OPINION | College admissions scandal reflects flawed system

Anna Dixon, Staff Writer

Maggie Pasterz | Layout Editor

In 2019, 50 people in the U.S. were charged with fraud and bribery associated with gaining acceptance for their children at prestigious colleges and universities across the country. The household names involved in what came to be known as the college admissions scandal allowed it to easily dominate the news cycle. The revelation that people were buying their children’s college acceptances confirmed what many Americans already knew: the collegiate system is designed to favor those with higher incomes.

Two years later, a Netflix documentary, “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal,” was released. It examines William Singer, the man who orchestrated the scheme and the effects, if any, that the scandal had on the role of privilege in college admissions. The overarching theme of the documentary was that the scheme Singer organized was successful due to societal pressures to attend a prestigious university. Higher education has developed into a business; in order to increase the profit for a university, they must increase the demand amongst students to attend it. Institutions did so by lowering their acceptance rates and in turn increasing their prestige to be more desirable to high school students and more importantly, their parents. 

The other main takeaway from “Operation Varsity Blues” is that the scheme Singer operated was just barely illegal. The collegiate application system is already skewed towards favoring wealthy students that universities later condemning the scandal can only be viewed as hypocritical. Singer provided two services: bribing collegiate sports coaches to present applicants as athletes, therefore securing them an acceptance and altering standardized test scores. Both of these actions are hardly outliers in a system that heavily favors privileged students. 

Everyone hears jokes that certain students are able to attend colleges because their family built the library. These jokes are rooted in fact: students whose families donated millions to a school are more likely to get a second look at their application. Other commonplace practices by admissions offices such as favoring legacies give privileged students an upper hand. Depending on the university, the student body can be made up of 10 to 25 percent legacy admissions. Recruiting people who participate in niche sports like water polo, fencing and sailing further advantages wealthy students. The increase in the number of private college counselors supports both the idea that higher education has become a business and that wealthy students have the upper hand. 

Furthermore, even without Singer’s manipulation of test scores, students from higher income families do better on standardized tests in comparison to their peers with lower incomes. Just as private college counselors have become a booming business, so have SAT and ACT tutors who are only available to those that are willing to pay. The tests themselves even have a fee, requiring students to pay more if they wish to take it more than once and an additional fee if their desired school requires subject tests.

All of these factors lead to competitive colleges and universities being disproportionately populated by students that come from wealthy families. Tulane is no exception to this. Thirteen percent of Tulane’s student body comes from the top 1% while less than 4% of the student body comes from the bottom 20%. The median family income of Tulane students’ families is $180,700 a year, far above the national median of $68,703. One optimistic effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it made Tulane and many other schools test optional for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. Hopefully this will help institutions to recognize that standardized tests are not an accurate representation of students’ intellect and are not vital components of an application. 

After the college admissions scandal first came to light, there was a sense of optimism that it would cause a reevaluation of inequality in the U.S. and how deeply it affects opportunity. Instead, the scandal was widely viewed as an isolated incident instead of a product of society that values prestige over all else and punishes the privileged with a slap on the wrist. The fraud committed by those involved was met with general outrage, but the system that promoted this behavior was left unscathed from the same backlash.