We Privileged Few: A Millennial Reflects on the College Application Process
As an eleven-year-old with a recently purchased Raleigh purple bicycle wandering around suburban New Hampshire in 1995, I was tasked with creating a four-digit bicycle lock combination. After thinking through my favorite sports athletes at the time including Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, and Cal Ripken, Jr., I realized that using their uniform numbers simply wouldn’t work as a potential combination. I then thought about my Orwellian birth year of 1984, but I realized that would have been too simple. My thoughts then turned to other years that may be important in my life. I eventually settled on the year 2007 for one simple, obvious reason:
It would be the year that I would graduate from college.
Most eleven-year-olds don’t think about a college graduation that is eleven years away but I did. It’s not that I was precocious child, far from it. But what I was was a child immersed in a college-going culture from a young age. I had two parents who were college graduates. My grandfather had been a dean in Boston. My dad took me to see college hockey games from a young age. My travel team and AAU sports would take me to college campuses. I would actively watch college sports and my dad would even go so far as to let me place his bets on fall college football games and the springtime March Madness college basketball tournament. I had multiple college t-shirts and other paraphernalia in my room. For me, there was never a question of if I would go to college but how to get into the best college possible.
It was this question that drove my parents to pursue as many opportunities as possible for me academically. Starting in fourth grade, I was enrolled in an enrichment program that pulled me out of my regular elementary school class once a week to work on public speaking, problem solving, and research skills. By sixth grade, I was in the “high” math class that took a year-end placement test for middle school. Having tested well, I was placed in a college track in seventh grade. By the time I got to high school, I would frequently visit my guidance counselor, asking her about the best courses to take for college. My freshman year, I actually passed over a study hall to take a choir class simply because I didn’t want to lose out on a course credit. After getting a C+ and then a B in advanced geometry, I moved off the AP math track to the college track and proceeded to get all A’s for the rest of my courses. Starting sophomore year, I began taking Honors classes and would end up taking the highest level courses offered at my high school in Spanish, U.S. history, physics, and English. Outside of advanced geometry, I got all A’s with the exception of two B+’s throughout the rest of my high school courses.
Outside of academics, I had always been active in sports and I continued to play sports year-round in high school. I played soccer all four years, did indoor and outdoor track for three years, and did freshman baseball and basketball. I ended up earning a total of 3 varsity letters. When it came to clubs, I was inducted into my high school’s National Honor Society at the end of my sophomore year and ended up serving as president as a senior. I also served as a class representative for two years. Knowing that colleges looked for well-rounded students, I did my best to beef up my resume. Initially, I hadn’t even thought about running for NHS president, but when a peer nominated me, my first thought was how good that would look on a college application. I gave my all in the role once elected but I knew that my initial motivation had been a selfish one.
But it was a selfishness that served a greater purpose and that purpose was getting into the best college possible. At the end of my sophomore year, I took the PSAT and got a mere 1140 out of 1600. This score wasn’t good enough for the kind of schools that I hope to attend so starting junior year, I took courses that would specifically help me do better with standardized tests. I took Latin, which helped my year-end SAT score bump up to 1240. However, that still wasn’t good enough for the schools that I wanted to attend. In the fall of senior year, I took a paid SAT prep class and took an advanced writing workshop class that dedicated a large portion of time to polishing our college essays. After retaking the SAT’s in the fall of my senior year, I could take the better math and verbal scores from each testing for a combined score of 1300, which was much more acceptable in my book.
I was going to all these great lengths because of how competitive the schools were that I hoped to apply to. During spring break of my junior year, my parents took me on a tour of ten college campuses across four separate states. None of these were Ivy league schools, but my top-tier were all considered to be top-30 colleges nationally. When it came time to apply to college, I applied to 11 schools total, with a combination of “safety schools” and “stretch schools” and a number in-between. In the end, I got into 7 of those schools and was wait-listed at 2 others. I didn’t get into my top 2 choices, but I did get into my third choice which was “only” a top-30 liberal arts university. Four years later, I walked across the stage with my diploma in hand reading my name and the year 2007.
In learning of the massive college admissions scandal this week, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt. Not because I personally benefited from the scandal but because I know firsthand the culture that privileged White families have when applying to colleges. My high school guidance counselor, when putting together my final applications, told me that I was smart but she appreciated how hard I worked. To my parents’ credit, they never felt entitled to get their only son into college. But they did provide me with resources I needed to get a leg up. From my early enrichment program to my college tour to my paid SAT prep class, my parents provided me with a multitude of opportunities to succeed. Despite being offered a financial scholarship to another college, my parents allowed me to attend my top choice, even though we didn’t receive any financial assistance from that school. They believed, as most middle-class White parents do, that the best college possible would provide me with the best opportunities for success.
Sixteen years after going through the college application process, I’ve come to realize how fortunate I was. My four years at a private, liberal arts college showed me that there were others who were much more entitled than I ever was. Many were children of alumni who knew from an early age where they would be going to college. But for them, they didn’t have to worry about grades, or extracurriculars, or test scores but simply that their parents would continue their annual donations to their alma mater. I interacted with many of these students and they were neither academically-gifted nor hard-working. They walked around campus like they owned the place. They were haughty and arrogant. The men especially treated women like they were the inferior sex. They considered their opinions in class to be taken as gospel and they scoffed at anyone who dared disagree with them. In the end, they graduated with a sub-par GPA but it didn’t matter. Their parents had already procured them a cushy job with another alum who was counting down the days until one of their own would be added to the team.
What Lori Laughlin and Felicity Huffman did was unforgivable. They manipulated the system to allow their children to take spots from other deserving students. But the larger question, and the one that hasn’t been asked is, what does the whole scandal say about higher education as a whole? If we’re only educating the children of the elite, is the system benefiting society as a whole? If the children of the elite are unqualified and we’re still educating them, who aren’t we educating? Why aren’t we educating them? And what is the purpose of higher education if it’s only accessible to those of privilege?
Unfortunately, these questions won’t be asked even though they should. Our for-profit private colleges and universities are perfectly content to maintain their business model. And this business model is predicated on the wealthy being able to afford what, in some cases, has become a $200,000+ investment over 4 years. At a time when student load debt is now over $1.5 trillion, college and become more and more unaffordable for the typical, middle-class family despite the fact that college graduates typically make $1 million more than those without a college degree. As if the price tag alone wasn’t enough of a deterrent, recent studies have shown that college admissions officers are less likely to accept students of color who have a desire to take on racial justice issues. In short, colleges and universities would much rather have a predictable son or daughter of an alumni rather than a new face who may challenge the campus’ current social standing and practices.
And that’s ultimately what higher education is about: maintaining the status quo. Other than HBCUs, the overwhelming majority of private colleges and universities are more than happy to cater to the children of folks like Lori Laughlin and Felicity Huffman who have the financial means to donate to the school. They are in it to make money and the more children of celebrities they can accept, the more money they are likely to receive both in the interim but also long-term. It behooves them to accept children of the rich and famous rather than a no-name student from an impoverished community who has the chance to be the first in her family to graduate from college. In the end, these private colleges and universities are much more interested in raising revenue rather than being a rising tide lifting all boats across the socio-economic spectrum in the United States.
It shouldn’t have to take the country’s biggest college admissions scam for us to see this.
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