More than two dozen wealthy parents — among them high-powered CEOs and the actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin — went to expensive and illegal lengths to secure attendance at elite colleges for their own children.
The drastic measures the parents took indicate how much they coveted that symbol of success. But the federal case alleging parents paid to inflate their children’s standardized test scores and bribed college coaches to guarantee their kids a spot also reveals the arbitrary nature of that symbol of success.
“While the elite colleges have kind of taken the credit for being the golden ticket it’s really about the golden ticket of getting in,” said Antoinette Flores, an associate director for post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. “And wealthy students are significantly more likely to do that.”
For many fields, particularly those in science, technology, engineering and math, a degree from an elite college doesn’t translate to much higher earnings than a degree from a less-selective school. For students majoring in science-related fields, there’s no statistically significant difference in earnings between graduates of elite colleges and those from less-selective schools, according to research from Michael Hilmer, an economist at San Diego State University, and Eric Eide and Mark Showalter, economists at Brigham Young University.
But for students who major in business or liberal arts, where you go to school matters — business majors from top schools make 12% more than those from mid-tier schools and 18% more than their colleagues from bottom tier schools, for example.
Their study backs up a common refrain from financial aid experts, economists and researchers that in an environment of rising college costs and student debt, what you study may matter more than where you go.
But elite colleges’ reputations for offering the golden ticket has meant that parents and policymakers have always questioned elite schools’ admissions process. For years, pundits have suggested that top colleges simply use a lottery to form their classes.
On the one hand, affirmative action in college admissions has always been a source of skepticism among conservative groups. The angst around those policies seems particularly ironic to advocates for equity in higher education and students and graduates of color themselves, given the role of wealth in admissions.
How reliable is that golden ticket?
“This situation has exposed what everybody in college admissions has known for a long time,” said Eva Dodds, an independent college counselor based in the Detroit metro area and affiliated with Collegewise, a college counseling company with offices across the country.
As part of a lawsuit accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian-American applicants filed last year, the school asked the judge to keep a set of documents describing its admissions practices under seal.
Of the 26,000 domestic applications Harvard received for the incoming class, 3,500 had a perfect SAT math score, 2,700 had a perfect SAT verbal score and over 8,000 had a perfect GPA.
(Harvard isn’t one of the colleges caught up in the college bribery scandal and in response to claims in the lawsuit the school has said it is “committed to expanding opportunity to excellence , and to creating the diverse community essential to fulfilling its mission”).
The college admissions system is relatively unique in considering factors beyond GPA and test scores, said Anna Ivey, a college consultant and the former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago’s law school.
It’s difficult to tell if colleges exercise favoritism. “There’s so little transparency from the schools about how that works,” Ivey said. “This standard operating procedure was just ripe to be abused.”
Students have control over a finite number of factors. Andy Lockwood, an independent college and financial-aid counselor in Long Island, tells his clients to focus on their grades, test scores and the way they portray themselves in their application.
But even stellar credentials in those categories aren’t enough to guarantee a spot. Of the 26,000 domestic applications Harvard received for the 2019 incoming class, 3,500 had a perfect SAT math score, 2,700 had a perfect SAT verbal score, more than 8,000 had a perfect GPA.
If that doesn’t sound competitive enough, nearly 1,000 of those 26,000 domestic applications had received perfect composite scores on their standardized tests, according to documents in the lawsuit. They were competing for about 1,600 spots.
Applicants, however, have no power over who they are competing against, and that changes year to year. “The crafting of a class is a business,” Dodds said. That may explain why the parents embroiled in the college admissions scandal wanted to be certain that their children would get in.
A college may want someone who can play the cello or the piano. The next year, it may want students from the Midwest of the South. The following year, it may prefer students who can pay full-freight or those whose relatives attended the school.
The bribery scandal will likely raise questions about what’s fair for schools to consider, Dodds said. The allegations bring added scrutiny to the role athletics plays in the admissions process. Singer bribed athletic coaches to reserve spaces for his clients, even though they didn’t play the sport in question.
The FBI case showed that a small group of people allegedly “hacked” a vulnerability in the college recruitment for minor sports, said Jim Jump, the director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School, a private boys school in Richmond, Va.
The ability to play a sport appears to carry a lot of weight at least at some colleges. Harvard rates applications on four categories — academic excellence, extracurricular activities, personal qualities and athletics — according to court documents in the affirmative action lawsuit.
In addition, the acceptance rate for recruited athletes is about 86% versus 6% for non-athletes, according to an analysis of applications by an economist hired by the organization suing Harvard.
Schools go to great lengths to increase the number of applications they receive in part to push the share of students they admit down, allowing them to appear more selective — an important factor in college rankings.
Nonetheless, these schools do offer something not available at lesser-known colleges: Prestige. That can be very powerful, said Mark Huelsman, associate director of research and policy at Demos, a left-leaning think tank.
Graduating from a top college provides entry into a network that dominates the worlds of finance, politics, media and a slew of other industries. That can help certain résumés rise from the bottom to the top of a very large pile, he said.
For those whom the experience of attending an elite college might truly be transformative — less wealthy students — the cumulative advantage that wealth provides means that they’re much less likely to secure one of those coveted spots. Some top colleges have more students from families in the 1% than students from families in the bottom 60% of the income spectrum.
Huelsman said this story pulled back the curtain on something that many people were already aware of: An ecosystem of privileged institutions, wealthy families and knowledge of how to game the system. “It’s not based on a meritocracy,” he said.
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Jillian Berman covers student debt and millennial finance. You can follow her on Twitter @JillianBerman.
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