions or inherited wealth, putting them at a disadvantage when it comes to competing to get into elite schools.

The particular nature of the scandal has led many to draw comparisons between the rich, mostly white group of parents who have been charged, and parents of color like Tanya McDowell and Kelley Williams-Bolar — black mothers who were arrested and faced criminal prosecution for using the addresses of relatives and family friends to get their children into better grade schools. Their stories, the argument goes, shows how harsh and unequal the justice and education systems can be for parents of color looking to help their children.

But in many ways, the disparities highlighted by the scandal fit into an even larger set of gaps that don’t always draw the same attention. A recent report from a nonprofit called EdBuild found that on average, predominantly white school districts receive $23 billion more in funding than school districts that primarily serve students of color and those from low-income families (the difference is largely due to local wealth and taxes, according to the EdBuild report).

By the time a student reaches high school, that gap has influenced not only what the student has already learned but what they’ll learn in the future. Research has shown that students attending financially stable high schools are more likely to have access to Advanced Placement and college preparation courses, but more importantly than that, they are more likely to have acquired the skills to succeed in those courses.

Add in increased access to SAT and ACT prep courses, private tutors, and the ability (and time) to pursue expensive extracurriculars, and the already sizable gap between wealthy students and their less financially stable peers grows even wider.

It creates a disparity not only in who goes to college but in the types of schools students from different backgrounds attend. A 2015 analysis from the nonpartisan Brookings Institution think tank found that black students made up just 4 percent of those enrolled at top-tier colleges in America but made up 26 percent of students at the bottom tier of colleges.

A 2017 New York Times analysis found that even with race-conscious admissions policies in place, black and Hispanic students are actually less represented at America’s top colleges now than they were 35 years ago.

These disparities make incidents like the admissions scandal even more troubling for students of color. “It’s frustrating that people are able to obtain their opportunities this way,” Khiana Jackson, a black senior at Ewing Marion Kauffman School in Kansas City, Missouri, told the New York Times last week. “We can put in work from fifth grade to 12th grade, every single day, come in early, leave late, and it’s still not enough.”

In school systems like New York City’s, these sorts of tensions are fueling a serious debate over how to fix an education system where white and Asian students are far more likely to have the resources to succeed compared to their black and Hispanic peers.

There’s also the problem that even when low-income students of color make it to elite colleges, they are still standing on an uneven playing field.

Students “are perpetually made to feel as if they don’t deserve to be there,” Clint Smith writes at the Atlantic, “whether it’s while cleaning a classmate’s bathroom, stocking up on nonperishable food for spring break, or overhearing an offhand comment about how their acceptance was predicated on the color of their skin, or the lower socioeconomic status of their family.”

“Meanwhile, many wealthy students for all intents and purposes have their parents buy their way into these schools through private-school tuition, test prep, donations to colleges, and myriad other advantages,” Smith adds.

The college admissions scandal also highlights something that education experts have long noted about elite college admissions: that schools have often used “back doors” for the children of wealthy alumni and those who can make donations to the school, leaving everyone else to fight over the remaining spots.

As Vox’s Libby Nelson recently explained, “Colleges are increasingly seen for what they are: another system that the wealthy can game.”

The college admissions scandal adds to an ongoing debate about affirmative action

If the bribery scam has called attention to the ways that wealth helps students access America’s most selective schools, the backlash to the scandal has highlighted how students from disadvantaged backgrounds are the ones often tasked with proving that they “earned” their spots on campus.

It has called new attention to programs aimed at helping students from marginalized groups. Perhaps the most prominent of these is race-based affirmative action, which was established as a way to help marginalized groups who faced discrimination and were historically shut out of education and job opportunities.

But various judicial interventions have left affirmative action severely weakened, and the sorts of “racial quotas” that often come to mind when the term is invoked are effectively nonexistent.

Instead, schools are only allowed to consider a student’s race in extremely limited ways, and schools that do consider race rarely argue that they want to right historical disparities, instead focusing on claims that a diverse student body benefits all students.

Differences in how the public looks at race-based affirmative action and admission programs for wealthy students were most recently raised in a trial last year challenging race-conscious admissions at Harvard.

That case, brought by Students for Fair Admissions, a group that opposes affirmative action, argues that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants, and that this discrimination is the direct result of the school’s efforts to enroll black and Hispanic students.

A final decision is expected in the near future, but the case suggested that any attention Harvard paid to race was far outweighed by its attention to applicants whose families attended Harvard, or those with money to donate.

According to the Washington Post, data revealed at the trial found that the admission rate for children of donors and other applicants kept on special “interest lists” was 42 percent — far more than the single-digit admit rate for applicants without prior ties to the university.

Put together, the Harvard trial, the college admissions scandal, and the ongoing debate over NYC’s selective schools raise the question of how we should think about “merit” in education. America has always presented itself as a “meritocracy,” where success is solely the result of talent and hard work.

But for far too many, that has never actually been the case.

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