On September 13, Felicity Huffman will be sentenced for her involvement in the college admissions scandal, a multimillion dollar conspiracy to gain access to the nation’s top universities. Other indicted figures, like Lori Loughlin, are awaiting trial. While these individuals have received their share of public backlash, less attention has been paid to the ways universities are complicit in securing seats for the upper class.
Diversity and inclusion are the new buzzwords of higher education. The top 10 schools on U.S. News & World Report’s 2019 Best Colleges list all emphasize their commitment to diversity and inclusion in their mission statements and on their websites. Most practice need-blind admissions and promise to cover full demonstrated need.
This commitment continues on their campuses, exemplified by a recent trend of increasing support for first-generation and low-income students. Only 11 percent of these students graduate in six years. In 2016, Brown University founded its Undocumented, First-Generation College, and Low-Income Student Center. Last fall, Georgetown launched a course called Mastering the Hidden Curriculum to provide its first-generation, low-income students the support and skills necessary to succeed at school. Other Georgetown initiatives, like the Georgetown Scholarship Program and the Community Scholars Program, offer these students resources like workshops, mentorships, and funding.
Despite these efforts, college and college admissions remain neither diverse nor inclusive.
At least 60 percent of students at Ivy League schools are from the top 20 percent in terms of family income, while less than 5 percent of students come from the bottom quintile. These universities are also predominantly white. While being white does not necessarily mean being financially well-off, in the United States, 8 percent of white households live in poverty, while the numbers for black and Hispanic households are 20 and 16 percent, respectively.
Before students from high-income households even apply to college, they benefit from immense social and cultural capital. They tend to have college-educated parents familiar with the application process and college life. They can also afford the best test prep, tutoring, and extracurricular programs, and they go to schools with more resources and funding, regardless of whether they are public or private. These advantages make a difference. A child in a family in the top 1 percent is 77 times more likely to be admitted to and attend an Ivy League school than a child from the bottom 20 percent.
While universities are making efforts to diversify and democratize, a discrepancy continues to exist between their public message and their private practice.
Let’s take a look at legacy admissions, a practice in place at 42 percent of private institutions. At Georgetown, the overall acceptance rate for the class of 2018 was 16.6 percent, while the acceptance rate for legacy students was more than double: 36.6 percent. The difference was even greater at Harvard, where the overall acceptance rate was a mere 5 percent, but the legacy rate was 33 percent. Its class of 2022 is composed of 36 percent legacy students. This leaves less than two-thirds of the highly sought after seats open, putting non-legacy students at a significant disadvantage. According to a Princeton study, having legacy status is equivalent to a 160-point increase in SAT score. These legacy students also tend to be wealthy and white, and, as established earlier, already have the financial and educational resources to prepare for the SAT.
Athlete recruitment is another practice that helps maintain a predominantly upper-class population. At Harvard, one in 10 students is a recruited athlete. While football and basketball capture most of the attention, the typical athlete at an Ivy League school plays a sport like squash, sailing, or lacrosse. These sports are not cheap. On average, playing lacrosse costs $8,000 a year. It’s no surprise that 46.3 percent of Harvard athletes come from homes with combined incomes of $250,000 or more.
Universities also target a specific socioeconomic class. Their “think about applying” letters do not address the specific financial needs of low-income students and thus, these students may be significantly less likely to apply. Of the low-income students, with SAT scores in the 90th percentile, over 80 percent do not apply to any selective university.
These institutions also promote independent values, like learning to express oneself, over interdependent ones, like learning to be a team player. Having independent or interdependent values is heavily reliant on socioeconomic class. Working class parents tend to have jobs where there is less freedom to question authority and thus, raise their children with interdependent values. University’s emphasis on independent values suggests campuses are an upper-class sphere and contributes to the discord disadvantaged students may experience. However, interdependent values are equally important for all students to learn and prepare for the workplace where they will be expected to operate within a hierarchy.
Part of this bias in values can be explained by looking at university administrations. While student populations have gradually become more diverse, the staff at selective universities has remained predominantly white. More than 80 percent of Ivy League administrative jobs are held by white people. Universities are places of power, and the people in charge get to decide who has access to this power and who doesn’t. They also decide what values and needs should be prioritized.
These preferential administrative and admissions practices create a homogenous environment that does not prepare students for an increasingly globalized world, ironically also promised in university mission statements. When your students come mainly from the top 20 percent of the population, they will lack insight into the issues the majority of the world faces.
And so, while we should acknowledge and applaud higher education’s existing efforts, we also have to recognize that full diversity and inclusion cannot be realized with half-hearted commitment.
Failing to diversify student populations only perpetuates the stigma that underrepresented students face, that greater diversity will lead to a loosening of standards or a decline in student ability. This baseless stigma threatens the future of affirmative action programs.
It’s time for universities to re-evaluate their commitments to diversity and inclusion. Are these merely buzzwords that better their appearance, or do they genuinely believe their campuses will be better because of them? And if they do, have they done everything they can to make these promises into a reality?
As a first-generation college student, I’ve received comments hinting that I earned my achievements through circumstance and not ability, but an examination of admissions policies and class advantages suggests otherwise.
It’s time for us to hold these institutions responsible. We have to stop seeing incidents like the admissions scandal as standalone events that online pitchforks can resolve, and start questioning how universities are structurally complicit. Ultimately, they play a greater role than anyone else.