I didn’t need a “Full House” character to show me the college admissions deck is stacked. For seven years I have been the executive director of the Baton Rouge Youth Coalition, an organization that since 2009 has helped public school youth—whom we call “Fellows”—enter and persist in college at nationally-recognized rates. Among BRYC’s success stories are dozens of Fellows who have graduated from, currently attend or have earned admission to colleges as prestigious as those under investigation.
I’m also an independent college consultant, mainly to children of BRYC donors. So far I’ve had 10 clients. Nine got into their top-choice schools; the other went to Princeton instead of Stanford. And before all this, I was one of my clients. I attended Yale University, which is at the center of the largest college admissions scandal ever.
Nothing surprises me about Aunt Becky-gate, but the sensational headlines distract from systemic unfairness in highly selective college admissions. It’s easy to understand how material privilege disproportionately favors wealthy families like mine in this process. An exorbitant tuition is a small price to pay after eighteen years of private school, music lessons, summer programs, test prep and other investments in curating the perfect college applicant. This is to say nothing of legacy applicants, who are admitted at five times the rate of non-legacies, or applicants accepted because their parents donated or likely will.
My “ticket” was rowing, a sport one almost has to be affluent to compete in, as it is mainly offered at prohibitively expensive prep schools. My grades and SAT scores were just strong enough for the tailwind of privilege to push me to Yale under the illusion I was especially deserving. This is the more insidious injustice you’ll find at selective colleges: the widespread belief among wealthy, white students—who have been buoyed by resources and favors at every turn—that they’ve earned everything that others could have if they had just worked harder.
Among those “others” are BRYC Fellows. They don’t work hard. They work magic. They traverse minefields for chances at postsecondary success and long-term economic mobility. Each year about a third of our senior class will apply to the 50-to-60 “highly selective”colleges whose admission rates are south of 33%. Each year I ask myself the same question: How could any student navigate this process alone? It demands far too much even of its well-heeled applicants, who don’t have to complete the FAFSA, CSS PROFILE and IDOC, or contribute to their families financially, or compete with hundreds of peers for counselors’ attention. The selective college application process has gotten out of hand generally, but its many burdens fall hardest on the marginalized youth that top schools are in search of. Even if the claim that low-income youth of color have an admissions edge were true, students would have to survive the application process to redeem that imaginary token.
Why care about admissions fairness at a handful of selective colleges? It’s about opportunity cost. A 2017 study on college access and social mobility showed that elite college attendance has little impact on well-off students’ economic prospects. They stay rich regardless. For lower-income students, top college degrees translate to earnings on par with those of wealthy classmates. Elite colleges could be “engines of social mobility” for students like those BRYC serves, but so few gain admission. In fact, not one such college cracked this study’s top 10 for “college mobility rate,” a new statistic measuring how well a school propels its lower-income students socioeconomically. In this way, elite college admissions perpetuates income inequality along racial lines, despite its many recent efforts to expand access and affordability to traditionally underrepresented students. Change is happening, but too slowly.
BRYC works from the ground up, equipping high-achieving, under-resourced teens with the tools and mentorship needed to enter and excel in college. More than 80% of our 296 alumni are on track to completing or have graduated from 63 four-year colleges across 19 states, and our “persistence” rate jumps to 90% when factoring in two-year and technical college attendance. The 76 members of our 2019 class are on pace to similar and greater heights, having earned admission to 145 postsecondary institutions as they await even more decisions. In 2019-2020 BRYC will support 250 high schoolers and nearly 400 alumni. Ten years in, we’re just getting started. So are our college graduates like Dominique Ricks. Effective July 1, he will become the first black principal in Middleton, Wisconsin, after emerging as the top choice from a 24-applicant pool in which he was the youngest at 26.
Bribery grabbed headlines, but the scandal is not the story. The story is about the steep price thousands of youth pay when we block them from equal opportunity.
Lucas Spielfogel, a Yale graduate, is executive director of the Baton Rouge Youth Coalition.