Early last year, a teenage girl was admitted to Yale University thanks to her status as a top recruit for the women’s soccer team as an outstanding midfielder.
The catch — she had never played soccer before. But thanks to $1.2 million out of her parents’ pockets, that didn’t matter.
On the other side of the country, a high school boy was admitted to the University of Southern California after a falsified learning disability allowed him to cheat on his standardized tests, for a nominal fee of $50,000.
About 500 miles north, another couple secured their child’s admission to Stanford as a novice-sailor-magically-turned-sailing-recruit via a $500,000 payment to the school’s sailing program.
In a major college admissions scandal, the Department of Justice indicted 50 people Tuesday for several counts of fraud and racketeering conspiracy following the discovery of a massive criminal scheme run by William Singer, the founder of a college preparatory and counseling business.
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According to the indictment, Singer allegedly aided his clients in ensuring their children were admitted to selective colleges through bribery of university staff and coaches to misrepresent their children as elite athletes, by recruiting administrators to help falsify their children’s scores on standardized tests and through the use of a facade of a charitable organization to disguise sham payments.
Involved in the scandal were Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, UCLA and other elite institutions, both private and public.
The exposure of the brazen stratagem has launched uproar over the unfair advantage these students were given, and has also served as an impetus for discussions about the increasingly competitive nature of college admissions.
As children of actresses, leaders in the business world and generally extraordinarily wealthy parents, these students certainly received unfair advantages whose worth totals several million dollars. This is a jarring story, and certainly indicative of the cutthroat lengths some “crazy rich” parents are willing to go to.
But let’s be clear — this story is not an anomaly.
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As long as higher education has existed, college admissions have unabashedly favored the wealthy — explicitly or otherwise.
At Stanford, according to a charge for the Committee on Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid, “applicants may be given special consideration because of distinctive characteristics: for example, those applicants whose parents graduated from Stanford or are on the Stanford faculty or staff.”
The University of Wisconsin bears no such specific policy, but according to data from UW’s office of Academic Planning and Institutional Research, legacy students are offered admission at a rate nearly 20 percent higher than non-legacy students. This might be because of preferential treatment from the admissions office, or simply because having a parent who attended college increases a student’s ability to receive such an education themselves. Ultimately, however, this is a distinction without a difference. Both cases favor families who have been historically wealthy enough to attend college.
In the absence of legacy, students whose families have a significant ability to donate to the university tend to receive preferential treatment, as well. One researcher found that applicants from families with the ability to donate at least $500,000 can qualify for special consideration.
But explicit considerations aside, the entire college application and admissions process is tipped in favor of those who can afford it, too.
Take standardized tests, for example. Sure, one family falsified their scores for $50,000. But tutoring classes to achieve an honest good score don’t come cheap either.
A 50-hour SAT prep class with The Princeton Review can cost up to $1,600, while private, one-on-one tutors cost even more. New York-based private tutor Anthony-James Green claims his tutoring can help students increase their SAT scores by 400 points — but for a fee of $1,000 per hour. The act of taking the SAT alone is $64.50, not including the cost of sending the scores to colleges.
Visiting college campuses and speaking directly with admissions officers is often considered an attractive way to increase chances of admission, but between plane tickets, hotel rooms and other travel expenses, these visits can run up a bill in the thousands.
Of those indicted for racketeering, many were guilty of paying to misrepresent their children as elite athletes, for the sake of admission. But even those who come by athletic success honestly bear significant, exclusionary costs — especially for elitist sports like sailing, tennis and rowing. The costs of team membership, private lessons, gear, transportation to competitions and recruiting trips can mean admission for honest athletic success is nearly as inaccessible as false misrepresentations.
Investment in private school for primary education — which can easily cost more than college tuition — can mean a significant advantage for college applicants, through more elite instruction, personalized college counseling and scholastic connections.
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Singer and his clients’ actions are deplorable, unfair and insulting to those who work hard to earn an honest admission to college.
But don’t let this extreme example of illegality distract from the fact that every year, applicants from wealthier, more connected families get an edge in the college admissions process in very legal, socially acceptable ways.
Don’t allow this extreme case to convince you that financial advantages only come in the form of million-dollar checks. College admissions have always catered to the elite and the wealthy, even if it’s not in illegal, technically fraudulent ways.
Financial privilege is everywhere — even in ways as small as the $60 application fee you submitted to apply to UW.
Cait Gibbons ([email protected]) is a junior studying math and Chinese professional communication.