College admissions scandal highlights role of wealth in education

Jojo Wertheimer, Staff Writer

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Last March, 33 parents were indicted for paying a total of $25 million to get their kids into college. The scandal, known as Operation Varsity Blues, has sparked an intense debate throughout the nation on the privileges required to get into college, and the role of wealth in competitive education. 

Operation Varsity Blues

From 2011 to 2019, William Singer, the head of fraud college prep business The Key,  helped wealthy parents bribe coaches, athletic directors and standardized test proctors–over 200 agents in total–to admit their kids to some of the most selective universities in the U.S., according to the New York Times

One of the parents paid Singer $1.2 million to fabricate a story about her daughter being the co-captain of a well-known soccer club. Singer then bribed the head soccer coach of Yale to recruit her. 

At the University of Southern California, Olivia Jade Giannulli- a successful Youtube personality and the daughter of actress Lori Loughlin- and her sister were admitted as recruits for crew, even though they had never participated in the sport. The evidence? A photoshopped picture of Giannulli’s face on an athlete’s body. A top athletic director at USC was compensated over $1.3 million for her role in the admission. 

“I thought [the scandal] was kind of bogus because [when] applying to college, there’s a lot of kids that are qualified to go to these colleges, but some people are able to pay more, and colleges want kids to pay,” says ETHS senior Michael Levitas. 

Aside from fake athletic recruitments, parents also paid for a stand-ins to cheat on the SAT or ACT tests for their kids. They were paid to take the test for the student, correct their answers after the exam or guide the students to the right answers. Parents even used fraudulent medical documentation to show their child had a learning disability, which was not the case, in order to get their students into their own testing room. 

Senior Julia English, who has taken both ACT prep classes and the ACT, is disappointed with the way the students were able to use their wealth to get ahead.   

“The fact that these kids were allowed to be in the room by themselves when they have no need for it, and to get that extra help is just sad,” she says. “I’m lucky enough to have a lot of resources that are helping me [get into college], but I’m still so nervous because it just takes so much hard work to get into really selective schools. Seeing them get in so easily when they really don’t deserve it is just sad.” 

Wealth pushes students ahead

This year, some of the most elite schools in the country, such as Stanford, Columbia,  Dartmouth and the University of Chicago, reached a record low acceptance rate of under 10 percent, and Harvard University at just under 5 percent. Wealthier applicants can afford more tools, such as an independent college counselor or an SAT or ACT tutor that will benefit their application. However, those who cannot afford these privileges could fall even further behind.

According to The Princeton Review, an independent college counselor can help applicants “craft a personalized admission strategy tailored to each school, present yourself on your applications so that they stand out from the crowd, choose tests and courses that will best represent your strengths, and decide which offer of admission, and financial aid package, to accept,” as well as provide other beneficial tools. 

“I think people who have more money often have more tutors and resources,” says senior Morgan Riley. “Also, with counseling, [students] are better prepared, or they just know a little more about [admissions] than students who don’t pay to have that extra resource.”

Applicants that have a college counselor or who can afford an ACT or SAT tutor automatically have a boost in the admissions process. They’ve had certain help on their application, which pushes them ahead of those who do not have those privileges. For applicants at ETHS, the differences in opportunity can be attributed to the large income gap among students. According to a previous article published by The Evanstonian, the average household income of ETHS students is $115,582, even though 38.4 percent of students are considered low income. 

“The competitiveness to get into this select group of colleges that Evanston students like is becoming more selective,” says ETHS college and career coordinator Beth Arey. “Admission offices review students based on the high school they come from, so the more students from one high school that apply to a single college, the more competitive it becomes to get into that [school].” 

ETHS offers many resources for students to utilize regarding college and career planning, including the College and Career Services office, which provides help with college applications, financial aid and career planning, as well as other opportunities. However, wealthier students who can afford an independent college counselor, who can spend more time working on their application and have more resources to provide the student, still have an advantage over their peers without those resources. 

Financial diversity in applications

As the cost of college increases, those applying struggle under the weight of what can be over $50,000 for one year of school. Including room, board and other fees, the cost can be above $70,000. 

For many students, paying this amount of money at once is an extreme financial strain. According to Student Loan Hero, almost 70 percent of the class of 2018 took out student loans, and in 2017, 85 percent of first year college students at a four year institution received some sort of financial aid.

“I know from me personally, and a couple of my friends, that you don’t apply to some colleges because you can’t pay for them,” says Levitas. “I feel like many kids aren’t able to go to their top choice because they’re really expensive.”

Although many schools, especially private institutions, give financial aid, money is an important factor in the application process. Applicants sometimes have different deadlines for financial aid documents, and the money schools give away in financial aid is limited. 

“One of the things we have to keep in mind about schools like the Ivy League schools is they have so much money, they’re trying to attract students who have a high financial need in order to diversify their campuses,” says Arey. However, “they still need and want students who are wealthy to be able to pay the cost of providing funding for these other students with high financial need.”

When schools give money for financial aid, they need wealthier students who can pay the full tuition to offset that cost. Sometimes though, the most wealthy students are not the most qualified applicants. According to Arey, admitting students who may not be the most qualified but have money “is part of the admission system.”

Money has been a factor in admissions for generations

This September, the Wall Street Journal said Operation Varsity Blues was the largest ever fraud case involving U.S. college admissions that has been prosecuted by the Justice Department. Although this is the first admissions scandal of this size and intensity, the idea of wealth being used to gain an advantage in college admissions isn’t a new concept. 

“I kind of already assumed that was happening,” says senior Ana Glassman. “I feel like the only [new] thing that really just happened was they got caught this time. That’s probably been happening for generations.” 

According to Forbes, there have been many times billionaires have given millions of dollars to extremely selective schools and their kid was then admitted. In 1998, Jared Kushner’s father gifted $2.5 million to Harvard. Kushner was admitted within a year, although a former school official at Kushner’s highschool said his GPA and SAT scores did not warrant it. Despite the fact  that it can’t be proven that the money being “donated” to these schools is truly a factor of the admission, colleges need these wealthy students and use them as a tool to offset the cost of those who need financial aid. 

Even when money isn’t overtly given to the university, other benefits involving wealth, such as legacy, can work in favor of the applicant. According to the Wall Street Journal, the admissions rate in 2018 for legacy applicants at Georgetown University was about double the rate of those who did not have family who attended. At Princeton University, legacy students had an admissions rate four times greater than their non-legacy peers. 

“Typically, if you are a multigenerational college [student], you are privileged in some way,” says Arey. “You traditionally, because of the degrees in your family, have higher level education, professions, etc. in your family, which puts you in a different place then students who are first generation to college or immigrants to the country.”

ETHS senior Luke Thorpe has had family that has gone to college in Jamaica, but he is the first in his family who plans to attend college in the U.S. 

“Yeah, [legacy] is kind of unfair. That’s just life though because they get an advantage and we don’t,” says Thorpe. “I don’t like that just because my dad and my mom went here, they’re going to just let me in. I like to earn my spot.”