How the Other Half Goes to College

Rich parents bribing their kids' way into elite schools shows how college admissions is anything but a meritocracy. But the flipside is how poor and working-class kids face barrier after barrier to attending higher education at all, as this advisor to first-generation college students explains.

People read on the green of Yale University April 16, 2008 in New Haven, Connecticut. Christopher Capozziello / Getty

The college admissions bribery scandal has rightfully provoked outrage at the lengths to which wealthy parents will go to secure spots in elite institutions for their children — and the extent to which those institutions are happy to play along. The thirty-three parents indicted for taking part in a scheme to cheat, bribe, and Photoshop their kids’ way into competitive colleges like the University of Southern California and Yale are celebrities, finance executives, CEOs, and venture capitalists — rich enough, in other words, to pay hundreds of thousands to inflate SAT scores and persuade coaches to falsely designate their sons and daughters as athletes, but not enough to bribe colleges the traditional way: putting their name on a building or citing a “legacy” of generations of attendees.

On the heels of the indictment came a series of stories exposing how deep the inequities in higher education go, including the finding that low-income students, should they somehow make it to an elite school, could very well end up cleaning their richer peers’ toilets to make ends meet.

Not only are the rich buying their kids admission to elite schools. Those elite schools are then practicing rampant grade inflation — to maintain the ruse, one might assume, that their attendees are exceptional for reasons other than their families’ wealth. Upon graduation, these same students are fast-tracked to positions at high-paying firms.

Despite ample proof that our supposedly meritocratic system is nothing but a long con, Americans remain enamored with elite institutions. Meanwhile, the institutions ostensibly designed to support low-income students put them at a disadvantage long before they arrive on college campuses. In my five years of working as a college advisor to first-generation college students, most of them poor and working class, I have seen how, rather than help them transition to higher education, schools, test administrators, and universities themselves create additional hurdles toward getting such students into college.

The program I work for, based out of a community-services center in Queens, New York offers SAT prep and college admissions coaching — from writing a personal statement to applying for financial aid to acclimating to campus life — free of charge to NYC public school students. Each year, our program’s graduates collectively receive millions in scholarships and grants for colleges, some of them elite universities.

This work is funded by a grant from the state Department of Education, drawing money from a larger, federal program to support community learning centers for students attending high-poverty and low-performing schools. The program was renewed in 2015; now, the Trump administration is calling for a 10 percent cut in federal funding for public education, with no increase in support for Title 1 schools. This comes despite the fact that public education funding has not returned to its pre-recession levels, teachers across the country are forced to turn to crowdfunding for basic classroom supplies, and polls that prove the public opposes such austerity measures for education.

In the federally funded program I teach for, we’ve worked with students facing homelessness, eviction, domestic abuse, and the deportation of close relatives. They possess that much-heralded “grit” colleges are supposedly seeking. Why, then, are so many additional obstacles being thrown their way?

Standardized Testing Fees

A few years ago, I attended a training at which it was explained that a student’s GPA and standardized test score are the top two factors college admissions officials use to determine whether that student should be admitted. Exams like the SAT could offer poor students an opportunity to distinguish themselves. And there’s evidence that re-taking such tests boosts students’ scores as much as paying for expensive coaching does.

But the notion that a high SAT score correlates to a student’s merit is laughable for many reasons. Of course, poor students can’t afford to take these tests multiple times, nor can they afford private tutoring or prep classes (a thirty-six-hour Princeton Review SAT course costs nearly $1,600). And should they manage to ace the SAT, all the other college admissions criteria — from extracurriculars to volunteer hours to internships to that smoothest pathway to the Ivies, a “legacy” — favor students from families with money and connections.

Having taught the SAT myself, though, I know that even motivated students who study rigorously are at a disadvantage, if they do so on their own: I spent far more time in class teaching students how to take the test, rather than how to master topics like reading comprehension.

Acing the SAT largely depends upon strategy, on understanding the exam’s particular internal logic. A good score on the SAT proves little more than that a student is good at taking the SAT. The problem is that poor students can’t afford to take the test multiple times.

The College Board, the nonprofit that administers the SAT and AP exams, charges application fees to take the tests — $47.50 for the verbal and math SAT, or $64.50 for verbal, math, and an “optional” essay test, which many competitive colleges recommend. The fee for taking a single AP exam, which, for students who pass, can lead to receiving college credit, is $94. The College Board recently increased the cost of sitting for AP tests, despite the fact that the organization earned $200 million in 2017 and owns $1.1 billion in cash and investments.

Lest you think that charging students to take exams they cannot get into competitive colleges without is simply a way for the College Board to enrich itself, the nonprofit does offer fee waivers. If their families meet income eligibility guidelines or receive public assistance, high school juniors and seniors can receive these waivers — enough to take the SAT twice.

For the AP test, the College Board offers not fee waivers but fee reductions, lowering the cost of the exam to $53 a piece — as clear a message as any that low-income students simply should not bother to aim high. The ACT, administered by a separate organization, charges $67 for an exam with the writing section included, and offers waivers for two exams for students who meet similar eligibility guidelines.

Affluent students, of course, face no barriers to taking these exams as many times as they want.

For poor families, fee waivers can offer much-needed relief, but it isn’t easy to track them down. The College Board and ACT distribute waivers directly to high school guidance counselors — handy if your school has a guidance counselor, but many do not. It’s not unusual for waivers to get lost in the administrative shuffle at schools, putting an additional burden on poor students.

Not only do they have to somehow know that waivers are available, they must then go track them down. And there’s evidence that that very process of applying for waivers dissuades students from doing so.

Perhaps sensitive to this, the New York City Department of Education established an annual SAT School Day as part of its College Access for All program, which offers the test free to all public school juniors. But the writing section of the SAT is not included.

The DOE claims that this section is optional and not required by most colleges. This is false. Many competitive and elite universities do require or “recommend” that students take the writing section. By leaving out the writing section of the SAT, the DOE is sending a message to poor and working-class NYC students: know your place.

For New Yorkers, that’s the City University of New York (CUNY) system, which will give them an excellent education. CUNY draws world-class professors and offers competitive degrees. Bayard Rustin, Upton Sinclair, several Nobel Laureates, and many others graduated from CUNY schools. They are fine institutions.

But many of my students need to leave New York City, for a number of reasons. Maybe they live in small, crowded apartments with little space for studying. Maybe their parents have no choice but to ask them to working long hours to help pay the rent, which cuts into their school time. Or maybe they just want to try out a new environment, expand their horizons, meet people from different parts of the country, live on their own — experiences what wealthier teenagers have as a matter of course.

For that, they need access to options beyond their local university system. And they currently don’t have that.

The Lack of Guidance Counselors

School guidance counselors offer academic and personal support to students, as well as help with college applications and financial aid. Their responsibilities are wide-ranging and, particularly for students who will be the first in their families to attend college, invaluable.

But there’s a critical shortage of these counselors in American high schools. In the recent Oakland teachers strike, one of the points of contention was the city’s 600-to-1 student to counselor ratio. Nationwide, the student-to-counselor ratio in 2018 is 482-to-1, suggesting that even if your school has a counselor, it’s likely they’re spread extremely thin. (The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250-to-1.)

Even in the comfortably middle-class, suburban public high school I attended as a teenager, our guidance counselor was notorious for giving every high-achieving student the same exact list of recommended colleges to apply to. Recently, one of the students in the program I teach for was valedictorian of her class — but her school’s counselor advised her to apply only to colleges in the local CUNY system, not to the elite private schools she was qualified for and which might have awarded her scholarships.

In New York City, the DOE budget does not provide a line item for college counselors, which means that schools decide whether they’ll assign those responsibilities to another counselor, a teacher or other staff member — or not at all. Students whose families are well-informed of the college admissions process can muddle through without additional guidance, but for those who will be the first in their families to get a higher education, the lack of information from a dedicated college counselor places them at a severe disadvantage.

When leading college workshops for such students, I have been asked questions like, “What’s a campus?” and “What’s an undergraduate?” How can seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds who have never been taught the basics of college life be expected to understand how to apply for financial aid?

The program I work for as an advisor has made up for this lack for thousands of NYC students. Since its founding in 2003, it has helped high school seniors receive over $100 million in scholarships; 90 percent of its attendees go on to college at a wide variety of schools all throughout the country within six months of graduating. Over 75 percent of its students are low-income, many the first in their families to attend college, many immigrants, some undocumented.

Not every student we work with wants to leave New York to attend school — or go to school at all. College guidance helps more than just the highest-performing high schoolers. For some, it has meant the difference between no college and an associate’s degree; for others, a bachelor’s degree rather than an associate’s. And for some students, it has simply meant informing them about their options. I’ve taught at a vocational school where many students weren’t sure whether they wanted to go to college or straight to work, and have been able to help them weigh their options with greater confidence.

Recently, a student asked me, “What if I work for a few years and then decide I made a mistake and should have gone to college?” I told him he could still go to college — that it would always be there for him as an option, that I’d attended college with people my age, but also with adults in their thirties, forties, and older.

He was clearly relieved. He had been under the impression that you could only go to college straight out of high school, because no one had ever told him otherwise.

These moments are proof that these students are motivated and capable of making smart decisions about their future when given sufficient information and support. But most poor American high school students do not have access to any such support.

The College Application Process

After GPA and SAT scores, college admissions officials say they also closely consider a student’s personal statement and extracurriculars in determining whether to admit them. The statement — for which seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds are asked to reflect upon their lives and write what amounts to a short memoir — is challenging for teenagers, most of whom have never crafted such an essay before. Much of my time as an advisor is spent helping students brainstorm, draft, and refine their statements; it’s not unusual to go through a dozen rounds of revision. On several occasions, college admissions officials have told us that a student’s essay is what made the difference in their being accepted.

Our mostly low-income students are unusual in that their essays receive the level of personalized attention they do. But it’s not unusual for wealthy students to work with an expensive essay coach, who might charge as much as $1,500 to help them tell their story.

Or do more than help. My supervisor remembers, from his days of working as a private, one-on-one college counselor to affluent New York City kids, a parent offering to pay off his student loans in exchange for writing his daughter’s personal statement. (He declined.) College essay coaches say they struggle to keep to the right side of the line between guiding their wealthy teenage clients and simply penning the essay for them.

Many of the other criteria for college admissions, like extracurriculars and community service, similarly disadvantage the poor and working class. Wealthy students have the leisure time and the funds to pursue expensive hobbies or take that “voluntourism” trip to the developing world (which also makes for a solid personal statement topic.) Meanwhile, a significant number of the students I’ve worked with are busy with after-school jobs to help support their families.

When it comes time to submit applications to schools, poor students again must contend with steep application fees. In New York City, qualifying students can receive fee waivers to apply to schools in the local, public CUNY system, though according to New York state’s Higher Education Services Corporation, these waivers are given to school counselors in “very limited quantity,” and once the school’s supply is exhausted, no more are provided. Poor students, then, must race one another for waivers.

SUNY, the state university system, waives the $50 application fee for low-income students for four colleges. Students who want to apply to more than four, including private schools, can receive four more waivers from the College Board or The National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Eight colleges might sound like a lot, but given that the most competitive schools are only becoming more so, it’s not unheard of for wealthier students to apply to as many as thirty.

Many of even the strongest students I’ve worked with don’t realize that private college is an option for them. I’ve explained to countless high school seniors that their grades make them eligible for scholarships, that many private schools have large endowments that enable them to offer low-income applicants grants and other forms of aid. If I hadn’t told them this, they would have taken one look at the tuition fees and decided they shouldn’t bother applying.

When it comes to financial aid, most of our students have to take on that challenge without family help, bringing in their parents’ tax forms and going through the painstaking process of filling out FAFSA applications. Many schools claim to be need-blind, only to offer low-income students aid packages that fall $2,000 or $3,000 short — an insurmountable financial hurdle for students living in poverty. In these situations, we help students write appeal letters to financial aid departments, frequently to successful results. But of course, most low-income high schoolers do not have access to these kinds of resources and support.

A lack of information surely hinders thousands of qualified students from not only getting into competitive schools, but from applying to them in the first place. No wonder fewer than 20 percent of Americans believe the college admissions process is fair.

A degree from a competitive college comes with cultural cachet, so much so that thirty-three parents were willing to pay fortunes in bribes to persuade their wealthy peers that their children are successes. That fact alone should be ample proof that these schools are not judging applicants solely — or even mostly — on merit, and should end our fascination with Harvard, Yale, and all the rest.

At the same time, to lower-income families, a college degree means far more than a signifier of status. Graduates from the program I teach for have gone on to law school, to win Emmys, to become teachers, doctors, artists. They are proof of what happens when you fund programs like mine to provide everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, with the resources, the guidance, and the opportunities to live up to their full potential.

We’re told our system is meritocratic, that anyone who works hard and wants it enough can pursue a quality higher education and vault themselves up the class ladder. This isn’t true. The college bribery scandal is just one more indication amid the mounting evidence that our education system is set up to perpetuate class divisions, to keep people in their place. In 2017, forty-one states spent less per student than they did in 2008, as states cut funding to public education. The result is public school students routinely deprived of even the most basic information they need to succeed after they graduate.

To create a society where we all have the chance to live our potential, we must remove the barriers that poor and working-class kids face — exacerbated by the underfunded institutions that should exist to support them — to getting a high-quality higher education.